The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra revealed itself at the Concertgebouw as an important part of the future of classical music in the United States. Founded nearly 35 years ago, the institute has a bit of Dutch history as conductor Edo de Waart was its first music director. What sets this youth orchestra apart was not a typical, energetic camaraderie, but near military precision and a focus of great maturity. Renaud Capuçon commanded the stage during his incisive performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor, while Donato Cabrera, Music Director since 2009, led a sensational performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, where the many highlights outshone the surprisingly few faults.

As an introduction, Cabrera and his mature youngsters jolted the audience with the different rhythms of John Adams’ fanfare A Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Five young men darted back and forth among their plethora of percussion, including various wood blocks, crotales, drums, timpani, cymbals and a xylophone, each adding colourful rhythms. Woodwinds pulsated, strings honked in the repetition of their motifs. It was great fun to see the orchestra thrive in this flashy American piece that instantly established a young joyfulness in the Great Hall.

Renaud Capuçon, no stranger to youth ensembles having been first violinist in Abbado’s Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, offered a spectacular performance of Bruch. The opening Vorspiel moved deeply, each ensuing passage burning fiercely with romantic passion. The orchestra performed decently, but could not reach the highly charged levels of the soloist. In the Adagio, the Frenchman listened with closed eyes swaying back and forth to the orchestra’s calming accompaniment. Capuçon’s excellence inspired the musician’s confidence, as they played with increased intensity. In the Finale: Allegro energico, the musicians’ disciplined focus and the transparency produced made me more curious for the Mahler to come.

As soon as the humane cry of Daniel Santos’ trumpet opened with the Funeral March of Mahler’s Fifth, a palpable intensity permeated the auditorium. Brass maintained this tension, brooding double basses added another layer. The nuance and clarity was stunning, their crisp, tight sound worthy of a mature orchestra! For the second movement, Cabrera delivered thunderous energy, but never bombastically. Within the brass, the tuba let out a reverberating roar that could be felt from the balcony. Cabrera struggled to sustain a constant suspense during the calmer passages.

In the Scherzo, the strings created a rich deep burning sound; later, pizzicato passages enchanted. Cabrera conducts with expressive gestures when firing up his orchestra, but reduces his gesticulations to a concise indication of tempi during the calmer passages. He knows his orchestra very well, energizing the confidence in his musicians, whose intense focus was captivating to observe. Most of the time, he knew how to manage the acoustics of the Concertgebouw, few balance issues emerging.

Cabrera took a long time before commencing with Mahler’s famously romantic Adagietto. Utterly concentrated, the orchestra delivered a wonderful soothing world, with refined elegance from the harp. Strings caressed softly. Perhaps not the sultry romantic interpretation of an older ensemble, but as a dreamy lullaby this rendition worked very well. The musicians’ adult discipline restrained them from being boisterous, delivering several of Mahler’s delightful subtleties. 

In the finale Rondo, the orchestra relaxed a bit. The woodwind section raised their instruments in sync as if in a brass band. Cabrera made broad gestures coaxing festive energy from his followers. As in earlier movements, Apoorva Rangan with her gentle, yet powerful flute playing, could not go by unnoticed. As Santos returned with some great moments on his trumpet, he had to compete in the brass with a phenomenal James Chen, soulful beyond his years on French horn, contrasting each other with some sublime passages. It takes quite some courage to perform Mahler succesfully at the Concertgebouw, so this very mature youth orchestra pulled off an impressive feat.