Among the most memorable and exciting evenings of my concert-going experience have been some excellent performances by student orchestras. You would think there is a trade-off for this sort of experience and that often is the case: in exchange for that last degree of technical polish you’re recompensed with performances often more thrilling than those by their professional peers. A very fair price to hear music-making wrought boldly by musicians whose sensibilities have yet to be calloused by the dullness of age, routine, and careerism.

The Colburn Orchestra © Philip Pirolo, The Colburn School
The Colburn Orchestra
© Philip Pirolo, The Colburn School

With the Colburn Orchestra, comprised of students from the Colburn School of Music across the way from Disney Hall, one gladly gets the best of both worlds: a finesse that would be the envy of many professional ensembles; musicianship animated by genuine joy that electrifies their audiences. Their virtuosity, the energy these musicians exude as they revel in their own talents is an experience to cherish.

The program was wisely constructed to favor the bright, primary colors and surging rhythms that would likely have an immediate appeal to the young: Silvestre Revueltas’ orgiastic Sensemayá at the head of the program; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 at the close.

Sensemayá is often described as a kind of Mexican Rite of Spring by some commentators. One wonders if they had actually ever heard either piece. Its obsessive drive, inspired by Nicolás Guillén’s eponymous poem, has none of the nihilism and sense of oblivion that simmers at the black heart of Stravinsky’s ballet. This is music that is bold, exuberant: an expression of a dawning nationalist self-awareness – as much musical as political and cultural – that manifests itself with explosive force. It is a joyful shout for life by not only the composer, but an entire people.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 stands opposite of Revueltas on the emotional spectrum: private, confessional, incandescently emotional.

To each of these the Colburn musicians brought their irrepressible sense of adventure and delight. In the Revueltas they roared with abandon; in the Tchaikovsky they soaked themselves in the music’s expressive power.

Slipped between these mighty pieces was the slender Clarinet Concerto of Aaron Copland. The last movement, a moto perpetuo type piece, is an awkward mess, but the opening Gymnopédie-like movement counts as one of the composer’s most lovely works. It’s fragrant, moonlit music; the breeze of Fauré’s music blowing gently through it. Listening to it brings to mind the Seine somehow being able to meet the Hudson across the rippling Atlantic.

Sang Yoon Kim, a member of the Colburn Orchestra, was the soloist in the Copland. His strikingly mature artistry, his poised security of technique and expression were a marvel. From his instrument were drawn silken lines of sound, suffused with a dewy poignancy, and, in the finale, manic squawks and yawps.

Conductors Dietrich Paredes and Gustavo Dudamel, who was returning to Disney Hall for the first time this year, took turns in their duties. Paredes, one of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Dudamel Conducting Fellows, was impressive on the podium, eliciting from his young players both precision and fire. His sense of long line along with rapt pianissimi in the Copland and his ability to build up powerful, rocking climaxes in the Revueltas were ample testament to a conductor of superb ability. Paredes is definitely someone to watch.

Dudamel, leading the Tchaikovsky, had his players trained on his every gesture. The first two movements were a bit cool in his interpretation; not fully formed. Where passion and sensual ardor was needed, Dudamel was stiff and wooden. Gorgeous string colors opened the second movement, intertwining with webs of wind colors that shimmered pearlescent. But rigid tempi and a persistent insensitivity to the music’s supercharged eroticism sapped the music of its strength. When the Scherzo and Finale arrived, however, conductor and orchestra were on firmer footing; twirling lightly in the waltz as cascades of woodwinds whirled by, then blazing through in the finale.

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