November 6, 2019
One of the great joys of my four decades of music criticism has been the opportunity to observe the growth,in both numbers and achievement, of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. Born in 1979 as a merger of two previously independent youth orchestras, the organization now operates nine ensembles ranging from beginning strings to the advanced YOSA Philharmonic.
Periodic hearings of the Philharmonic over the years have revealed steady mprovements in ensemble precision, technical facility, and sonic beauty. Early last year, when that orchestra played a challenging concert of Kodaly, Bernstein, and “P.D.Q. Bach” (Peter Schickele), my review was highly favorable, though shaded with the qualifications one might expect for an American youth orchestra.
I wasn’t prepared for the performance standard the orchestra displayed in its concert of Nov. 3 in the Tobin Center – the transparency, polish, and unity of the strings; the confidence of the woodwind and brass sections; the depth of individual talent shown in numerous solo turns. All was not perfection, of course, but there were more than a few moments when the YOSA Philharmonic sounded like a major professional orchestra.
The program alternated works by American and Russian composers. From over here came Stella Sung’s exhilarating, rhythmically intricate Loco-Motion (2011) and George Walker’s radiant, elegiacal Lyric for Strings (1946), in the same emotional ballpark as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but more complex in structure.
From over there came Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 (1959). The superb concerto soloist was Christine Lamprea, one of the most luminous of YOSA’s alumni. Troy Peters, YOSA’s music director since 2009, was the splendid conductor.
A former student of San Antonio Symphony principal cellist Kenneth Freudigman and a 2007 graduate of TMI, Ms. Lamprea went on to the Juilliard School in New York (where she now lives) and the New England Conservatory in Boston. She has returned here to perform several times, including a 2016 guest appearance with the San Antonio Symphony to play the world premiere of a monumentally difficult cello concerto by the distinguished American composer Jeffrey Mumford. But “difficult” does not seem to be a concept that Ms. Lamprea understands.
The Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 is generally regarded as among the most demanding in the repertoire, especially in the extended solo cadenza that constitutes the entire third movement. Outside of the second movement, the concerto is pervaded by various guises of the composer’s signature four-note motif (D E-flat C B, or D S C H in German notation), placing this concerto in company with some of Shostakovich’s most personal and emotionally charged works – most notably the String Quartet No. 8.
This high-stakes concerto demands exactly what Ms. Lamprea provided – an explosive, ferocious, go-for-broke performance. Remarkably, the risks she took, even in the frantic close of the cadenza, never compromised the beauty of her sound or the dead-eye accuracy of her pitch. Her sensuous, smartly budgeted vibrato and visceral phrasing, together with the bright, hornlike presence of her tone, made the quieter, more lyrical passages absolutely riveting.
Mr. Peters’ position with the YOSA Philharmonic necessarily gives priority to pedagogical concerns, but he is also a gifted conductor. His ideas are well considered, and he knows how to communicate them to his musicians. The bond between conductor and orchestra was especially apparent in the lustrous sound and sculptural phrasing of their performance of Walker’s Lyric for Strings.
Apart from a couple of brief lapses in coordination, the “Firebird and Its Dance,” the “Firebird’s Variation,” and the “Infernal Dance of King Katschei” were delivered with taut discipline and sizzling energy. Beautiful solo work abounded throughout.
If you missed it, you still have a chance to hear the YOSA Philharmonic play the Firebird Suite – if you don't mind traveling a bit. The Stravinsky staple is one of the pieces the orchestra will play on tour in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York (Carnegie Hall) in June of next year.
The YOSA Philharmonic with music director Troy Peters, on stage at the Tobin Center.
Christine Lamprea and friend
Photo: Amanda Westcott