incident light

YOSA Philharmonic, Richard Stoltzman

Impressive leaps, forward and back

November 7, 2012

The extraordinary clarinetist Richard Stoltzman brought intense, almost illicit pleasure in his solo turns with the YOSA Philharmonic in an all-American program, Nov. 5 in the Majestic Theatre, but the orchestra itself gave cause for even greater joy.

The Philharmonic, mainly comprising high school students, is the most advanced ensemble of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. Troy Peters has overseen a huge, transformative improvement in the orchestra since his 2009 appointment as the Philharmonic’s conductor and YOSA’s overall music director.

The overstocked strings -- 82 players on the roster, compared to the standard symphonic complement of 60 -- sounded lush and luminous in Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, a landmark of 20th-century American Romanticism, and in Jennifer Higdon’s moving “blue cathedral.”  Though moments of imprecision were inevitable from such a large group, on the whole they played with remarkable discipline and unity.

The brass played confidently, perhaps wanting a bit more refinement but not sinking to vulgar excess, in the Hanson symphony and in Leonard Bernstein’s overture to “Candide.” The woodwinds were remarkably elegant throughout the concert, with lovely solo work from principal players. Especially pleasing were several exposed passages for English horn, very nicely played by Ben Stevenson of La Vernia High School.

Mr. Stoltzman’s vehicles with the orchestra were “West Side Variants,” Frank Bennett’s arrangement and expansion of music from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story; three selections from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”; and Gershwin’s “Promenade (Walking the Dog).”

Stylistically, the clarinetist was provocative. Bernstein and Gershwin were both American-born sons of Eastern European  Jewish immigrants. Their first musical language was the European classical tradition; their second was the American avant-garde (for Bernstein, Charles Ives; for Gershwin, Henry Cowell); and their third was American popular music as disseminated by Tin Pan Alley music publishers. The performance tradition for both Bernstein and Gershwin generally has staked out various positions on the spectrum between classical and jazz-influenced popular music.

Mr. Stoltzman, however, evoked jazz itself, the dive bars and bordellos where it first developed, the pungent realities it expressed. His playing wasn’t just hot, but sweaty; not just inflected, but insinuating; not just sexy, but nasty. Mr. Stoltzman is a master of clarinet technique. He can play with great elegance, and he did in Gershwin’s “Summertime” and in the love songs from “West Side Story.” But he also bent his technique to primal eloquence, with slides, growls, shadings and varieties of vibrato that were more vocal than instrumental in character, sometimes recalling Bessie Smith in Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Mr. Bennett’s arrangements of Bernstein were overstuffed, but they gave several of the Philharmonic’s principals a chance to shine. “A Place for Us” included a string trio passage played beautifully by concertmaster Joseph Duque (Health Careers High School), violist Christopher Gokelman (St. Anthony Catholic High School) and cellist Sydney ZumMallen (Winston Churchill igh School). Principal horn Weston McCall (John Marshall High School) delivered a lovely solo line in “West Side Variants.”

Ms. Higdon composed “blue cathedral” as an elegy for her younger brother, Andrew Blue, and the piece was first performed in 2000 by the orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music. The harmonic idiom recalls the lyrical mode of Aaron Copland, who like Higdon was born in Brooklyn, but the scoring is more layered, fragmented and delicate. A prominent part for clarinet (Andrew Blue’s instrument) was played with great jazz feeling by principal clarinetist Adrian Esquivel (Southside High School). Mr. Duque on violin and Mr. Stevenson on English horn also shone brightly.

Mr. Peters proved once again to be a sensitive and highly musical conductor, giving fine shape and firm support to long lyrical lines and guiding the orchestra well through tricky rhythms.

Mike Greenberg