By Scott MacClelland
THREE TIMES EACH CONCERT SEASON Youth Music Monterey County’s orchestras—Junior Youth and Honors—fill Sunset Center to capacity with audiences ravenous to hear young musicians conducted by their acclaimed music director Farkhad Khudyev. How can it be that a youth orchestra—the one continually evolving into the other—attracts such an enthusiastic following?
Some of the explanation must descend from YMMC having survived some serious, even life-threatening challenges, both internal and external, in its now distant past. Under the steady-handed leadership of board chair Dorothy Micheletti, the independent non-profit organization, founded in the early 1990s by the late visionary Ruth Fenton, itself evolved from a predecessor called Youth Orchestra of the Monterey Peninsula, founded in the early ‘80s, whose original music director was Stewart Robertson, a Scot who in the intervening years made for himself a major international career.
Each new YMMC success is very consciously built on what came before. So when Khudyev lifted his baton last Sunday afternoon, the audience, whether or not aware of that history, was already prepared by the organization’s reputation for excellence.
But that was not all. The concert also featured Nicholas Brady, a locally-raised child prodigy, now eight years of age, who began his public career four years ago, including appearances with Khudyev and YMMC. For this concert, Master Brady performed the three-movement violin concerto in C by Dmitri Kabalevsky, a blustering 20-minute display piece that featured a flamboyant solo cadenza in its last movement. Dialed-in to the considerable demands of the piece, the boy paid little attention to the audience, but at crucial points made eye contact with the conductor. (Brady is now a student at Temple University.)
The 2016-17 season of YMMC’s orchestras set a high-water market. The virtually professional Honors Orchestra delivered performances that made its audiences giddy with love for orchestral music. Yet its ranks were decimated* by the graduation of so many strong players in both ensembles, with an elite cadre of seniors now gone on to university and conservatory studies. As a result, the opening of this new season was, for Khudyev, something of a step back and a restart. (One key loss was that of the Honors Orchestra’s oboe player, with no replacement on the horizon. In the situation, YMMC alumna Monica Mendoza, an exceptionally musical and animated flutist, who moved through both orchestras, volunteered to learn oboe and suddenly appeared as the Honors Orchestra principal. Now 20, she is a student at Hartnell College.)
The orchestras in this concert were, relatively, a bit scratchy as new members joined the Junior Youth and some of its members faced tough new challenges in having moved up to the Honors Orchestra. The JY group proceeded through a short program that grew tougher as it unfolded, from Lev Knipper’s Meadowlands, a polka by Kabalevsky, the harder-still Dance of the Rose Maidens from Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet, and a huge leap up to the final movement from Sibelius’ Second Symphony. In case they had any doubts, these youngsters now know what’s ahead of them.
Young Brady’s performance of the concerto brought the audience to its feet, as came as a surprise to no one. Then followed the Honors Orchestra’s first performance of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, a favorite of Khudyev. (I say ‘first performance’ because many members will join the Monterey Symphony and Max Bragado Darman next weekend for their two performances of the same work.)
As the irresistible score opened, with its “cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside,” the first solo emerged from—you guessed it—the oboe, an instrument notoriously difficult to conquer. And there was Mendoza, exposed and non-hesitant, with barely six months to gain mastery. Like Bragado, Khudyev understands the art of conducting and the interpretive demands that go with it. So he pushed and pulled his young orchestra even at the risk of taking them out on a limb. They soon found that arriving in the countryside is no walk in the park.
Yet on balance, they rose to the challenge and probably discovered skills they might not previously have known they had. In the long first and second movements Khudyev demanded they flex and extend the tempi elastically according to his vision, as any professional would expect to do. This effect is even more pronounced in the last three movements, which are played without pauses, the third and fifth framing the big thunderstorm scene.
At the end of the day, the sun came out in all its glory with the audience buzzing like a swarm of happy bees.
*reduced by ten percent