Youth Music Monterey

By Scott MacClelland

“MIGRATION” was the thematic name given to Sunday afternoon’s Youth Music Monterey concert at Sunset Center. Music director Danko Druško, mic in hand, explained it in terms of ‘past, present and future,’ though I’m not sure what that meant. And even though I had met him, and even hosted his guest appearance at my Topics in Music class at Carmel Foundation, I had not until today seen him in action.

And what ambitious action! He gave YMM’s Junior Youth Orchestra the overtures to Verdi’s Nabucco, Wagner’s Rienzi, the last movement from Sibelius’ Second Symphony and, joined by a huge contingent of players from Youth Orchestra Salinas (YOSAL), Manuel Artés’ swinging jazzy Chamambo. While these were all arrangements, presumably simplified for student musicians, they made major demands of the talent at hand. And it showed. Druško got the best from his orchestra but dense orchestral textures by the likes of arrangers Sandra Dackow and Vernon Leidig robbed it of transparency and sparkle. (In fairness to Druško, and except for the Artés, these pieces were recommended by Farkhad Khudyev prior to his departure for Austin.) The Artés actually fared best, with Afro-Cuban instruments and rhythms, shouts from the musicians of “Chamambo” and whole sections standing briefly to punch through the orchestra, à la Pérez Prado. Inexplicably, Dackow’s Nabucco overture omitted the opera’s famous chorus scene on the words “Va, pensiero,” the most cherished moment among all Italian lovers of Verdi’s operas. Yet the upbeat and concisely-spoken conductor gave all praise to his young musicians. (Meanwhile, he is soliciting other student musicians to audition during the next couple of weeks pursuant to YMM’s concert in May.)

During the interval I scanned the full-house audience from down front and spotted a significant cohort of Santa Cruz County music pros, some from as far afield as Bonny Doon—there, I suspect, for the same reason as mine. And to be sure, YMM’s audiences are far more representative of Monterey County seniors, I among them, than only adoring family and friends of the musicians on stage.

YMM’s Honors Orchestra got the real, unadulterated originals and, thanks to Druško’s daring, some truly risky gambits, especially audacious the “peaceful” slow movement from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a glacially-moving, ten-minute theme and variations that flatters the principal players of all five string sections with solos and demands a lot of portamento (sliding from one note to another) rarely called for by composers in the last 100 years. Druško admitted as much and exposed his section principals to an unnervingly naked spotlight.

The set began with Arturo Márquez’ infectiously dynamic Danzon No 2, a concert fave across the orchestral world since its premiere in 1994, slow and fast, quiet and loud, sensual and rhythmically energized. Next came the Mahler; primarily for strings it is a test of sustained line, the thread that keeps the music going despite the slowest possible motion.

Portamento also figured significantly in Lance Yang Bauer’s performance of the first movement of the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chinese composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. The young man (pictured) with an astonishingly prodigious record of achievements, musical and otherwise, took center stage for these hauntingly gorgeous pentatonic melodies, not previously heard live in the region. Druško paid careful attention to his soloist; a well-cheered standing ovation ensued.

The concert, with rain falling outdoors at the start, ended with late afternoon sunshine following a 23-minute concert suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet. Harpist Tara Ragsdale-Cronin gave authority to her breathless harp cadenza, flattered by solo violin and cello partners in duet.

In Danko Druško, Youth Music Monterey County has acquired a fine new artistic director and, by force of his personality, ambassador to the community at large.