Seattle Youth Symphony Musicians Impress at Town Hall

Composer Timo Andres, photo by Michael Wilson

Kudos to Town Music and artistic director Joshua Roman for choosing Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra members to perform the series’ final concert of the 2014-2015 season, including a world premiere. This was not easy music to play, requiring immense concentration and with only 19 players (including six adult mentors), no room to make any slips. The group came through with flying colors.

Timo Andres’ world premiere Running Theme takes a minimalist slant and was paired with John Adams’ minimalist Shaker Loops and Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. It was a well-chosen program which, Roman said in comments, had been tricky to devise since he had no idea what Andres’ as yet unwritten piece was going to be like when he was planning it.

The first impression of Running Theme is of vibrant colors that change and merge. It’s cheerful, vigorous and appealing music, straightforward in beat with accents moving around among the four groups of instruments: violins, violas, cellos and basses. The basses add deep anchoring sound, and a middle section adds descending slithers, not slurs, with volume ebbing and gaining, then a gentler section with percussion-type rumbles. Throughout, the work pulsates, due to the minimalist repetitive playing which continues throughout. The twelve-minute piece was cleanly and zestfully played without vibrato, which brightened the colors and left the listener with a feeling of being inside a kaleidoscope.

Adam’s Shaker Loops has been performed myriad times since its composition in 1978, though minimalist music doesn’t appeal to everybody, with its repetitive structure and curtains of gradually evolving and changing harmonies. This work, which brings to mind the Shaker religious sect, which had shaking in ecstasy as part of its observances, has a heavier texture than the Andres. It often feels like organized cacophony though there are slower parts with notes dropped in, pizzicato, and some contemplative moments among the flutterings reminscent of hummingbird wings.

This is not easy to play, but SYSO musicians are used to rising to challenges, and Roman‘s conducting was clear. He has been a deservedly popular musician here since his days as principal cello of the Seattle Symphony. We’ve heard him as orchestra member and as concerto or recital soloist, seen him organize and lead Town Music’s adventurous programming, and now serve as advisor to KING-FM’s new service Second Inversion for new and unusual music, but this was the first time this critic has experienced him as conductor.

Roman’s style is one of great upward sweeps defining the beat with his right hand, giving entrances with his head and other indications with his shoulders, leaving his left hand mostly unused except for occasional suggestions to raise or lower the volume. While his lead wasn’t particularly refined or nuanced, the chamber group stayed well together almost all the time and it was clear that rehearsal time had been well used as balance was good and entrances were mostly exact. Roman is such a fine musician that his body in general indicated phrasing and shading, and the group responded. This showed largely in the Bartok, a much more expressive work than either of the two previous ones, and it came off well.