The Washington Post
A joyful evening of Wagner and Mahler from young maestros
By Patrick Rucker
July 26, 2015
In all of Western music, few C major chords are as ample, radiant and filled with joyful portent as the ones that open the Prelude of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Richard Wagner’s opera about the practice and love of music.
Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, those chords signaled the beginning of the final concert of the National Symphony’s Summer Music Institute Orchestra, composed of more than 60 gifted young musicians ages 14 to 21, competitively chosen from 27 states and Canada. They’ve been in town for the past month, getting to know one another and making music under the expert direction of conductor Elizabeth Schulze. The music they made Saturday was engaged, sophisticated and thoroughly compelling.
Although these are young musicians, many of them have already begun their professional training in conservatories and universities. In fact, the beautifully blended string choirs, superb wind and brass playing and the contained enthusiasm of the percussion section suggested a much more mature ensemble than this group’s median age. The breadth of Wagner’s great surges easily dissolved into agile quick passages, phrases ebbed and flowed, and full-throttle climaxes blossomed rather than blasted.
Mahler wrote his First Symphony when he was only 28 and, despite its many challenges, both in terms of ensemble and for individual players, the orchestra played it as if it had been composed specifically for them. There are occasions in the symphony when you are not sure whether Mahler’s naivete is genuine or a tongue-in-cheek parody. In this fresh, committed performance, sincerity was never in doubt. The rustic Scherzo had an infectiously bumptious rusticity. The klezmerlike interruptions of the funereal movement here seemed emotionally credible rather than abruptly obtrusive. The apocalyptic finale was thrilling.
Between these two late 19th-century orchestral extravaganzas, Gabriel Young, a 19-year-old oboist from Oregon, played a Venetian baroque concerto by Alessandro Marcello, accompanied by a chamber-size ensemble of strings. Young is not only a master of his instrument but an artist of taste and discernment. The sound of his oboe is, for lack of a better word, angelic. There were moments, particularly in the Adagio, when the music seemed to transcend even that exquisite oboe sound, emerging instead as pure, disembodied human expression. Young created a breathtaking spell that lasted well into the Mahler symphony.
Schulze, who presided over this remarkable, deeply satisfying evening, has conducted the past 15 of the Summer Music Institute’s 23 seasons. Her baton technique is impeccable, her beat is clear, crisp and economic, and her musical imagination is rich. The eyes of her responsive young colleagues are always on her.