Anyone who has suffered through the doleful efforts of a youth orchestra might have serious reservations about purchasing a ticket to a classical concert featuring young musicians. Rather than enduring the halfhearted efforts of disgruntled students, an intrepid audience of about 1,000 was rewarded with an exhilarating performance by dozens of joyous youths Tuesday night at Helzberg Hall.
The Bahia Orchestra Project is the first youth orchestra to be presented in the 49-year history of the esteemed Harriman-Jewell Series. The Brazilian organization is patterned after Venezuela’s El Sistema, an ambitious program that trains disadvantaged youths in classical music. Gustavo Dudamel, the famous conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a product of El Sistema.
Based on Tuesday’s enormously entertaining performance, there is reason to believe that the Bahia Orchestra Project might cultivate similarly illustrious talent. Ricardo Castro, the orchestra’s founder and conductor, explained his goals in a discussion after the concert.
“The main goal is not musical,” Castro said. “Through music, we are building character.”
The character the members of the large ensemble displayed was positively life-affirming. The young musicians acted as powerful ambassadors for both classical music and their country. During a well-deserved encore, a percussionist waved a Brazilian flag as her peers demonstrated synchronized moves worthy of an elite college marching band. The razzle-dazzle was in keeping with the tenor of the evening. Throughout the concert, many of the musicians unselfconsciously swayed to the music, exhibiting an ecstatic sense of wonder that's often concealed by experienced professionals.
Their passion was matched by the quality of their spirited performance. Castro’s direction accentuate the dramatic elements of each composition, an approach that suited his energetic pupils. The opening selection, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture, was appropriately rousing.
The accomplished French-born pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was featured on Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. Castro and Thibaudet conspired to emphasize Ravel’s infatuation with jazz, but the orchestra’s brashness failed to compliment the pianist’s light touch. That disappointment was offset by a thrillingly vigorous reading of Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayá and an enchanting version of Arturo Márquez’ Danzón No. 2.
The massive string section was remarkably cohesive but minor flaws included slight intonation problems in the brass section, syncopation glitches and a handful of errant notes. The Bahia Orchestra Project may be a bit raw, but the contagious enthusiasm it showcased Tuesday deserves to be the envy of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.