Albuquerque Youth Symphony performance


The curtain rose at Popejoy Hall earlier this month with a more-than-impressive performance by the Albuquerque Youth Symphony.

The large orchestra, comprised of 84 teenage musicians from high schools around the city, evinced an uncanny maturity and knowledge of the members' instruments and their music.

In a word, these kids are good — very good.

They are led by Gabriel Gordon, the symphony's fourth conductor since its founding in the mid-1950s. Gordon came aboard for the 2007-08 season.

The clear highlight of the Sept. 16 afternoon performance came just before the intermission with a violin solo by Brian Wade, a senior at Southwest Secondary Charter School, playing Camille Saint-Saëns' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso."

Wade, who turned 18 in May, is only the latest in a long tradition of young virtuosos to take on Saint-Saëns. Way back in 1859, a 15-year-old named Pablo de Sarasate commissioned the composer to create what would become his Violin Concerto No. 1. In 1863, Saint-Saëns wrote another solo piece for Sarasate, the "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso."

Sarasate premiered the piece in Paris in 1867, but a century and a half later, Wade would take it under his wing and make it his own at Popejoy Hall.

The same piece has been played to acclaim by none other than the great Itzhak Perlman, himself a child prodigy who played the violin on the Ed Sullivan Show at age 13.

"Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" opens with a 36-bar melancholy theme in A minor, which also sets its rhythm and harmony, something Wade apparently understood well. The orchestra, too, did its part, supporting the soloist with smooth block chord progressions. The audience was captivated at once.

Halfway through the opening, the tempo rises precipitously, but all the musicians were prepared and stayed right on cue. Throughout the often fast-paced piece, nary a dissonant chord nor note was heard.

The range of the piece, from its somber opening to the much livelier coda and the repeated use of the staccato, demonstrate Saint-Saëns' intention to showcase the musicians as well as the music.

What is remarkable is that the young American orchestra picked up the Spanish soul of "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" so completely.

Wade and his colleagues not only knew their music, they danced to its very essence. Technique, it is assumed, had been practiced to a T, but it was the pure and colorful emotion behind the music that carried the listener to a state of near rapture.

Created by a master, the piece was played by a master.

The audience responded by jumping to its collective feet, cheering ("Bravo! Bravo!"), applauding and whistling its appreciation.

The rest of the program wasn't quite as impressive to this reviewer, perhaps because the pieces Gordon chose were safer, perhaps a bit too much so.

But the overall selection itself might have been a reflection of the maestro's recognition of the musicians' youthfulness.

The program opened with "Feng Shui" by American composer Jeremy Hegg. It was commissioned especially for the program.

Called "a case study," the slow, almost hypnotic piece seemed to lull much of the audience, which was apparently comprised in large part by the musicians' family members.

"Feng Shui" was followed by Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," which picked up the pace a little, then Claude Debussy's famous "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," another soft, sleepy piece.

Enter Wade with his solo and the afternoon took off. Following the intermission — the audience abuzz with its awe of that solo — Aaron Copland's "Suite from Billy the Kid" kept the mood up and the crowd wide awake on the edge of its seat.

The Albuquerque Youth Symphony was formed as a collaborative effort of Albuquerque Public Schools and the University of New Mexico. Its stated mission is "to instill a lifelong passion for music in motivated young people in the greater Albuquerque area through the pursuit of excellence in orchestral musical performance."

Now in its 55th season, it has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Each spring, 500 to 600 students from more than 40 public, private, parochial and home schools audition.

Before he was chosen to perform the popular Saint-Saëns' piece, Wade had to compete against several other young musicians for one of the three prized concerto soloist positions this season.

Wade is said to be a distant relative of Billy the Kid, (the obvious inspiration for Copland's "Billy the Kid.")

One day, this reviewer predicts, Brian the violinist may be as famous for his music as Billy the Kid is infamous for his deeds.