Review: Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra Plays Well Beyond Their Years 

Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra presented its 2021 Alumni Award to guest trumpet soloist Mary Elizabeth Bowden following her performance at CYSO's November 17 concert. Photo by Ed Spinelli. The stage at Symphony Center on Sunday night was set as it would be for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, chairs and music stands and instruments tightly spaced on every tier. But it was CYSO—the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra—and not CSO, producing one of the most memorable performances I’ve witnessed since live music returned to Chicago in June.  That isn’t to say that this ensemble, made up of musicians in their teens, is on a par with the world-class orchestras, local and touring, that grace Chicago’s classical music scene. Yet, under the baton and leadership of longtime Music Director Allen Tinkham, it is not so far off as you might imagine.   This is no glorified school orchestra. Two years ago, CYSO received a Grammy nomination for its album Winged Creatures, produced locally by Cedille Records. The album featured brothers Demarre McGill, principal flutist of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, both of whom are CYSO alumni. (Click here to read Third Coast Review’s article.)  Had you sat and just listened Sunday, you likely would have had the impression of older and more experienced players—only to be stunned in the post-concert corridors by how fresh-faced these tuxedo- and gown-clad musicians are.   And the program that Tinkham created for CYSO’s first live performance in almost 21 months (and first at Symphony Center in two full years) was no walk in Millennium Park. It covered a wide range of genres and styles that would have been challenging for musicians of any age.  Allen Tinkham, CYSO's principal conductor and music director, has been with the orchestra since 2001. Photo by Ed Spinelli. With Tinkham conducting energetically and notably without a score, the show opened with Second Essay, a short piece by mid-20th century American composer Samuel Barber, whose works often bridge the transition from the Romantic to Modernist eras. In Second Essay, the Modernist dissonance among the sections blended into lush symphonic melody that concluded with the thunder of percussion. It was clear from the start that these student musicians had applied themselves during the long hiatus with the necessary seriousness.  The next piece was the third and final movement (Rondo) from Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major by early 19th century violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, and it constituted what I consider an act of bravery by 16-year-old soloist Bianca Ciubancan.   Paganini’s revolutionary violin technique made him a forerunner of today’s rock stars. While he set the stage for what we hear from solo violinists here 200 years later, some of his party tricks are still pretty out there. Violin Concerto No. 1 contains a variety of squeaks, squawks, long passages in the highest ranges, and bow bounces, and it might have been easy for one not familiar with the piece to think the poor dear was trying so hard and struggling a bit. In fact, she was playing what Paganini’s score demanded. Take another bow, Bianca.  After a lively Overture to West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, with assistant conductor Steven Gooden at the podium, the orchestra time-traveled back to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the second (Adagio) and third (Rondo) movements of his Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. Louis Auxenfans, age 16 like Ciubancan, provided a near-flawless solo.  Violinist Bianca Ciubancan and clarinetist Louis Auxenfans, both 16 years old, impressed as soloists. Photos by Ed Spinelli. The first half of the program wrapped up with a featured piece, the Midwest premiere of Concerto for Trumpet, a Modernist composition by Canada's Vivian Fung. The piece was written to spotlight the talents on E flat trumpet and flugelhorn of Mary Elizabeth Bowden, who after her performance was presented with the orchestra’s annual Alumni Award. Bowden was backed by a smaller ensemble of orchestra players and showcased a percussion section of timpani, bass and snare drums, and blocks that seemed to be having an especially good time.  The program wrapped up, after an intermission, with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, op. 36, a tone poem that the composer described as a reflection on the inexorability of fate. A drama king of classical music, Tchaikovsky provided plenty for the Youth Orchestra, with lush strings-driven melodies interspersed with his trademark brass-and-percussion bombast. It had to be a good sendoff into the chilly evening because I haven’t been able to get the tunes out of my head.  It is inspiring that CYSO is now in its 75th year and is passing down these centuries-old traditions to a fourth generation of musicians. Not all will pursue careers in music—we chatted during the intermission with parents of a high school junior cellist who faces a choice now about whether to pursue music or a more stable and potentially lucrative career in college—but surely enough will ultimately populate orchestras and music faculties to keep hope, at least for classical music, alive in an era when hope sometimes feels in short supply.  CYSO’s next public performance takes place on Sunday, December 5, 1:30 p.m., at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. Tickets for the Debut Orchestra, Preparatory Strings and Overture Strings Fall Concert are $15 full price, $10 for students and free for children under 7, and can be purchased by clicking here. 
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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.