La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Youth Orchestra of the Americas

by Paul E. Robinson

Last August, the charming village of Knowlton, Quebec, 70 km east of Montreal, welcomed the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal (OSM) and the birth of Bel Canto, a summer music festival that focussed on music written for the human voice - more specifically, music composed by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

This summer the OSM is back in Knowlton, with a new name - Knowlton Festival - in a new venue, with a more varied slate of programs, and bel canto still at the heart of it all.

The Knowlton Festival's opening event this season was an orchestra concert that started and finished with infectious South American rhythms, and after several encores, had musicians and audience members dancing onstage and off - in a conga line! What a party! Who would have guessed? Well, if you've been paying attention to South American conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his tours with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (SBYO) you'll know what I'm talking about. The dancing and the party finish are typical Dudamel/SBYO. The Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA) – though less well-known than the SBYO, is definitely a relative, and it was this group that we had the pleasure of hearing in Knowlton this week.

The YOA, founded in 2001, is made up of young people from twenty-four countries and its artistic leadership includes the likes of Dudamel, Placido Domingo and the man who conducted the Knowlton concert, Carlos Miguel Prieto.

Selected via auditions throughout the Americas, 100 or so gifted musicians gather every summer as the SBYO in one of the member countries for intensive training, rehearsals and a tour. This summer Prieto is conducting most of the concerts, but Benjamin Zander and others are also lending a hand.

On the strength of the Knowlton concert, Prieto seems an ideal leader. He's young, personable, and has two professional orchestras of his own in Mexico City and New Orleans. He got the evening off to a rousing start with a virtuoso piece by Canadian composer John Estacio. Fast tempi and tricky rhythms held no terror for this band and Bootlegger’s Tarantella was a great success.

Next came pianist Gabriela Montero, featured earlier this year at the Obama inauguration with Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. She played with power and passion in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The orchestra played well too, especially the first horn. After the performance, Montero honoured a friend in the audience by not only playing Happy Birthday, but improvising an elaborate set of variations on the familiar tune. There was even a tango version!

After intermission, the YOA played Dvorak’s New World Symphony. In Prieto’s version, it was loud and fast, and a little rushed here and there. No matter. This was totally committed and joyous music-making. I couldn’t help but notice that four of the six bass players were female and that they played with both polish and pride. The principal player – also female – seemed to be in constant motion. Too theatrical? When she graduates to a full-time orchestra, she may have to rein in her terpsichorean tendencies. But many conductors and soloists love to literally strut their stuff. Why not orchestra players too?

After the Dvorak, the audience demanded an encore and Prieto and the YOA readily obliged. Not surprisingly, Prieto borrowed a Latin-American crowd-pleaser from the Dudamel playbook: Arturo Marquez’ Danzon No. 2. The YOA dug into the Latin rhythms with both authority and abandon.

Then came the topper. From out of the wings, wearing a dazzling white jacket, stepped trumpet virtuoso Mauro Maur, kicking off an exciting and infectious performance of Tico-Tico. Maur is principal trumpet of the Rome Opera Orchestra, a teacher at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and a YOA coach. Some members of the orchestra broke into dancing at the edge of the stage and before long half the audience had joined them. Inevitably, a conga line materialized.

This concert was not the festival’s official opening night – that's coming up Friday with Nagano conducting the OSM in an all-Brahms program – rather, it was billed as a “Special Preview Concert.” Some preview! Some concert! This night's audience certainly went home happy with the new face of the festival.

More about the Knowlton Festival’s new facility this year – bigger and better – after Friday’s concert.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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