Pittsburgh Youth Symphony premieres new work by John Harbison – Matt Campbell

This weekend, Pittsburghers will see the world premiere of a work by a major American composer. Unfortunately, it’s not a surprise work by Composer of the Year John Adams on a PSO program. Rather, the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra (PYSO) will premiere John Harbison’s Mary Lou: Symphonic Memories of Mary Lou Williams.

Harbison, an MIT professor, Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, will be in Pittsburgh this weekend for the concert, this Sunday, May 3 at 3pm at Heinz Hall. Harbison has an important history with Pittsburgh: His work Abraham was premiered by the PSO in 2004 when the orchestra famously performed for Pope John Paul II. That program also included Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” which closes the 2008-2009 PSO season this June.

The Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra has been around since 1946, and it showcases the best student talent, ages 14 to 21, from dozens of area high schools and even the universities. 

Daniel Meyer, resident conductor of the PSO, conducts the orchestra, and PSO musicians coach the fledgling musicians. In a reversal of the relationship, however, when the PSO goes on tour to China this year, they’ll be asking their pupils for tips on the Far East: the youth orchestra already toured China, last summer.

Youth orchestras are popular around the world. One such group is the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, founded in 1986 by Claudio Abbado, past music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Mahler orchestra has an extensive library of recordings and draws top professional talent with conductors such as Franz Welser-Most (music director of the Cleveland Orchestra) and Pierre Boulez.

Aside from Harbison’s new piece, Sunday’s PYSO program includes Hindemith’s exciting and inventive Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro featuring a harp soloist, and Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks.

It’s always fascinating hearing student performances. Sometimes, you can’t tell the difference between a student ensemble and a professional orchestra, but Symphonic Metamorphosis is a challenging tour de force for orchestras and it’s a showpiece. But even if the orchestra makes a few mistakes, the piece should benefit from the youthful energy and manic energy. And, hearing a work in progress imparts a different kind of knowledge than just seeing a finished product. It’ll also make you appreciate just how good the professionals are.

So, make sure you catch the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra this Sunday. Tickets are free! Visit http://www.pittsburghyouthsymphony.org/index.html for information.

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Apr 29