WYSO Wows with a Wondrous Performance

Charter member Nancy Goeres returns with a Pittsburgh colleague


TheWisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra is no “hidden gem” in Madison’s musical scene; after all, the organization is in its 53rd season. Starting with a single ensemble, “WYSO” now incorporates three orchestras, three smaller ensembles and Music Makers. The oldest group is the Youth Orchestra, and Friday night they capped a week of Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concerts under second-year director Kyle Knox.

Like a football team playing on its home turf, WYSO groups are pretty much guaranteed a supportive group of fans, as a significant percentage of the Music Hall’s seats are filled with family members and friends who are quick to heartily applaud the efforts of the youthful orchestra. But on this occasion, in a program of Britten, Leshnoff and Prokofiev, the kids earned everyone’s fervent approbation.

The evening opened with a delightful early rarity of Benjamin Britten, the “Soirees musicales,” Op. 9. Based on a set of songs of the same name by Rossini, the “March” opens with a bracing and bold tutti fanfare, quickly followed by some deft noodlings in the woodwinds against full string section pizzicato. Thus did the WYSO flock quickly state their case that this would be a night of not just attempt, but achievement.

Knox elicited some great “snap” to the group’s phrasing in the “Tirolese,” the varied percussion had some great moments in the “Bolero,” and by the conclusion of the “Tarantella” it was an obvious conclusion to make that the work was a perfect opener for the group and audience alike.

Any WYSO concert probably has its special moments, but this one was made more exclusive thanks to the guest soloists: bassoonist Nancy Goeres (pictured above, courtesy of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) was a charter member of WYSO in 1966, and since the mid-1980s has been principal bassoon player in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. She was joined by Michael Rusinek, principal clarinetist of the PSO, and together they were featured in a work written for them in 2018, the Double Concerto by Jonathan Leshnoff.

The music proved accessible in the most complimentary meaning of the word, Leshnoff capable of spinning memorable melodies and deft with engaging motifs and rhythmic patterns. In the first few notes from Goeres, there was just a hint (not an imitation, mind you) of the opening of a famous bassoon solo from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade, and Rusinek’s opening line bore a likeness to the angular intervallic writing heard in Copland’s famous Clarinet Concerto, written for Benny Goodman.

Following the lyrical opening movement, the second was a true delight, with a staggered “oom-pah” pattern as backdrop for playful bassoon solos, followed by a lyrical sequence for the clarinet. The finale featured intricate accented patterns in the rapid solo parts, and the orchestra and Knox partnered the solo duo as if they play with top professionals at every concert.

If anyone was surprised (and probably not!) about whether the WYSO players would be daunted by new music such as Leshnoff, that was quickly wiped away by hearing how confidently the group met the challenges head-on that are posed by Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Knox led a suite of eight numbers, and while there were just a small handful of moments needing a bit more polish in intonation and balance, they were more than forgiven by one demonstration after another of truly mature playing.

Concertmaster Yohan Bok made a great impression in his work in the “Tableau,” while principal trumpet Alexander Ashely did the same in the “Minuet.” But it was the collective work in the “big” movements—“Dance of the Knights,” “Juliet as a Young Girl” and “The Death of Tybalt” that will long linger in the memory.

And of course they got their standing ovation—and if there was ever a time to label the gesture as given “too easily,” one might think this could be it, given the general make-up of the audience. But no, this one was fairly earned, and we should all look forward to what the Youth Orchestra will do next. After all, they have a summer trip coming up to Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It’s a good bet they’ll earn some standing ovations over there, too.

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