Asian Youth Orchestra educates, exhilarates at Zellerbach Hall

Richard Pontzious conducts Asian Youth Orchestra
Deborah Chen/Staff

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The Asian Youth Orchestra pounced on Zellerbach Hall last Saturday night — one stop of 20 on a worldwide tour for the Hong Kong-based orchestra — with both the drive of a professional symphony and a good-natured excitement that reflected the youth of the players. These two forces, of drive and playfulness, were in constant juxtaposition throughout the night — sometimes coming into conflict, but mostly building to a performance that allowed the audience to marvel at the pure grit and talent of these young performers before them.

Coming from all over Asia, 109 young members buoy the Asian Youth Orchestra. The orchestra has performed everywhere from the White House to the Hollywood Bowl to the Sydney Opera House, and even premiered Tan Dun’s “Symphony 1997” with Yo-Yo Ma to celebrate the reunification of Hong Kong and China.

Yet this list of accomplishments is built almost singlehandedly by the program’s intense dedication to education above all else, a factor that especially shone through in Saturday night’s performance.

Led by conductor and founder Richard Pontzious, the concert — presented by Cal Performances — began with a retelling of Richard Strauss’s “Don Juan, Tone Poem, Op. 20” — a sensual and fiery exploration of “Don Juan,” an archetype of feverish masculinity and sensuality. The score moves up and down, back and forth, suddenly shifting from a quiet contemplation of strings before blasting into a passionate confession of Don Juan’s animalistic nature. This isn’t a love song, it’s a declaration of conquest.

Pontzious was a particularly active conductor during the performance. He would often point at a specific musician, four or five chairs behind the first, and physically summon more fervor from them before turning to a different section and conducting only those musicians for the next couple of bars. It wasn’t before long that the audience realized it wasn’t just watching a performance on stage, it was watching a workshop — an educational experience in literal motion.

This learning experience was soon enforced with the introduction of renowned violinist Sarah Chang. Dressed in a bright green gown reminiscent of a lounging mermaid, Chang led the Asian Youth Orchestra in a performance of “Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47,” playing the violin as if it were a lightning bolt charging electricity through the building. Debuting with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 8, Sarah Chang challenged the very limits of her small instrument while simultaneously serving as a type of mentor for the surrounding youth.

The “Violin Concerto” situates itself within the first movement — a type of chase scene, introducing Chang as a leader of the pack, with the accompanying musicians slowly becoming more and more purposefully disjointed from her performance, establishing a sort of battle of wills between the two groups. Chang then charged into the second movement, a mournful, slow dance between Chang and the Asian Youth Orchestra. However, as the third movement picked up, gone was the separation of leader and follower, or mentor and mentee, as Chang and the orchestra joined in a rousing instrumental dance that celebrated their mutual collaboration and skill.

The final performance of the evening featured the most renowned work — Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92.” Perhaps because of the public’s common familiarity with Beethoven, or the rather long length of the piece, but this song seemed to drag on a bit longer than the others. This isn’t to discount the talent of the performers, but the Asian Youth Orchestra seems to thrive when facing new material that is equal parts unrelenting and intense, compared to the jubilant, upbeat nature of Beethoven’s most popular work.

The night ended with Pontzious rotating throughout the playing musicians, oftentimes interrupting the performance to shake their hands or commend them on a stellar night. Whenever approached, a player would always bow or smile in gratitude before diving back into the piece. It was these moments that reminded us that the incredible musicians before us were still just kids, learning and improving in front of our eyes.

Nils Jepson at [email protected].