Asian Youth Orchestra
Aug. 31, Sergiu Comissiona conducting the Asian Youth Orchestra in the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall — “Russlan and Ludmilla” Overture (Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka, 1804-57); Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor, Op. 64 (Felix Mendelssohn, 1809-47) featuring Leila Josefowicz; Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 (Anton_ Dvorak, 1841-1904).

Sergiu Comissiona conducts as the AYO accompanies Leila Josefowicz.

The Asian Youth Orchestra concluded its 12th tour this summer, gathering 103 talented musicians between the ages of 15 and 25 from China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

As on past tours, the AYO this year abundantly exhibited energy, enthusiasm and excitement. What it may lack in technique or depth, it was able to compensate for musically by its youth and optimism, and culturally by the vibrant unity of performers originating from 12 diverse Asian nations.

This was clearly evident in the first piece, Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla” Overture. Based on themes from the opera’s finale, Russlan’s main aria and the central whole-tone motif, the piece progresses at breakneck speed, allowing the AYO to capitalize on the strengths of its youthful musicians — their energy, dexterity and zest. While the subtleties of the opera’s love story and the poem by Pushkin on which it is based did not fully emerge, Comissiona’s conducting elicited from the orchestra much of the overture’s drama and color — no mean feat.

The second piece, Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, is standard repertoire for violinists young and old, but 23-year-old Leila Josefowicz performed it with sensitivity and distinction. The tonal clarity, drama and introspective warmth of this performance were a welcome improvement over her CD recording of the same work in 1999 with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. Although that conductor and orchestra provided her superb support, Josefowicz’s recording seemed uncharacteristically small-scale compared to her expansive performance with the AYO (or the unequaled 1982 recording by Kyung-Wha Chung of the same piece with Dutoit and the Symphony Orchestra).

The soloist’s virtuosity made it difficult for the AYO to keep up in certain passages of the first movement, as in the famous solo bassoon transitional pitch from its final chord into the progression introducing the Andante — the AYO’s bassoonist provided a jarringly loud, enthusiastic bridge. The second movement was the least satisfying part of the performance, reflecting the strengths of both soloist and orchestra in playing rhythmic, colorful music rather than the slow reflectiveness the Andante requires.

These strengths, however, were employed to good use in Dvorak’s Symphony in G Major, enabling the orchestra to capitalize on its affinity for speed, melody and harmonic strings. That Asia has produced such a large number of string virtuosos was reflected in the clear superiority of the violin and cello performances compared to the brass and woodwind performances. An exception to this was the trumpet fanfare introducing the finale. But, as in the first movement, it was the superb cello-playing that successfully drove the Allegro ma non troppo.

Although one could cavil about its technical shortcomings, the AYO every year provides an impressive set of performances that are not only musically satisfying but deeply moving in their boundless energy, youthful excitement and musical enthusiasm. The AYO gives one optimism about the cultural affinities, potential cooperation and future outlook of the diverse peoples of Asia.

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