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Ensemble preps for ‘epic’ performance

Harold and Carla Birston, co-directors of the Semiahmoo Strings Youth Orchestra, are preparing their ensemble for a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony next week.  - Alex Browne photo
Harold and Carla Birston, co-directors of the Semiahmoo Strings Youth Orchestra, are preparing their ensemble for a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony next week.
— image credit: Alex Browne photo

As the saying goes, be very careful what you wish for – you just might get it.

The notion of a Semiahmoo Strings Youth Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with a full complement of professional brass and woodwinds, may have started in jest, as their instructors and ensemble co-directors Carla and Harold Birston confess.

But it will be a stunning reality next Tuesday and Wednesday (May 31, June 1) at 7:30 p.m. at the Wheelhouse Theatre at Earl Marriott Secondary (15751 16 Ave.).

Not just a valedictory showcase for a crop of graduating musicians (Semiahmoo Strings members usually stay only up to Grade 12), it will also bring back alumni Emily Akita and Andrew Ty (class of 1996), Anne Davison and Gillian Mott (1998), Vicky Yang (2002), Kristina Jessen (2003), Julia Szilagyi-Fife (2004), Paul Luongo (2007), Elise McIntosh (2009), David Liu and Emily Hopkins (2010).

Some 20 top-flight professional players will round out the sound for the Beethoven symphony, and other pieces requiring full orchestra, while the concert will also spotlight student soloists Lucy Wang (violin) in Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20; Roland Gjernes (cello) in Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor and Holly Wacker (violin) in Glazunov’s Meditation, Op. 32, in a special arrangement by Harold Birston.

The “farm team” Demi-Semiahmoo Strings will also have their chance to shine – and, in all, there will be as many as 60 musicians on stage at one time during the Beethoven symphony and some of the other pieces.

“For us, that’s epic,” said Harold.

“I might have to use a podium for the first time to conduct from – and if we could get the winds and horns on risers that would be good,” Carla said.

Both the Birstons seemed remarkably relaxed about the concert while chatting over cups of tea and coffee (but not the 60-bean brew that Beethoven is said to have  favoured, which may explain the particularly energetic nature of his composition).

If they feel confident about the upcoming concert, they said, it’s because it been driven by the enthusiasm and ambition of the studentss, all of whom have hurled themselves into preparation and rehearsal and now know all of the nuances of the piece just about as well as any musician could.

“Carla held a master class on Sunday, and we were playing them recordings of Beethoven Five, and you could see them doing all the fingerings from memory,” Harold said.

“They’ve never loved playing so much,” said Carla, noting the infectious excitement the students brought to their first rehearsal with the professional musicians.

“I think they (the professionals) were expecting a lot of stopping and starting, but the kids were giving 100 per cent, and because of that the winds and brasses could play at full volume.”

Well known – and celebrated – locally for setting the bar high for their students, the Birstons have seen it work as year after year on neophyte violinists and cellists who have observed the example of senior students and have stepped up to the challenge.

Concertmaster Keira Raymond – at age 15 confidently meeting the rigors of cuing and supervising tuning for both students, alumni and professionals alike – is just one case in point.

The Birstons also have high praise for their student soloists.

“Roland is meeting the artistic demands of the Elgar concerto and also the emotional demands of it – he’s doing a beautiful interpretation of it,” Harold said, adding the cellist is well-placed for a future in music.

“Doors are opening for him in terms of grants and educational opportunities – and he’s making them open.”

“And Lucy is a technical wizard – she’s absolutely tremendous, with an unbelievable virtuosity and sensitivity to go with it.”

Wacker, they add, brings a wonderful touch to the melodic qualities of Glazunov, they said – her short piece, originally arranged for a private performance by the orchestra, won its place on the program on the strength of it.

“Holly’s been studying with me for 12 years and she seems to have a real knack for playing these gentle, sensitive pieces,” Carla said.

Playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was not a serious plan at first.

“We’d joke about doing it, but we never thought it would happen,” Carla said.

“We have a big graduating class this year, a very strong class, and we used to say ‘the year you graduate, we’re doing Beethoven’s Fifth.’ But as we got closer to it, it seemed more and more do-able.”

The piece is, of course, renowned for possibly the most famous opening measures in the classical repertoire (with the fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra a close second) – and conducting that ‘bah-bah-bah bah’ opening is daunting, and technically challenging, Carla admits.

But, oddly, the rest of it has been largely a breeze – possibly because it is so familiar to her.

“I’ve loved the piece since I was 12 years old – but I didn’t know how well I knew it,” she said.

The opening Allegro con Brio may be the most famous of the movements, they added, but all four are equally “sublime,” building to the exhilarating conclusion of the Allegro ma non troppo.

“I love his ability to build suspense in the movements, and the fugue in the third movement is one of the most thrilling passages for string players,” Carla said.

Harold said he’s consistently amazed by the “sheer physicality” of Beethoven’s writing.

“And so much of it is at the ‘frog’ of the bow, where string players have to work so much harder,” Carla said, noting this has diminished the young musicians’ enthusiasm not one whit.

“There’ll be more than a few cases of tendonitis after Wednesday night,” she laughed.

Tickets ($20, $12 students and seniors) are available from Tapestry Music, or by calling 604-538-1460.

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