Young performers shine

The May 31 and June 1 performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by the Semiahmoo Strings Youth Orchestra, with special guests, deserve comment before they slip into the realm of memory – as golden as those memories must surely be for those who attended.

My memories of the June 1 concert include a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation offered by a grateful crowd that packed the Wheelhouse Theatre at Earl Marriott Secondary. I’m sure everyone at either of the performances felt equally privileged to witness such a high peak of musical achievement by these young artists.

The only frustrating thing about the Semiahmoo Strings is their consistent progress – the inspired leadership of directors Carla and Harold Birston continues to set the bar for the student performances higher and higher, to which their students respond by excelling themselves beyond all reasonable expectations.

This tends to leave anyone who has followed and admired their efforts sounding like a stuck record (to pardon an archaic expression) or searching for superlatives.

Suffice it to say that there was nothing about the Semiahmoo Strings’ version of Beethoven’s Fifth, under the baton of Carla Birston, that suggested anything to do with a student performance.

Even discounting the dynamic yet sensitive presence of some 18 professional musicians plus a further 11 Semiahmoo Strings alumni who have been busy forging their own commendable careers, plus cellist Harold Birston and Gillian Gjernes as principal viola, the 19 remaining young players (ranging downward in age from 18, and some very young indeed) proved more than equal to the necessary rigors of cohesive tone, phrasing and attack.

More than that, they took possession of the light and dark of Beethoven’s dynamic, passionate themes and orchestral colours; inhabited them and reinterpreted them in a way that made each movement fresh and alive for the audience, no matter how familiar the opening measures of the Allegro con Brio may be.

Could it have been bettered as a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth? Probably, yes – but this would have involved locking away the musicians, professional, student and alumni alike, for several weeks of group rehearsals; something clearly beyond the scope of the exercise.

The young musicians can rest assured that they have everything to be proud of in this monumental undertaking. But the concert was also the venue for several other performances that would have been memorable under any circumstances.

Young cellist Roland Gjernes triumphed in a valedictory performance as soloist for Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor with the full orchestra.

Also featured was the simply splendid violin work of Lucy Wang as soloist, with the full orchestra, for Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen.

Another indisputable gem was violinist Holly Wacker’s brief but polished performance, with a smaller contingent of the Strings, of Glazunov’s Meditation.

The concert also spotlighted the Strings’ younger feeder group, the aforementioned Demi-Semiahmoo Strings. Here, it was clear, we were hearing a student performance – but one of a particularly high level, years ahead of the performers’ actual age group.