The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented its annual Side By Side concert on Saturday, an event in which more than 50 young musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, the ASO’s Talent Development Program and other Atlanta student musicians came together to perform with an equal number of ASO professionals.
It was also the debut of Joseph Young, the ASO’s new assistant conductor and new music director of ASYO, thus the first opportunity for Atlantans to see him conduct — unless, that is, you happened to catch his recent stand-in performance at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA in his hometown of Charleston on May 28. Young made his debut there with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra when scheduled conductor Joana Carneiro canceled for personal reasons. He was already at Spoleto as assistant conductor for Janáček’s opera “Kát’a Kabanová” and then led the orchestra in two 20th-century masterworks: Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” plus the “Doctor Atomic Symphony” by John Adams, to enthusiastic review.
By contrast, Saturday’s concert at Symphony Hall was founded on an entirely different premise, to give young players the exceptional educational opportunity to rehearse and play symphonic repertoire alongside the top-level professionals of the ASO. The primary goal was not to entertain the modest audience, mostly families and friends of the young musicians involved. As such, the event doesn’t beg the same kind of critical review as a subscription series concert, but as Young’s ASO debut it does warrant observation and remark.
Young officially came on board with the ASO at the beginning of June. Given his job description, the orchestral mix of pros and students is a fitting context for his debut. Word is that some serious time was devoted to rehearsal of students, coaching sessions for each section, social time over lunch including pros and students, and final full orchestra rehearsals leading up to Saturday evening’s concert.
After introductory remarks from Justin Blalock, the Atlanta Falcons #63 offensive guard who also serves as ASO spokesperson for music education, the concert opened with the Academic Festival Overture of Brahms, followed by classical standards by Bizet, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns.
But the highlight of the program came next: the Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” in the 1919 version. You can find a snippet of this performance posted on the ASO’s Facebook page. The putative final work was the title music from John Williams’ “Star Wars: Suite for Orchestra,” but there was one more thing to be done. Blalock was invited to conduct Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” albeit with a few assisting gestures from Young here and there.
As for Young’s own conducting, he has a vocabulary of gestures that audiences will begin to identify as his, neither superfluous nor overwrought, and a clear responsiveness to what the musicians are doing. His technique seems no-nonsense and pragmatic, but again, we have the context of this concert to consider. If Saturday’s “Firebird” excerpt and reports from Spoleto are any indication, Young will be one to watch from interpretive perspective beyond the mere mechanics of the job — especially, one might wager, for works of the 20th and 21st centuries.
He will also prove a significant asset to the ASO beyond conducting, as Young demonstrated an unusual ease and fluency in talking to the audience. Usually I’m a “shut up and play” kind of audience member, but I know well the value of a communicator. In that regard, Young will be an excellent ambassador to the community at large, both in concert and civic appearances.
For those who want to see Joseph Young in action, in a noneducational performance context, there are three upcoming ASO concerts he will be conducting: at Piedmont Park on June 19 and 26, then again for the ASO’s Celebrate America performance at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on June 28, the orchestra’s last concert before their long summer hiatus.