For the last five summers the University of Maryland at College Park has sponsored the National Orchestral Institute. From 770 applicants nationwide, a little less than 100 of the best young orchestral musicians in the country (ranging in age from 18 to 31) are selected from outstanding conservatories and from orchestras not large enough to have summer seasons.
These musicians, on the threshold of professional careers, then spend three weeks studying orchestral playing under several outstanding conductors and well-known orchestral musicians. Just how well the most recent institute has done its work during the last three weeks could be gauged Saturday night at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall by the fine concert the institute's orchestra gave under Joseph Silverstein, the third and final conductor the young players have studied with.
The program was perfect for proficient young players -- Verdi's overture to "The Sicilian Vespers," Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and Elgar's "Enigma Variations." The program was difficult enough to be challenging but did not make the sort of demands that usually only considerable professional experience can answer.
Yet there was never any doubt that this was a young orchestra on Meyerhoff's stage. Hardened professionals rarely react to such familiar standards with such unbridled enthusiasm. Listening to these youngsters tear into the final movement of the Beethoven or emote so passionately in the "Nimrod" variation of the Elgar brought to mind the kind of excitement experienced when one read books like Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" or Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground" as a young adult. It's wonderful to respond to great art this way and it seems to happen so rarely later in life.
This is not to say these performances were unpolished. Silverstein, the music director of the Utah Symphony and a former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, is one of the most knowledgeable musicians in the business and he knew how to give these players their youthful heads without letting their enthusiasm get out of control.
The playing of the winds in the Elgar's third and 10th variations would have made any orchestra proud -- as would have the sonorously singing quality achieved by the orchestra's strings in "Nimrod." And the Beethoven Symphony -- while its pagan delirium in the first, third and final movements was kept at a perpetual boil -- was filled with interior calm in its cortege-like second movement.