South Florida Classical Review » » Young conductors hone their craft at the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival


James Chang conducted the music of Mozart and Shawn Okpebholo at the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival.

Seven young conductors took turns on the podium during the opening orchestra concert of the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival Thursday night at Temple Emanu-El.

While singers and instrumentalists can practice their craft on their own, aspiring podium performers need an orchestra to hone their skills. A group of passionate young musicians were on hand to provide this opportunity. (The conductors had been coached by festival faculty members Mark Gibson and Apo Hsu.)

The undisputed star of the concert was James Chang. Sharing Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 in E-flat major with two other conductors, Chang’s light and airy reading of the final Allegro assai shone, Chang drawing precise articulation from the orchestra. Previously, Junyuan Chen seemed more at home in the charming bliss of the Andante moderato than in the opening Allegro which lacked energy and dynamism. Billy Xiang led a crisp account of the Menuetto.

Chang also led a terrific performance by Shawn Okpebholo Kutimbua Khivumbi (Crush the dust). A graduate of the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and a professor at Wheaton College, Okpebholo was inspired to craft his eleven-minute symphonic poem following a trip to Kenya.

Reflecting his journey through Nairobi’s nightlife, rural villages and nomadic tribal areas, the score is bursting with color and atmosphere. The work opens with ferocious African-style drumming, and brass fanfares and dissonant string lines quickly vie for attention, driving dance melodies appear through the maze of sound, and a virtuoso violin solo takes over. its flight, skilfully measured by the concertmaster Mae Bariff. Chang effectively guided the young players through the dense complexities of the job, drawing the best performance of the evening. This is an outstanding symphonic essay by a gifted composer that deserves continued exposure.

Violinist Bariff had her turn in the spotlight with a worthy crossing of Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. She brought a good feeling for the Gallic grace of the vignette and precisely dosed the diabolical pyrotechnics à la Paganini. The accompaniment under Xiang was not always in tune with the soloist.

Cole Bendall opened the evening with a vigorous reading of star burst by Jessie Montgomery. Usually heard in a strings-only edition, the winds and harp added harmonic spice to this popular 21st-century candy.

Bendall brought out much of the lyricism, if not all the passion, of Verdi’s Overture The Forza of Destino. He managed to coax some variety of dynamics into the domed resonant sanctuary and the brass chorale theme sonically emerged.

The program concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major (“Rhenish”). It is a difficult work for any professional ensemble to achieve.

Student players put up a brave effort under three different maestri despite some messy details. Victor Morales captured much of the romantic spirit of the first movement. A more cohesive line would have been welcome but it kept the orchestral soloists on track.

Bennett Astrove’s tempo in the Scherzo was half too slow. He was more attuned to the singing impulses of the third movement. Gordon Cheung pulled more weight and corporate tone into the fourth movement (Schumann’s portrait of a ceremony in Cologne Cathedral. The finale is one of the great blues hunters in its rhythmic propulsion and good humor and Cheung nailed the big climactic flourishes with a steady hand.

The audience gave all the conductors a standing ovation at the end of the concert. Another band from the festival’s conducting program will share Mozart’s musical direction The magic flute at the Sunday family show.

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival presents Mozart The magic flute 2 p.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El, 1701 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The performance is free.

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