Thursday, June 14, 2012


June 15

A new generation explores their orchestra's roots.

The legacy of George Szell returns to Prague on Friday in the form of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, an apprentice ensemble in the mold of the great “symphonic instrument” that Szell created during his 24 years as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Before then, during the 1920s and ’30s, Szell made his mark in Prague as opera director of the New German Theater (now the State Opera) and at the podium with the Czech Philharmonic.

A legendary taskmaster and perfectionist, Szell left an imprint on the Cleveland Orchestra so profound that nearly 20 years after his death in 1970, his later successor Christoph von Dohnanyi famously complained, “We give a great concert, and George Szell gets a great review.” Even today, the Cleveland Orchestra is still known as the “most European” of American orchestras for its clarity, precision and integrated sound.

Along with exceptional standards, Szell brought influences and traditions from the Old World that have become a significant part of orchestra’s heritage.

Though it’s hard to imagine now, there was a time when Dvořák’s music wasn’t in the standard repertoire,” says COYO Music Director James Feddeck. “Certainly George Szell made the case in the United States that Dvořák had to be a regular part of the canon. So there is a direct Cleveland-Dvořák connection, and for us to be able to continue that is a real honor.”

Feddeck will be leading his ensemble in a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, the finale in a program that also includes works by Brahms, Elgar and Wagner. This is by no measure student fare, nor is it a new program for the ensemble, which has been playing those pieces as part of its repertoire during the 2011/12 season. “For us as an orchestra, the program represents a year-long journey of study with this music,” Feddeck says. “What the audience in Prague will be hearing is really a very polished, finished product.”

Nor is it the work of amateurs. Though the players are of high school age, and even younger in some cases, they have to meet rigorous standards. Auditions are held for openings, just as in a professional orchestra, with the winners selected by Feddeck and members of the Cleveland Orchestra, who help train and mentor individual players. During the season the youth orchestra meets once a week for rehearsals, which Feddeck conducts on a professional level.

I don’t look at the players and think, they’re just 16 or 17 years old,” he says. “I see them as musicians capable of creating music at a very high level. Despite their young age and relative inexperience, the maturity of their talent and the maturity of their musicianship separates them from their peers, and makes this orchestra really unique.”

A bold maestro.
Feddeck is hoping to compensate for the lack of experience with this tour, which will also take the COYO to Vienna and Salzburg. This is only the fourth tour in the orchestra’s 26-year history, and its first abroad. The impetus for an international excursion came from discussions held after the orchestra’s 25th anniversary, when Feddeck posed the question: What are the next 25 years going to be about? Touring offered the opportunity to both raise the orchestra’s profile and enrich the players’ training.

This will be the first time many of our students have been to Europe,” he says. “For young people devoted to this music, I can think of no more exciting and thrilling way to go than performing concerts. They will be experiencing the music in a totally new context by doing these performances in different cultures, different countries and different concert halls.”

Of course, there’s a certain amount of risk involved. Asked how he feels about venturing into Dvořák’s house to play his music, Feddeck admits it’s not the first time the question has been posed.

A number of people said to me, ʻAre you sure you want to take your orchestra to play Dvořák in Prague?’” he confides. “Ultimately I thought, yes, that does seem very much the right thing to do. Because I believe there’s no better way to honor a culture, a city, and the people of a city, than to perform their music. And to perform their music in a way that, I’m hoping will be evident to the audience, shows how much time we’ve spent trying to unlock the meaning of the Eighth Symphony.”

Still, there is always more to discover, and Feddeck anticipates finding new inspiration at the Rudolfinum.

I know that something truly magical awaits us in Prague,” he says. “To be able to perform Dvořák in such a place can only bring a rich experience.”

For more on the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra:

For a complete program and ticket information:

Photos: Top, courtesy of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra; Feddeck by Roger Mastroianni

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