Ashkenazy, young Europeans to scale Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony”

April 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Vladimir Ashkenazy will conduct the European Union Youth Orchestra in a concert of Copland, Liszt and Richard Strauss Friday night at Symphony Hall.

Europe has enjoyed its share of high-profile youth orchestras led by starry conductors in recent decades. Yet before the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, there was the European Union Youth Orchestra, founded in 1976.

Led by Vladimir Ashkenazy, the EUYO has embarked upon its first U.S. tour in 24 years, which will bring the 116-member ensemble to Carnegie Hall Wednesday night and Symphony Hall on Friday. Presented by the Celebrity Series, the Boston program will include Copland’s Outdoor Overture, Richard Strauss’s epic Alpine Symphony and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman as soloist.

The orchestra draws its members from the nation states of the European Union with all 27 EU countries represented by musicians aged 14-24.

Ashkenazy says he has seen a vast improvement in the orchestra’s playing since taking over as music director in 2000. It was the Boston-born Joy Bryer—co-founder of the ensemble with her husband Lionel Bryer—who first invited the Russian pianist-conductor to lead a concert with the EUYO.

“I enjoyed it very much,” said Ashkenazy of that first concert with the orchestra, speaking from Chapel Hill, where the EUYO launched its current tour. “They were very capable, very attentive, and ready to do whatever you wanted to do.”

“But I must say that over the decades, the level has risen fantastically,” he adds. “There are more and more young people that want to be members of this orchestra. And, of course the European Union has expanded to so many more countries now. So now there is a huge interest and the level is continuing to rise all the time.”

Though Ashkenazy isn’t involved in the auditioning and selection of the members, he says the political necessity of having to include a member from each EU country has not led to any compromise in artistic quality.

“No, I don’t think so. We have very good people that go out and listen to the young people. And there are so many auditioning and the level is so high, that it’s not that difficult to achieve a very high level of playing in our orchestra.”

Founded by Claudio Abbado, the EUYO was then led by Bernard Haitink, before he was succeeded by Ashkenazy in 2000. EUYO alumni include violinists Leonidas Kavakos and Renaud Capuçon, cellist Mario Brunello winner of the Tchaikovsky Prize, composer/conductor Derek Gleeson (music director of the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra) and Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, the young co-concertmaster of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Former members are also found in many leading orchestras, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

While Ashenazy says Strauss’s sprawling hour-long Alpine Symphony suits the orchestra well since it’s such a European piece, the conductor doesn’t impute any central European tonal qualities or regional properties to the orchestras’s corporate sound.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer. I try to get what I need to get wherever I conduct. You can’t say it’s a European sound or an American sound. When a conductor comes to conduct he tries to get the sound he want and hopefully he achieves it.”

“As I said, the last decade the quality has risen tremendously. I’m very happy about it. Every year, it’s better and better and better, so now it’s quite fantastic!”

The European Union Youth Orchestra performs 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661

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