Monday, November 11, 2013


Severance Hall
November 3

At 34, already an experienced hand at the podium.

Talk about setting the bar high: For his Severance Hall debut with the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, new Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell programmed three 20th-century works, two of which would challenge any professional orchestra, along with Mussorgskyʼs Pictures at an Exhibition. Thatʼs beyond bold.

But itʼs entirely in keeping with the career arc of Mitchell, 34, whose youthful demeanor and appearance belie his experience. A Seattle native who studied under conducting giants Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel, Mitchell spent four seasons as Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony, which he led in over 100 performances, and three years as Music Director of the Moores Opera Center in Houston. He worked with Masur for three and a half years as Assistant Conductor of the Orchestre National de France in Paris, and just started his fourth season as Music Director of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, which has broken attendance records under his leadership.

After a competitive two-day audition in January, Mitchell was hired to replace James Feddeck as the new Music Director of COYO and Assistant Conductor of the parent orchestra (meaning he has to be ready to replace Franz Welser-Möst or any other conductor at a momentʼs notice). In an interview several weeks ago, Mitchell was almost giddy with excitement and suitably impressed with the Youth Orchestra. “Theyʼre amazingly talented musicians,” he said, “just as responsive as most of the professional orchestras Iʼve worked with.”

Mitchell seemed determined to put that agility to test in his first Severance appearance with the orchestra, which opened with a rare upbeat piece by Shostakovich, his 1954 Festive Overture. The players responded with a big, bright sound, particularly in the horns, and dexterous work in the strings and woodwinds. It was a brief but convincing display of outsized skills.

That turned out to be only a warm-up for Stravinskyʼs Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a fiendishly difficult tonal exercise for horns and woodwinds. The horns lost some of their luster in this piece, even sounding sour at times. But the woodwinds were sharp and clear, and the fractured melodies fit together neatly. If the air went out of it at the end, it was nonetheless a smart, earnest take on a very sophisticated piece of music.

The horns and woodwinds then left the stage and the remainder of the orchestra returned for Wojciech Kilarʼs Orawa for strings. A lightning-quick 1988 work in a minimalist vein, Orawa builds a pulsing tempo and exotic textures one instrument at a time, culminating in a swirling maelstrom of epic proportions. The players handled it with alacrity and poise, showing remarkable discipline and precision for an 80-piece ensemble.

Mitchell set a brisk pace for Pictures at an Exhibition, keeping the sound big rather than heavy, sometimes at the expense of substance. And the playing was uneven, especially in the horns and woodwind solos. The piece finally hit stride in the “Limoges,” which captured the colorful mayhem of the marketplace very well, then turned appropriately spooky in the “Catacombs,” with the ensuing “Promenade” featuring tense, sustained strings that were among the best moments of the afternoon. The closing “Great Gate of Kiev” started with a fierce intensity that the players couldnʼt quite maintain. But overall the piece had a notably professional gloss, and finished with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

Itʼs tempting to qualify reviews of COYO with caveats about the playersʼ ages (12-18) and lack of experience. But the ensemble doesnʼt present itself that way. Members have to audition to join, are mentored by Cleveland Orchestra musicians, and rehearse steadily throughout the year. So their professional posture and sound merits the same critical appraisal that the adults get. And if their ambitious start with Mitchell is any indication, thereʼs an exciting two years ahead for players and audiences alike.

For more on the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra:

For more on Brett Mitchell:

Photo by Gregg Barckholtz

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