5 to debut with orchestra Curtis soloists to play at Mann

Posted: June 25, 2009

The Curtis Institute of Music's fast track to big-orchestra debuts turns into an express lane at the Monday opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra's summer season.

Six students, some quite young, will be featured in three of the orchestra's concerts at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. Fourteen-year-old violinist Yu-Chien Tseng, for example, plays Vivaldi's The Four Seasons without having experienced some of what's depicted in the music - like the "Autumn" concerto's portrait of an inebriated peasant.

Putting violin to chin the other day at Curtis, Tseng bowed through that "Autumn" passage with a power that's certain to be audible in the 4,700-seat Mann Center. But the air of wooziness came from suggestions by his teacher, Ida Kavafian. "I've never been drunk," Tseng admitted. "I'm only 14!"

Neither he nor the other Curtis students tapped for such solo roles have had much time for research - especially something as time-consuming as drinking - since the idea of these Mann concerts wasn't proposed until late April. Because the choice of soloists was dictated by the orchestra's repertoire needs, some of the Curtis students, Tseng included, are playing these works in public for the first time.

"You're almost winging it," said 19-year-old violinist Benjamin Beilman, who is on the opening program with Beethoven's Romance No. 2. "It forces you to be much more firm in what you believe about the music. You have to show it and be very clear because you have so little time."

The Mann-Curtis arrangement came out of yet another once-unlikely situation resulting from the economic downturn in the performing arts: The Philadelphia Orchestra concluded it could only afford to present five concerts - the shortest season in its history at the summer semi-outdoor venue. How to fill the void? Mann CEO Catherine M. Cahill had an inspiration, literally in the shower one morning: "What other world-class possibilities are there? It came to mind that we might want to do a celebration with the Curtis Institute."

Conversations with Curtis president Roberto Diaz yielded limited possibilities due to lack of student availability. No way could even a chamber orchestra be assembled in the summer. "I'd be surprised if we have 10 percent of the students around," he said. "The ones around now are the ones finishing high school. A lot of them go home between the end of school and the beginning of summer festivals."

Even after the Mann Center agreed, a few weeks later, to act as presenter of the Philadelphia Orchestra in a full nine-concert season, the Curtis idea stuck. Established soloists are hard to get on short notice, but the Curtis kids were ready to drop as much as they could; Beilman asked to skip his first days of the Marlboro Festival and was heartily encouraged to do so.

Soloists were often chosen according to the orchestra's requests for specific repertoire. Tseng had a history playing The Four Seasons (though only in the practice room) since age 10. Beilman learned the Beethoven Romance No. 2 for Monday's concert, but it's a relatively brief, emotionally uncomplicated piece, and his teacher, Kavafian, was willing to stay in Philadelphia for two weeks after the end of the school year to coach him.

Pianist Kyu Yeon Kim, 23, knew the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 that was requested by the orchestra, but had to chisel in a slot amid the Van Cliburn Competition earlier this month (she was a semifinalist), commitments in Boston, and plans to go home to Korea. It's sometimes said that the only difference between Curtis students and Curtis graduates is that the latter tour a little more than the former. Not so now. "The Curtis kids are touring like crazy - all over the world," said Diaz. "It's amazing."

Drafting promising students as orchestra soloists is anything but new; Diaz is regularly solicited by the New Jersey and Kansas City symphony orchestras. Philadelphia's Astral Artists (an artistic finishing school for emerging talents) has a longtime association with the Camden-based Symphony in C, yielding concert dates for now-established artists such as Simone Dinnerstein. The exposure and contacts these engagements open up, says Astral founder Vera Wilson, "is almost immeasurable." Audiences will later hear Beilman in Astral concerts.

The process at the Mann, however, is more compressed. Symphony in C - also conducted by Mann season music director Rossen Milanov - holds three to four rehearsals; Mann concerts, like most summer orchestra seasons, have a single run-through. And unlike the cozy acoustics of Camden's Gordon Theater, the Mann Center is a sprawling, high-ceilinged structure with sophisticated though artificial sound design.

Neither Tseng nor Beilman has even visited yet, though Tseng checked it out on the Web. "It looks like a baseball court. It's big," he said. "It's really big."

"I'm kind of letting my subconscious deal with it," said Beilman. "I'd love to have a good interpretation [of the music], a decent, positive view of me either by orchestra members or the conductor or the public . . . but it's not something that's going to make or break a reputation."

Having the reputedly efficient Milanov on the podium could be their good-luck charm. "He has a wonderful ability to see to the important stuff," said Wilson.

Comparisons between these young artists and starrier soloists aren't likely to be a great danger. Mann audiences are easygoing and, statistically speaking, aren't regular Center City concertgoers. For those making such comparisons, Tseng's Four Seasons is likely to be better practiced and more earnestly rendered than superstar Itzhak Perlman's casual performances in seasons past. The twin solo piano duo, Christina and Michelle Naughton, who play Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos on June 30, will certainly have novelty value.

But will these factors add up to box-office viability? A recreation-oriented audience probably doesn't follow the promising talents emerging from Curtis, and drawing a large public to Fairmount Park often requires big names like Perlman, the flamboyant Curtis graduate Lang Lang (who plays on June 30), or events such as the 1812 Overture with fireworks. Then again, a nice summer night can be the best draw of all.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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