Youth symphony makes music, history overseas

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The Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra is carrying the torch overseas for the city this month, and it's also making headway for orchestras nationwide.

Not only is the youth ensemble -- rather than the Pittsburgh Symphony -- the only local orchestra touring Europe this summer, but yesterday it performed in a place no American symphony ever has.

It is the first American orchestra of either professional or youth ranks to be invited to the Smetana Festival in Litomysl, Czech Republic. With the state of the American reputation abroad, the pressure was on the group to put forth a good first impression; its leaders think they did just that.

"Tonight went really well," said Daniel Meyer, the ensemble's music director. "We had a very enthusiastic audience. After each piece the applause got a little stronger until people got on their feet."

"I thought, 'Were they suspicious or what?' when they heard us play the first piece," said executive director Craig Johnson. "But we got a standing ovation at the end."

Nestled between Bohemia and Moravia, the town of Litomysl founded the International Opera Festival in 1949 in honor of its native son, esteemed composer Bedrich Smetana. The operas and concerts take place in stately Litomysl castle, where the youth symphony performed Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Bernstein's "On the Waterfront," Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances" and Mussorgsky/Ravel's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

That concert is a highlight of the orchestra's first tour to Europe since 1987. The two-week (from June 15-28), five-concert tour will finish at the Rudolfinum in Prague (June 23) and the Gewandhaus in Leipzig (June 26).

"This concert was the best one so far," said Craig. "The orchestra is really getting into the groove. It has been tough with the travelling. Getting adjusted to the culture and time zones and unpacking and going to rehearsals is really a brand-new experience for most of them."

The schedule is part of the invaluable experience for the young musicians. Those aspiring to make a professional career in music are finding out now just what that life can entail at times. "We have been working pretty hard," says Meyer.

Thankfully for the student musicians, however, today is an off day to explore Litomysl and then after a bus trip, Prague.

"It's a day to take a breath," said Johnson.

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at 412-263-1750.


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