The breathtaking performances of ‘Arabian Nights’

Arabian Nights, a historic Metropolitan Youth Symphony concert featured two world premiers—violinist Katie Palka, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular Scheherazade—on March 4 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. As maestro Raúl Gómez said from the stage, the evening was a celebration of “talent, hard work, youth and the power of art.”

The evening began with some of MYS’ youngest string players taking the stage. Overture Strings, conducted by Kathie Reed, played American and Highland styles with exuberance. Then Paloma Griffin-Hébert took the podium to lead Vivaldi Strings. The highlight of their set was the world premier of Jayanthi Joseph’s Olam. This composition used extended techniques like harmonics, string tapping, sliding along the fingerboard and the Bartók pizzicato. Olam used the Major-Phrygian scale, also known as the “Flamenco Mode,” or “Jewish Scale” due to its use in cultural Eastern music.

Following intermission, maestro Gómez and the MYS took the stage to perform The Breathing Earth by Katie Palka, 17. According to the MYS program guide, Palka’s composition is about “our human connection to the environment and the interconnectedness of all living things. It’s about seeing ourselves as a part of the environment rather than apart from it or above it, because in seeing ourselves as disconnected we are enabled to harm the environment.”

The Breathtaking Earth begins atmospherically in the low strings. Percussion joins, mimicking sounds of the tide. First and second violins interact in repetitive, alternating patterns. The music becomes increasingly frantic, building to a cymbal-punctuated outburst. Calm settles only to be displaced by frenzy and a sense of disintegration. All parts play ferociously as the work reaches its climax and, after a final cymbal crash, the low strings play a major chord and calm settles again. The MYS program noted how Palka calls this part “a wistful reflection…with hope that humanity may develop the compassion necessary to heal our breathing Earth.”

With The Breathing Earth, Palka distinguishes herself as an eloquent thinker and creator, leading her audience to reflect on the environment through music. One of Palka’s mentors, local composer Ryan Francis, said, “[Palka] has a strong chance of getting into the top programs in the country. A large part of that is having an orchestral piece in her portfolio.” Palka’s career will be one to watch.

The program concluded with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s flamboyant Scheherazade. Soloists in each section shine throughout this musical tale inspired by the Arabian Nights legend. Concertmaster Cammie Lee performed the violin cadenzas with poise and vitality. Scheherazade requires virtuoso playing and stamina from all sections, and although some of the most devilish passages were not perfectly synchronized, the orchestra maintained continual energetic drive and sense of narrative. They achieved a wide array of styles, from the nautical, foreboding first movement to the thrilling chase of the second and the innocent, lilting dance in the third. The finale was satisfying, like watching the sun set slowly in splendor.

MYS endeavors to bring music outside the concert hall, as evidenced by this concert’s art collaborations. Students at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics created four paintings inspired by the four movements of Scheherazade. The paintings, swirling with bright and pastel colors, were displayed in the choir loft during the Arabian Nights concert.

Students who are interested in viewing these art pieces can find them at MYS’ upcoming concert on March 17 in Lincoln Hall at Portland State.