The Young Artists International Laureates Festival, now in its ninth local summer residency, took over the air-conditioned Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night -- a good place to be in such muggy weather.
As always, the festival's flagship ensemble, the 22-piece string orchestra I Palpiti, was on display, staffed with a youthful, polyglot cast of often highly experienced players, which had already performed this program during its Taos, N.M., residency last week. The ensemble sounded fit, ready, unified to an often startling degree, evidently well-coached by founding music director Eduard Schmieder.
Schmieder's choices of repertoire this time weren't too surprising; past editions of I Palpiti have played and even recorded many of them. Yet they remained refreshing in the context of the usual string orchestra fare elsewhere.
He likes to reach for the big, familiar names in unusual packages -- Tchaikovsky in the form of Arensky's Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky; Beethoven's Opus 95 String Quartet in Mahler's mildly inflated string orchestra arrangement. While the long pauses between variations disrupted the Arensky piece's unity, I Palpiti nailed the difficult unison ensemble passages in Beethoven / Mahler, responding well to Schmieder's inward, melting turns of phrase. Mozart's Divertimento K. 136 fared even better, a lush yet bracing, dynamically observant, spot-on performance unencumbered by period performance pretensions.
As the major contemporary entry of the night, Schmieder revisited Aulis Sallinen's whimsical "The Nocturnal Dances of Don Juanquixote," with its semi-dream world of recurring Latin American rhythms, slippery string carpets and a chipper solo cello part essayed by Kristaps Bergs. Tles Kazhgaliev's Konzertstuck was a fascinating concert opener, a brief whirlwind scherzo peppered with pinpoints of Shostakovich. Isaak Dunayevsky's jokey, jazzy "Circus Fantasy," as arranged by Sergei Dreznin, could have served as the featherweight closer.
But not quite, for the deadpanning Schmieder had one more joker up his sleeve, a celebration of Mozart the birthday boy in the form of Peter Heidrich's "Happy Birthday (Very Short) Variations." The stunt of sending up this hackneyed little tune through the styles of several composers has been done before, but after the devilishly clever paraphrase of Beethoven's Opus 59, No. 2 Quartet, you were won over.