Scott Yoo has become the stuff of legend in Colorado Springs. Since 2003, he has been the sole conductor at the Colorado College Summer Music Festival, making him the longest serving maestro in the festival’s 35-year history. He has been largely responsible for producing a series of orchestral performances that, especially in the past decade, have become the pinnacle of the symphonic experience in the Pikes Peak region. And this has been accomplished with festival fellows: music students and young, relatively inexperienced professionals.

Small wonder that he garners the lion’s share of attention on the Celeste Theatre stage when he is conducting. At Tuesday’s Festival Orchestra debut for 2019, there was a noticeable shift. It was the fellows who shined the brightest.

Claude Debussy’s once revolutionary Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun still occupies a unique place in the orchestral repertoire. Although but 10 minutes in length, it transcends any sense of time while it rejects traditional key relationships and eschews conventional orchestral language. The biggest challenge for an orchestra is to realize the piece’s rich scoring without causing an audience to dwell on specific sonic details.

This performance occurred more as a meditation than an interpretation of an orchestral masterpiece. Peter Arfsten rendered the famous flute solo that sets the tone of the music like it was a gentle summer breeze. Even more remarkably, Andrew Stump, performing on the notoriously unwieldy French horn, greeted Arfsten in the same gentle vein when the spotlight shifted in his direction. This humble, unassuming approach to music-making infected the entire ensemble as Jennifer Gersten’s violin and Tanavi Prabhu’s oboe made sure that their solo moments folded into this muted abstract canvas.

Granted, it was Yoo’s vision of this work that was on display.

With the explosion of a slapstick, attendees were rudely transported to music of Maurice Ravel and his Piano Concerto in G Major. Festival Artist Orion Weiss was the soloist, and his control of this multilayered masterpiece was jaw-dropping, projecting measured doses of classical purity, French Impressionism and melodic beauty. 

The scoring of the concerto required the strings to provide background rather than to become thematic champions. Winds, brass and percussion supplied the prominent voices in response to Weiss’ piano. Alec Manasse on E-flat clarinet, Cort Roberts on French horn, and Hillary Simms on trombone provided charming and animated solo moments in the opening movement while Festival Artist John Kinzie was like a master chef on a myriad of percussion.

Weiss’ performance paid big dividends in the meditative second movement through his refusal to add unnecessary sentimentality to the music. Working in league with Yoo, he inspired a patient, authentic beauty. Kudos also to Michael O’Brien (flute), Tanavi Prabhu (oboe) and Bum Namkoong (clarinet) for passing melody between themselves.

The finale was a romp. Weiss and orchestra produced an exciting musical factory of sounds and textures as they raced to the inevitable conclusion.

The major work of the evening was up next: Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. If Debussy altered the sonic possibilities and Ravel codified scoring for the 20th century, it was Rimsky-Korsakov who provided the most highly regarded treatise on how to compose for orchestra in the late 19th century. Suffice it to say, with his unquestioned masterpiece, we were in for a blockbuster of the highest order.

It is doubtful that any more instruments could have been packed onto the stage. The festival’s 52 players were augmented by four violins and one cello from the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony as well as a flute, an oboe, a tuba, and two percussionists from local professionals. On this occasion, they acted as a seasoned ensemble.

Rather than letting things hurl, Yoo asked for and received a different vision. His idea for this musical depiction of stories from the ancient Middle Eastern anthology One Thousand and One Nights was built upon elegance, balance and characterful solo expression. Except for the occasional moments when he worked to ignite extra passion from the violins, he did his job clearly and consistently, calling little attention to himself.

The voice of slave girl Scheherazade was the domain of festival fellow Alyssa Wang. Also an aspiring conductor, she brought beauty, energy and a palpable life force to her solos. Cellist Megan Yip countered with intelligent and elegant depictions of the sultan.

Yoo surprised all in attendance after his first curtain call by igniting an encore of Tchaikovsky's “Jester’s Dance” from his incidental music for the play The Snow Maiden. The audience surely had been granted enough beauty and excitement for one evening, but the sheer joy of music-making put the final punctuation mark on an evening that will be talked about for seasons to come.

Festival music continues through June 22, and most of the performances are free.

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