Simon Liu Performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2
Some of the most eagerly anticipated events in our music season on the Monterey Peninsula are the concerts presented twice each year by Youth Music Monterey County (YMMC) in collaboration with Youth Orchestra of Salinas (YOSAL). Those of us with long memories can remember YMMC’s modest beginnings over thirty-five years ago when its concerts were presented in the auditorium at Santa Catalina School. During those early years the string players in the Junior Youth Orchestra needed their teachers on stage for ten minutes at the beginning of each concert to help them tune their instruments.
We have come a long way since those days. In addition to the junior youth orchestra players performing at a much higher level today, Music Director and Conductor Farkhad Khudyev has proved to be an inspiring influence as he continues to select interesting programs that challenge the young players to achieve ever higher musical standards. Perhaps the most remarkable change during the past two decades is YMMC’s development of a powerful level of community support, an efficient staff of officers and directors, and an ever growing group of donors and sponsors. Although some youth orchestras in the USA operate on minimal budgets and sometimes even perform in gymnasiums, YMMC is strictly first class with performances to full houses in Carmel’s prestigious Sunset Center. Also impressive is the synergistic support for YMMC by the Carmel Music Society, whose Co-Presidents, Anne & Peter Thorp, not only contribute financial and staffing support, but also lend the use of the Carmel Music Society’s excellent Hamburg Steinway concert grand.
And so it was yesterday afternoon at Sunset Center that the parking lot was full, lots of parents and young children were milling about before the concert, and there was a friendly, excited buzz in the air. The concert opened with performances by the Junior Youth Orchestra (augmented by members of YOSAL and OITS) in performances of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” Rossini’s William Tell overture and the final movement from Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” The players may have appeared tiny on stage, but they played with a youthful zest and maturity that belied their youth.
The major event on the program was a performance of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto by 16-year-old Simon Liu, a junior at Everett Alvarez High School in Salinas. Simon, a native of Shanghai, came to the USA two years ago with his family and has been studying piano during these two years with pianist Lyn Bronson of Carmel. In April, 2017, Simon was a major winner in the county-wide piano competition at CSU-Monterey Bay presented by the Monterey Branch of the Music Teachers’ Association of California, and in October 2017 he won the YMMC Concerto Competition, which gave him the opportunity to make his concerto debut in this concert.
Looking supremely confident, Simon easily handled the large gestures of this mighty and durable concerto, which with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto rank as among the most often performed works in the piano concerto repertoire. Characteristic of all of Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra, the pianist has to navigate through bazillions of notes in thorny passages, some of which even Rachmaninoff himself found to be awkward and difficult to play. Simon gave this work a spirited performance while remaining in control throughout and bringing the movement to an exciting and triumphant conclusion. The YMMC Honors Orchestra, under the direction of Farkhad Khudyev gave excellent support and showcased some outstanding string, wind and brass players.
The YMMC Honors Orchestra was also heard in a premiere performance of movements from Rachmaninoff’s 1891 Youth Symphony in D Minor, a work lost for many generations and only rediscovered in the 1940s. Speaking from the stage Khudyev marveled that Rachmaninoff, only in his teens, was able to create a work, that while influenced by Tchaikovsky, has already true originality, evokes strong feelings and has a beautifully crafted ending that is surprisingly sinister and frightening — perhaps a foreshadowing of the conditions that ultimately led to the beginning of World War I. Following this work the YMMC Honors Orchestra wound up the afternoon program with a rousing performance of Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino. Khudyev accepted a well earned standing ovation, but then generously spread the kudos among deserving members of the orchestra.