BERKELEY -- The Berkeley-based Young People's Symphony Orchestra is kicking off its 77th season with two concerts this weekend featuring guest pianist Norman Krieger, who teaches at the University of Southern California, and young talent from Alameda, Piedmont and Oakland and 29 other Bay Area cities.
The orchestra, which includes 100 musicians from ages 12 through 19 and is led by musical director and conductor David Ramadanoff, will play Aaron Copland's "Salón México," Jennifer Higdon's "Blue Cathedral" and Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor" at El Cerrito High School on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
Krieger, a professor at the University of Southern California, has played with many American and European orchestras. He and Ramadanoff have worked together before through the Vallejo Symphony. They first met briefly at the Juilliard School in New York in the 1970s.
"It's been a dream of mine my whole life to play Rachmaninoff's 'Piano Concerto No. 3,'" the talented pianist said in a statement. "It reflects the human condition on an epic scale."
Despite the seriousness of the piece and his role in the performance, "Krieger doesn't bring an overly dramatic character but rather a lot of personal touches to it and interesting phrasing," said Vanessa Li, the group's concertmaster and a senior at Piedmont High School. "The piece also features huge credenzas that aim to showcase his technical abilities and how he dramatically interprets the melodies, especially when the orchestra stops playing."
Bassoonist Isaiah Chiu, a junior at Alameda High School, agrees.
"I like the piano concerto the most, because I especially like Russian music," Chiu said. "The piece features the soloist and the three movements have a range of dramatic moods."
Still, Chiu said, the Copland piece has real audience appeal.
"It's contemporary," he explained. "And I think people may be a bit surprised at how much they will like it and how great it can be."
Copland's "Salón México" is the favorite of percussionist Ben Esposito, a seventh-grader at Lincoln Middle School. "It's fast, and I get to play the wood block, which is really fun."
For Michelle Zhang, a senior at Alameda High who plays both the violin and piano, Higdon's "Blue Cathedral" is both interesting and extremely modern.
"It's a great opportunity to play something beautiful and that involves instruments that aren't typically used by members of the orchestra," she said. "I like how it sounds."
For "Blue Cathedral," string players like Zhang will be featured shaking Chinese healing reflex balls, while the low brass and horns players will use their musical skills to make sounds from crystal water glasses, he says.
"It's so exciting to be playing with soloist, who is such a top notch musician," Zhang said. "And it's very nice to be to be playing music with the Young People's Symphony Orchestra, which is really friendly and is about community."
"This is a very unique piece," said Li, the leader of the violin section, "because it incorporates lots of interesting elements. The author wrote it to commemorate the death of her brother. It includes a huge solo that I play, which is very expressive. The general tone of the piece is very special, contemporary and also emotional."
What: Young People's Symphony Orchestra fall concert
When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: El Cerrito High School Theater, 540 Ashbury Ave., El Cerrito
Cost: $10 to $14
Infomation: 510-849-YPSO or www.ypsomusic.net