All City Orchestra: Energy, varying skill levels, and fresh, new music

Cellist Eliana Yang, winner of All City's concerto competition, plays as Nanette Foley leads the orchestra.

It would be difficult to overstate the power of one particular moment in the trajectory of many a young musician. It typically comes after a few years in a school ensemble where the players around you are struggling for the notes. One day you audition for an ensemble of equals. You get in. When the downbeat falls for the first time, you are surrounded by a certain sound - a real ensemble sound. Just a few bars into the music, you know what it means to be part of the orchestra world.

Precisely how many musicians left the stage of Verizon Hall on Tuesday night with that sensation permanently nestled in their emotional memory boxes would be hard to say. But Philadelphia's All City Orchestra - and band and chorus - no doubt serves that function for dozens, if not hundreds.

This year's All City concert showed what it usually does: that the skills of the city's cream of the high school crop vary widely, and probably more than they should. Still, where professional musicians aren't being created, much-needed amateurs are, as future listeners, board members, and donors.

Would that every child in the School District gets to experience something this potentially catalytic.

New energy surrounds the All City Orchestra program. An alphabet soup of organizations, individuals, and philanthropists are chipping in time and treasure, and the Philadelphia Orchestra is the latest to come aboard, as "lead artistic partner." There's much talk of training musicians in career skills and entrepreneurship. But, frankly, the real magic is both harder to quantify and more important: It's about the music.

Leaders hope that All City's scope can develop far beyond where it is now. Last season, Don S. Liuzzi's final one as director, the orchestra toured Italy - precisely the kind of night-after-night concert experience that bonds ensembles and firms up certain kinds of skills.

This month, students will rehearse side by side with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Critical bits of wisdom rub off in unpredictable ways in a format like that. There was a time when the All City Orchestra met every week for rehearsal. Joseph Conyers, the Philadelphia Orchestra double bassist who is now the music director of the All City Orchestra, has been working to grow the program, but the group still rehearses only sporadically.

Tuesday's event was revealing. Programming well for concerts like this is a real art. Repertoire must be a stretch, but not beyond reach. Strings tend to be more accomplished than winds. Works of substance should challenge the scholars but strum the heartstrings of listening parents. In Saint-Saëns' "Marche Militaire Française" from the Suite Algérienne, conductor Wesley J. Broadnax drew a pleasant sound from the wind band - strong tunes to which iffy intonation strove. In the "Kyrie" from Glenn McClure's Saint Francis in the Americas: A Caribbean Mass, the chorus, led by Dorina C. Morrow, was an audience favorite.

Conyers conducted the first movement of Dvorák's Symphony No. 9, and Nanette Foley led the orchestra and a lithe Eliana Yang, winner of All City's concerto competition, in the opening "Allegro non troppo" of Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor.

But the biggest privilege, perhaps, was in premiering a new work. John B Hedges' Promise of a City deftly assigned roles to all three ensembles that combined a John Adams-like momentum and evolving atmosphere with an awareness of the general skill levels for which he was writing. Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted, and the applause was booming.

The lovefest might have gone on longer, but everyone perhaps realized that these musicians, though not professional, still had a clock to eye. It was, after all, a school night.