My Experience Playing Schumann with Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Was Magical!

May 16, 2019

Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor is one of my all-time favorite pieces. It’s passionate, lyrical, intimate, and joyous. The opening melody alone, which Robert based on his wife Clara’s name, is “from another world,” as André Watts once said.

So, when Maestro Louis Scaglione asked me if I’d like to perform it with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra at the Kimmel Center, I immediately said "yes." And the experince turned out to be magical.

Tune in to WRTI 90.1 on Sunday, May 19th at 4 PM to hear this concert broadcast!
 

The Schumann Piano Concerto can be a tricky piece, ensemble-wise, and “not easy for a young orchestra,” one conductor warned me. I went into our first rehearsal, at Saint Patrick Hall, a large old building with high ceilings and wooden floors on Rittenhouse Square, and was struck by the size of the ensemble —20 students in the cello section alone.

Their dedication impressed me. For 100-plus teenagers to be at rehearsal every Saturday starting at 8:30 AM and awake enough to tackle the most challenging orchestral music is not an easy feat!

But they were alert, open, and receptive to my asking them to bring out the two sides of Schumann’s nature in the Concerto—the part he called Florestan—impetuous and bold, and Florestan’s counterpart Eusebius—shyer and more poetic.

We got through the tricky rhythms of the third movement, and that morning the orchestra was rewarded at break time by the surprise appearance of many boxes of doughnuts, provided by a PYO alum's mother.

I’m used to being at Verizon Hall to interview soloists for WRTI’s Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcasts, so being there to play felt like home. Having the stage to myself to try out pianos late on the Thursday before our concert felt even homier. Verizon Hall stage is a friendly space for the performer, I was glad to find. It feels almost cozy.

I chose this piano for the performance.

My friend in The Philadelphia Orchestra viola section, Anna Marie Ahn Petersen, dashed over to listen me play the two Steinways available. In the end, I chose the brighter instrument, which I recognize now as the instrument that most soloists at Verizon choose to play with orchestra. You need an instrument that will “cut through” a big ensemble behind you.

On concert day, the backstage hallways at Verizon were filled with talented PYO students, dressed in their concert black, studying or hanging out in groups, chatting, bringing fresh energy to the space.

Onstage, they were professional and all-business. Maestro Scaglione gave the downbeat, and we were off. The strings played with passion, and the winds and brass, with many remarkable solos, played with imagination and beauty. It was exhilarating to bring Schumann’s great, complex work to life, with these talented students.

After the concert, I loved meeting so many WRTI listeners, and greeting dear friends and WRTI colleagues backstage.

I hope you can join us Sunday, May 19th at 4 PM for the WRTI 90.1 broadcast of this Philadelphia Youth Orchestra concert recorded back in November, and re-live a magical afternoon with me!

PROGRAM:

Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Maestro Louis Scaglione, conductor; Debra Lew Harder, piano

Wagner: Overture to The Flying Dutchman

Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor