Europe's top-rate youth orchestra now on US shores. But poor acoustics dampens opening concert in Florida

Though the European Community Youth Orchestra is now in its 11th year, it has never before visited the United States. And yet, it has an international reputation for being an electrifying ensemble - a huge hit at all the various European festivals, as well as in such diverse locales as Mexico City and Peking. So its US debut tour, which got under way here at the West Palm Beach Auditorium Sunday night, under the baton of Erich Leinsdorf, has garnered its share of attention and excitement. The concert here was the main event of the 10th-annual Palm Beach Festival.

The orchestra was the idea of the International Youth Foundation of Great Britain, which in 1974 suggested to the Parliament of the European Community that such an orchestra should be founded. It was, of course, an ideal project - gifted young musicians from the 12 member countries of the EC, gathered into a 140-piece symphony orchestra that would tour the world promoting European unity and acting as an ambassador for youth in music, and for the symphonic arts in general. The idea passed the Parliament handily, and Claudio Abbado agreed to become its music director, a post he still holds.

So remarkable has this orchestra proved to be - in terms of basic talent, of enthusiasm of playing, and of willingness to work - that it has been able to lure the likes of Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, and Antal Dorati to its podium. The list of soloists willing to perform with it is a Who's Who of musical luminaries.

Prospective orchestra members must be between the ages of 14 and 23. They are auditioned from among some 4,000 applicants yearly, and players within the orchestra must re-audition annually to keep their chairs. They gather during the Easter and summer school vacations to rehearse and tour.

Thus, this year's players arrived in Palm Beach two weeks before the Sunday concert to begin working on the program they will play at each of their tour stops - which also include New York's Avery Fisher Hall tonight, Boston's Symphony Hall Friday evening, and the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington on Sunday.

Another unique aspect of these tours is that certain concerts benefit unusual and important charities. The New York and Boston concerts, for example, will benefit Very Special Arts, which, since 1974, has been encouraging people who are physically and mentally challenged to participate in the arts. Its most visible activity is an extensive series of Very Special Arts Festivals, more than 30 of which are to be given in New York State alone this year. The Washington concert will benefit the Nancy Reagan Drug Abuse Program.

None of these charitable aspects would have much impact if the quality of the youth orchestra's performances was not up to expectations. And here it must be noted that the performance conditions at the West Palm Beach Auditorium are altogether unhappy and make it difficult to comment extensively or meaningfully on the concert heard.

Ironically, this legendary vacation spot for the rich and famous boasts no concert facility suitable for a symphony orchestra. Therefore, this cement sports arena is walled off with huge black velvet drapes that eat up all reverberation. Other extraneous noises and the air conditioning make it difficult to hear anything in the quieter range of dynamics.

Subtler aspects missing

For a piece like Berlioz's ``Harold in Italy,'' this meant that all of maestro Leinsdorf's sagacious attempts to revel in the subtler aspects of French-sounding orchestral blends went for naught. And his refusal to play the final movement for crowd-pleasing virtuosity meant in these circumstances that the entire musical journey whirled by to little effect.

The soloists were also at a disadvantage in this hall: The overtones that would have created a halo of richness around Nobuko Imai's plummy viola (in the Berlioz) and around Florence Quivar's fruity mezzo in Brahms's ``Alto Rhapsody'' were eaten up.

So it was only in the Wagner selections, which Leinsdorf had collated from ``Siegfried'' and ``G"otterd"ammerung,'' that one could finally get some sense of the excellence of the playing in all sections.

Where best acoustics were

The best acoustics in the hall were off to the side, near the main exit, from which spot I heard a richly textured ``Lohengrin'' Third Act prelude as the encore.

This gave me the only real indication of the excellence of this large ensemble, from resonant bass to heady and vibrant brass - an excellence I am sure will be tangible and downright exciting when encountered in any of the other concert halls where the orchestra will be performing during this long-overdue tour. May it be the first of many!

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