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Scintillating Te Papa concert by National Youth Orchestra

By , 06/02/2014

The NZSO National Youth Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey

Lilburn: Aotearoa Overture; Matthew Hindson: Homage to Metallica; Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op 35 (with Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin)

Te Papa, second level concourse

Thursday 6 February, 11am

Ben Northey’s name should have been familiar to me as his website (www.benjaminnorthey.com) refers to up-coming concerts that include the NZSO in November: entitled In the Hall of the Mountain King, where he will conduct Mozart’s Paris Symphony; the Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky (with cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan) and two works by Grieg.

He has just conducted the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and the next six months see him conducting the Melbourne, West Australian and Tasmanian symphony orchestras, both Opera Australia and Victorian Opera and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

His presence in front of the National Youth Orchestra at this Waitangi Day concert, and the manner of his introductory remarks revealed a gift for communication; but his musical talents appeared at once, perhaps most tellingly with the first piece, Lilburn’s Aotearoa Overture, which offered persuasive evidence of a talent for scrupulous dynamic shading and a clear grasp of overall shape.

There was a fine hush over the opening bars played by elegantly rich strings and a delicacy and clarity in the following dance-like theme, lit by fine wind playing. Though by the end, I missed a feeling of Lilburn’s understated climax which exists in the score.

The next piece was something of a celebration of a fellow Australian musician, Matthew Hindson, as well as a calculated effort to get on side with young players who might not entirely have outgrown a passion for rock music. His Homage to Metallica (‘homage’ is an English word, pronounced with first syllable stressed, not ‘hommage’, the French, where syllables are pretty evenly stressed and the ‘h’ not sounded at all) does not refer directly to the old rock group or to its music, but its aim seems to be to take their sounds and shapes further, along lines that might be more familiar to classical music audiences; or not.

A glance at Hindson’s website reveals a radical turn of mind, and though he presents an amiable demeanour and speaks of the need for new music that will keep audiences engaged, his musical ideas seem framed by essentially non-traditional objects and notions, with eccentric titles (e.g. Rave-Elation, Boom Box, Headbanger, A Symphony of Modern Objects) that seem to speak of the iconoclast and rebel.
I was amused to contemplate the performance’s juxtaposition with the large sign marking the ‘Awesome Forces’ display of powerful and dramatic geological phenomena alongside us, from which the chattering sounds of highly engaged children (often recently with my own grand-children) were in constant accompaniment. Hindson would have smiled.

This piece is 20 years old and I am in no position to comment on its likely appeal to today’s rockers (if that’s still a current word). It demanded a large orchestra, with triple winds and a pretty fancy range of percussion including anvil, tam-tam, roto-toms, wood blocks as well as all the more common items, apart from the tuned instruments. It moved through several sections, some of it very loud and abrasive, employing sophisticated resources such as the rare Locrian mode and the juxtaposition of semitones and the once forbidden ‘tritone’ interval (in fact, an augmented fourth).

It opened with long-drawn-out percussion dominated call to arms but that was quickly replaced by a rather unexpected melodic passage on beautifully played solo viola. A gentle later phase gave voice to piccolos, snare drum and wood block. At two stages a distinct sound was introduced with NZSO concert master Vesa-Matti Lappänen playing an amplified eighth-size violin, surprisingly tiny. Much of its contribution was in heavily bowed ‘thrash’ style double-stopping that produced the sort of ugliness that was the product of the formerly popular distorted guitar articulation.

Though I doubt that a heavy metaller would have found the rhythms congenial or particularly danceable, a rhythmic presence was always there, felt more through the impact of rhythmic instruments than through rhythms themselves. A final phase brought the tiny violin back with spectacular virtuosity, Vesa-Matti’s fingers seeming sorely cramped to obtain semi-tone intervals on the minuscule finger-board.

While there were many young people in the audience, there were more of an older generation and the applause was generous but not ecstatic – it was largely, I felt, for the skills and energy of conductor and players.

Finally, the major work was Rimsky-Korsakov’s dazzling orchestral extravaganza, Scheherazade. Nothing could have been more appropriate for a young orchestra, offering scope for fine solo displays by almost every section, including an important harp part. The prominent, sinuous violin part depicting Scheherazade was played by Annabel Drummond, who carried the torch with considerable seductive flair.

The whole performance was a testament to the unfailing ability of highly talented young musicians, led by a vivid and lively conductor, to achieve standards of individual brilliance and the most disciplined, cohesive ensemble that surpass their dreams.

The National Youth Orchestra has in the past introduced New Zealand to some very interesting conductors with proven gifts in inspiring young musicians, some established, Benjamin Zander and Paul Daniel for example, some fast-rising like Yannick Nézet-Séguin. From this concert, it would seem very clear that in Benjamin Northey the orchestra has found a worthy successor to the best of them.

 

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