NZSO National Youth Orchestra 50th Anniversary


50th Anniversary Tour, July 2009

Paul Daniel (conductor)

John Chen (piano)

NZSO National Youth Orchestra

NATALIE HUNT – Only to the Highest Mountain

RAVEL – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

MAHLER – Symphony No.7

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,  Saturday 4th July (also Christchurch, Wednesday 8th July, and Auckland Friday 19th July)

This concert marked an historic occasion for the NZSO Youth Orchestra, 2009 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Youth Orchestra’s conception, thanks to the vision, energy, skill and commitment of the newly-appointed Principal Conductor of the National Orchestra, John Hopkins, who put his dream of forming a nation-wide orchestra for promising young players into action in 1959 with concerts in Lower Hutt and Wellington, in September of that year. Their programme included a Handel Overture, Delius’s “Walk to the Paradise Garden”, the Beethoven First Symphony, Mendelssohn’s ubiquitous Violin Concerto, and Glinka’s Polonaise from “A Life for the Czar”. Fifty years later, the same orchestra was programming the Mahler Seventh Symphony, an indication of the enormous technical and interpretative advances made in the interim by the country’s young musicians, such an undertaking being of an order that would have daunted the National Orchestra of half-a-century ago, let alone their newly-formed youthful counterparts.

Before the concert began, a former member of the orchestra, violinist Wilma Smith, talked with the audience, and to everybody’s delight introduced the same John Hopkins, over from Australia for the anniversary, now in his eighties, but with the same boyish grin and bright piercing eyes, ascending the podium and waving to the audience, acknowledging the plaudits pouring in from all sides – a pity that the flowers arrived so quickly that he didn’t get the chance to have the microphone put into his hands for a few words (he managed a “Thank you very much!” as he left the stage, again to great applause, shaking hands with a few of the youthful musicians who were now coming onto the platform to begin the concert). I would imagine that he had plenty of other opportunities to speak at the various functions planned for the celebrations, but I still would have liked to hear a couple of his verbatim thoughts at the occasion of the concert.

Paul Daniel, the latest of a series of NYO guest conductors with an impressive performing pedigree, took the podium, and with little further ado set in motion the first item, composer-in-residence Natalie Hunt’s “Only to the Highest Mountain”. At a mere five minutes’ duration, the composer set herself very little time to make an impression and get the salient points of her work across to the listeners; but from the beginning the arresting, bird-like calls of the antiphonally-placed oboe and cor anglais were able to coax our sensibilities towards and into a kind of nature-ambience suggesting maritime influences, subaqueous rumblings and light-shafts of wind and brass tone interacting with string ostinati whose oceanic figurations played a part in defining the music’s origins. I was able to talk briefly with the composer after the concert and she confirmed the references to the sea, with the weaving of undulating rhythms and textures into the music, in a way that occasionally reminded me of Sibelius’s music for “The Tempest”. What the music lacked in breadth it made up for in sheer atmosphere and focus, with occasionally daring effects such as the shaking by string players of sheets of their music to create a rustling effect. And there’s something proverbial about that kind of circumstance, about saying what one has to say, succinctly and to the point and then stopping, to telling effect…..

Somebody who had a similar penchant for economy was Ravel, whose Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was also featured in the concert, the solo part played with a stunning amalgam of élan and sensitivity by John Chen, supported to the hilt by the orchestra under Paul Daniel. The performance brought out all the music’s unities and contrasts, from the very opening’s “slumbering giant” orchestral ambiences to the pianist’s absolutely electrifying entry, capped off by a gravity-defying upward flourish, again setting the tumultuous orchestral tutti that followed in bold relief. Some marvellous moments – the limpid beauty of the pianist’s playing, and soulful bassoon and cor anglais solos, characteristic of the orchestra’s individual instrumental contributions work – testified to the all-round excellence of the performers, even if the build-up to the swaggering march mid-work lacked the sheer weight that professional players would have been able to summon at that point. No reservations about the wealth of detailing from individual players and sections during the march itself, or the energy and incisiveness of John Chen’s marvellous playing (scintillating repeated-note cascades from soloist and orchestra at one point, and complete control over the music’s character-changes to filigree scamperings, wind solos following suit). In between these episodes, the march gathered terrific momentum of an almost barbaric splendour, again with colourful detailing from the winds, beginning with the bassoon, and building up to the full orchestra most resplendently. The grandly ritualized final few pages of the work again go back to what seem like primordial beginnings with the piano musing in its lowest registers,  reawakening those same instruments that began the work, and eventually goading them into shouts of triumph towards an emphatic, non-nonsense ending of a colourful concerto.

Thus far in the concert the focus had been on either the composer (Natalie Hunt with her work “Only to the Highest Mountain”), or the soloist (John Chen in the Ravel Left-Hand Concerto). Now, with the major work of the evening, the Mahler Seventh Symphony, it was the turn of conductor Paul Daniel and the orchestra to take centre-stage, which they did with a vengeance. The Symphony is Mahler’s second-longest, one of those works which, after you’ve experiences a performance you can’t remember what the world was really like when you began it. It’s an extraordinary work, with two long and demanding outer movements, flanking three “character” pieces, two of which are called “Nachtmusik” by the composer, in between which is a spooky Scherzo.

Right from the beginning, orchestra and conductor showed their mettle, everybody digging into the grim opening utterances with gusto, the tenor horn solo played with extraordinary virtuosity and characterful point by Luke Christiansen.  Paul Daniel encouraged string playing of the utmost conviction and commitment at a pace that allowed a sense of something gathering momentum and purpose, the allegro creating the necessary “flailing” effect without rushing. In fact all through the first movement the tempi seemed beautifully judged, allowing the players technical and expressive room in which to pour their very beings in what sounded and felt like a most satisfying way. Though the orchestra lacked tonal weight in places, the “lean and hungry” impression this created actually worked to the music’s advantage, as the textures never sounded overblown and bloated, always realizing the composer’s tremendous variety of timbral incident, and registering the character of each mood-change, such as the typically “far from the madding crowd” episode in the first movement, nostalgic brass fanfares helping to bring about what seemed like a transformed world for a few moments, the abyss temporarily forgotten (though not very far away), the chamber-like scoring for winds and brass (including the four-note-quote from the Dvorak ‘Cello Concerto, which I always enjoy) leading via a sweeping harp glissando to the big string tune which, for a short while, allows the music to wear its heart on its sleeve. The return of the “grim reaper” opening featured a scalp-prickling confrontation between trombone and tenor horn, creating a great, black sound, the brass like stone-giants confronting one another across glacial valleys. The players gave the dotted-rhythm motive extra juice, aided by the timpani, as the music gathered momentum, through a brief backward-looking hiatus and into the movement’s final pages, the excitement generated being too much for the conductor’s baton which escaped its owner’s grip and flew spectacularly through the air a few bars before the end, landing among the brasses, who never missed a beat, driving home the music’s abrupt conclusion, and only then relaying the errant stick back to its owner (to the delight and amusement of the audience).

Mahler’s scheme for this symphony comprised an epic first movement, followed by three “mood-pieces” two of which the composer named “Nachtmusik” (though he could well have given the middle Scherzo the same title), and a concluding finale which is as festive, energetic and joyous as the first movement is grim, dark and wild. Nachtmusik I is a purple-hued processional through evocative gloamings, containing both naturalistic and stylized elements, the rhythms mostly slow-march, but with occasionally dance-like episodes, pastoral allusions (cowbells and hunting-horns) and irruptions like the timpani’s sudden forceful reiteration of the basic rhythm near the beginning. The young players made the most of their opportunities throughout, though the swift tempo adopted by Daniels meant that some detail (for example the eerie bouncing of bows on strings) for me flowed too quickly to properly register, and a couple of the rhythmic dovetailings towards the movement’s end became scrambled as the players strove to keep up instead of deliciously fitting their voices in with the others – still, if a bit breathless in places, the phantasmagorical processional aspect was vividly conveyed by all concerned. And one really must put in a special word for the horns in this movement, their call-and echo sequences at the beginning, and in other places, beautifully played.

The scherzo that followed is probably Mahler’s most “haunted” symphonic movement, with the fantastic element very much to the fore in an ironically-expressed manner. The strings have a great deal to do throughout, and the NYO players gave it everything they had, with plenty of “schwung” to the phrasing, their lurching aspect perfectly matched by the tuba’s elephantine comments and the solo viola’s personal “danse macabre”. Despite somebody in the orchestra dropping something noisily in the middle of a “tuba dreams” sequence, the ambience was maintained unbroken, with the brass anticipating the composer’s Ninth Symphony Scherzo at one point, joining in with the waltz-tempo towards the end in a suitably riotous fashion. Great though the playing was throughout the movement, I thought the second “Nachtmusik” which followed even more special, with Ben Morrison’s juicy opening violin solo and the tender voicings of guitar and mandolin setting the scene for some lovely things to follow – a gorgeous horn solo making the most of the first appearance of the movement’s “big tune”, then matched by the violins, Paul Daniel encouraging them to give the melody all the juices they could muster, with goosebump-making results.

If the finale wasn’t quite at this level of execution, it was partly due to the music’s sheer difficulty , and partly because Paul Daniel’s interpretation was so volatile, an approach which took no prisoners and “fronted up large” to the score’s every variation of tempo, dynamics, colour and nuance – you could say, to the point where the music’s through-line felt obscured by detail. I would imagine the conductor wouldn’t have wanted such a large musical structure to “sag” at any point, with tempi that may have given the players more time to breathe, but could have easily resulted in plodding. It was certainly a vividly-conceived viewpoint, and undoubtedly a challenge for the orchestra but even so, it seemed to me to put the emphasis for these young players overtly on the music’s technical demands at the expense of the work’s overall coherence as a symphony. The brass, who’d played so well throughout, were under real pressure in places, and had a few uncharacteristically uncomfortable moments with their gleaming fanfare-like statements that pop up along the music’s course, though they did really well in other places, for instance over the top of the strings’ fugato-like scamperings (so reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony’s finale), while front-desk strings and wind beautifully pointed their chamber-like sequences a little later, underlining Mahler’s skill at creating diaphanous textures from such large forces. This is to perhaps cavil unnecessarily – generally, the challenges that Daniel’s approach set for the young players were triumphantly met, with the thrills matching and eventually supplanting the spills, the symphony’s last few pages raising the roof and the temperatures of all concerned.

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