National Youth Orchestra in brilliant form

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (Vaughan Williams), Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (Stravinsky), The Chairman Dances (Adams), Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninov)

NZSO National Youth Orchestra conducted by Rossen Milanov with Jason Bae (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 26 August, 7.30pm

The habit of reviewers reporting, in mock wonderment, that the concert by the current incarnation of the National Youth Orchestra has offered the most exciting and committed symphony concert of the year, or decade, has become traditional, almost a ritual. Such claims are made in all good faith and in the hope of being seen as friends of the young and apostles of hope that the mature population will follow the lead of youth.

To do otherwise is very difficult, especially when the facts obviously favour the tradition. Especially this time; for not only was this perhaps the most uniformly talented body of musicians that the orchestra has gathered together, their ages ranging from 12 to 24, but it was also guided by a conductor with a gift for inspiring his players with some kind of rare and profound spirit, and drawing from them revelatory and polished performances.

Fast-rising Bulgarian-born conductor, Rossen Milanov, had devised a slightly eccentric programme, yet one which I had imagined might have filled the Michael Fowler Centre. I am clearly not a good judge of the tastes of most of my fellow citizens, however, for the MFC was more poorly inhabited than I can remember for some years. Though I gathered later that it might have been flaws in the seat booking system.

Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis opened: it was a deeply reverent, delicate account that let us hear how the limited body of strings could play with a refinement and subtlety that one hardly expects from youth. The performance steered between an overtly English pastoral style and an overdressed metaphysical expression in a Germanic tradition. Punctuated early on by an unrestrained cough in the audience, it evoked the dim light of a medieval cathedral, its long polyphonic melody soon given substance by a gentle rhythm and harmonies that respected its origins.

The orchestra’s arrangement was interesting, reflecting baroque practice. The chamber sized ripieno ensemble was in a tight semi-circular phalanx at the front while the concertino of nine strings was spread out across the rear of the orchestral terraces; affording visual support to the arresting aural effect, which was to lend the small group a remote air, especially when playing with mutes, rather than giving prominence to such a solo-like group. In addition, the quartet of string principals played the beautiful prayer-like passage with a maturity and commitment that was typical of the entire concert.

The plan to give strings and winds distinct exposure in the first half might have been an ingenious one, with the first piece for strings alone and the second for winds and percussion; but the choice of Stravinsky’s piano concerto was unfortunate. It might well be the only work that features the piano with a wind band (though there are also six double basses and timpani), but it is a particularly tough and somewhat abrasive example of the composer’s neo-classical style. The brass players, mainly the horns and trombones, did not cope well at the start, though trumpets soon restored an equilibrium. Such a piece has to be played with tremendous musicality and accuracy, making musical what can otherwise sound chaotic. 

Pianist Jason Bae, an 18-year-old Korean studying at Auckland University, proved a remarkable executant, coping brilliantly with Stravinsky as if he had been living with this music happily for years. After the troublesome start, woodwinds were more successful in managing the tortuous rhythmic and harmonic hurdles.

The full orchestra came successfully together in the second half. John Adams’s The Chairman Dances, commonly thought to be drawn from his opera, Nixon in China, was not incorporated in it, but the association remains pertinent. It is a mesmeric piece that has its detractors, possibly among those who cannot accept that a 1980s piece can actually be, or alternatively, has any right to be, listenable.

It is a latter-day Bolero in its repetitiveness, in the way it slowly accelerates and increases in orchestral complexity and density. For me, this was a performance of huge delight, brilliant in every department, filled with virtuosic playing, colour, and infectious rhythms. The performance had every appearance of being huge fun for the orchestra.

Finally came the piece that I would have thought might have had the greatest pulling power: Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. It had the stamp of a full-scale professional performance, by an orchestra fired up by a really gifted conductor.

It was an inspired choice, offering evidence of the orchestra’s mastery of biting staccato attacks, of spacious, long-breathed melodic lines, of moments of relaxation; and throughout, opportunities to hear some of the orchestra’s most conspicuously gifted players: the alto saxophone and the bass clarinet, the piano, the oboes and bassoons, the horns. The first movement has a particularly gorgeous passage where first violins and cellos lead other sections, not in any ordinary musical sequence, but heart-stopping, rapturous and eloquent.

In the waltz-tempo second movement, the sour, muted trumpets set the scene, another angle on Ravel’s ironic vision in La Valse. Here we heard a lovely solo from concertmaster Jessica Alloway, and later the big viola section – equal in numbers to the second violins – picked up the waltz tune darkly, capturing its sinister voluptuousness as if these young people had seen a lot more of the dark side of human nature than one hopes they have.

Here, as everywhere in the concert, one’s eyes, as well as ears, were transfixed by the conductor’s balletic performance on the podium; often, such movement can be more self-serving than musically useful, but Milanov is the real thing: a conductor whose gestures and foot-work seem to be intrinsic to the dynamic totality of music in live performance.

More percussion emerged in the edgy finale, hinting at a witches’ Sabbath, Berlioz or Liszt – tubular bells, eerie flourishes from clarinets and flutes, and Ravel again – La Valse, the Concerto for the Left Hand – in the jazzy rhythms, the skeletal clatter of the xylophone in its treatment of the Dies Irae. For those who didn’t know the piece, there could have been no more stunning introduction to one of Rachmaninov’s masterpieces.

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