NZSO NYO 2011 – “Tomorrow’s Sounds” already heart-warming strains

NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2011

James Judd (conductor)

with Cameron Carpenter (organ)

ALEXANDRA HAY – An Atlas of Unfixed Stars

SAMUEL BARBER – Toccata Festiva Op.3

SERGEI RACHMANINOV – Symphony No.2 in E Minor Op.27

Wellington Town Hall Friday  August 2nd

Auckland Town Hall Saturday August 3rd

Watching those beautiful, youthful faces totally engrossed in and engaged by the music-making throughout the 2011 NZSO National Youth Orchestra’s Wellington concert on Friday evening, I found myself briefly imagining I had become a camera, and was able to capture for posterity those precious images of  “golden lads and girls” revelling in an evening’s unique moment in time. I suspect that it was all enhanced by the venue – Wellington’s Town Hall has for orchestral concerts a natural immediacy of interaction between the players and their audience, but on this occasion the lines of communication between the groups hummed and buzzed to saturation-point excitement! However inspirational I’ve found previous National Youth Orchestra concerts held in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre to have been, I don’t recall a more thrilling, involving and interactive bevy of performances than those we were given by these almost scarily talented youngsters under the direction of their inspirational maestro James Judd.

The concert as a whole was, I thought, a somewhat quirky affair in places, with the showcasing of the youthful orchestra’s corporate and individual talents unaccountably diluted by the antics of the guest soloist, virtuoso American organist Cameron Carpenter. True, his playing of the solo organ part in Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva was jaw-dropping in its virtuosity, especially the pedal-only cadenza towards the end of the work. But (perhaps curmudgeonly) I felt other aspects of his contribution to the concert were too self-vehicular in this context – they took the focus away from what I was given to understand the concert was supposed to be celebrating, the coming-together of the country’s finest young musicians to demonstrate THEIR performance skills. To be fair to Carpenter, an impressive performer as such, this may well have been what the people who decide these things at the NZSO wanted – post-Jeremy Wells and his unfortunate TV doco, it seems the attraction of flash over substance is still hanging around and about the orchestral management’s door.

It was the encore item that for me was the rub – to have Carpenter and his colourfully entertaining irruption of performer-pizzaz in the context of a larger group’s activities was one thing, but to then allow him a substantial encore slot which seemed merely to draw attention to the player and his instrument seemed somewhat off-centre. What I would have enjoyed was for Carpenter to have prepared something that had involved the orchestra or a group of players – but, unaccountably, his solo performance meant that the focus was on him and his instrument to the exclusion of the young musicians. Yes, he did acknowledge (in a brief but eloquent post-performance speech) that his work with the group for the concert had been a real “buzz” for him – and maybe, unlike myself and one or two people I spoke with at the interval, the young musicians felt no such qualms over his activities in the concert.

I found it ironic, therefore, that the encore itself was such a hit-and-miss realization of the music. This seemed a pity, in light of Carpenter’s avowed respect for Franz Liszt as a composer,  which his spoken introduction to the work made clear. His transcription for the organ of the work in question, Funerailles, from the set of “Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses” for solo piano, did the music few favours, the instrument simply unable to command the coloristic resonances that give the original composition its striking power in both the opening slow and rapid concluding march sections. Carpenter’s realization did bring out the lyricism of the piece’s central section, especially the consoling major-key episode – even if, in places, the chirpy staccato tones reminded me of Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” – but with the onset of the bigger, more resonant chordings an unfortunate stuttering staccato was the result, with the lack of pianistic nuance and colour giving the themes a blatancy avoided by the original. More weight in the bass did help the player bring off the last couple of pages with a real hiss and a roar, again courting vulgarity (a common criticism of the composer’s music per se, but in this case, I feel, quite undeserved).

But back to the concert proper (protesteth this reviewer too much?) – which began with a work by the orchestra’s 2011 composer-in-residence, Alexandra Hay. With a biographical note about the composer in the program came the following sentence: “Her work often explores processes of gradual transformation: the unfolding of figures, timbres and resonances that converge and disperse.” And thus it was with Hay’s work, here – An Atlas of Unfixed Stars. Pointillistic notes, near-notes and sounds began for us what seemed like a journey through realms of ever-growing awareness, the notes becoming oscillations, the near-notes forming clusters and the sounds ringing the changes through breathings, scrapings and fidgettings. And so the aural detail continued its agglomerations, catching all of us up in spaces beneath “that inverted bowl we call the sky” watching with our ears the stars and their adjoining empty vistas, and gradually “discerning” the celestial details and their different characteristics more clearly – their oscillations, their intensities, and in a few cases their actual movements. The music intensified the hues, textures and incidences, so that we listeners/watchers were increasingly caught up in the display, our involvement adding an extra dimension to the spatial elements of the sounds, the immediacy for us of some figures and resonances set against the relative distancing of others. I found myself a captive listener/spectator at an early stage of the piece, admiring the composer’s adroit handling of detail within an extended structure, and the youthful players’ confident-sounding realization of it all.

Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva was new to me, but readily made an impact with rousing orchestral textures and energetic rhythms, the players revelling in the instrumental writing – in fact I thought the marvellously virile opening had more than a touch of the cinema about it, as if it were the on-screen prelude to a filmed Greek or Roman tragedy. In almost no time at all the organ trumpeted spectacularly in soon afterwards, anxious not to be overshadowed, the playing almost maniacally virtuosic. A long, lyrical theme, divided up by the soloist as well as sections of the orchestra added to the music’s variety, which incorporated a kind of struggle for dominance between the different characters, resolved by the organ’s amazing pedals-only cadenza (the soloist hanging onto the organ stool with both hands for dear life while pumping his legs like a stage-winner in the Tour de France, creating an overwhelming sonic effect). The cynic might well quote Shakespeare’s “full of sound and fury – signifying nothing” in response to the work, but I enjoyed its spectacular peregrinations enormously.

An interval’s grace allowed us to catch our collective breath in preparation for hearing one of Rachmaninov’s biggest and grandest works, the Second Symphony in E Minor. Over the years belittled by “fashion-conscious” detractors of the music, and until comparatively recently performed with grievous cuts sanctioned by the chronically self-critical composer, the work’s stature was here suitably and convincingly vindicated, given complete and with the utmost conviction and intensity by conductor and players.

Had Rachmaninov’s First Symphony not been so systematically savaged by its critics at the work’s premiere, the composer’s subsequent works may well have explored even more adventurous and individual pathways – hypotheses such as this are, of course, the absorbing and unanswered might-have-beens of musical history. Though he destroyed the earlier score (it was eventually retrieved via a set of the orchestral parts, after the composer’s death), Rachmaninov (perhaps subconsciously) acknowledged and ratified the youthful work by calling the new symphony his “No.2”. It has all the recognized Rachmaninovian hallmarks – lyricism, melancholy, ceremony, brilliance and drama – and the restoration of all the cuts gives the work an epic feeling, in places ritualistic, in others intensely ruminative. Schumann’s description of Schubert’s “heavenly length” in the latter’s “Great” C Major Symphony for me applies as well here to Rachmaninov’s work of seemingly endless melody.

The young players gave the work exactly what it needed to succeed, truckloads of energy and passionate commitment, put across with astonishing executant skills. No quarter was given, no allowance made for the group’s relative inexperience or brevity of rehearsal time – James Judd directed his young charges with intensity and drive that surprised and delighted me, as I’d occasionally found his conducting too “fussy” and lightweight during his tenure with the NZSO. Naturally, there were places where ensemble didn’t quite come together; and I thought the players distinctly ran out of a bit of “puff” in the finale until their second wind kicked in towards the end. But there was no doubting the musicians’ commitment to the task, both individually and corporately – and as a result, the music’s full stature was triumphantly realized.

In particular, the string playing – crucial to this work’s success – was the stuff of dreams, by turns richly-wrought and finely nuanced, with the occasional stylish portamento giving the heartstrings an extra tug. In circumstances such as these, the different strands weren’t over-moulded, to the music’s advantage, I thought, the characteristic instrumental timbres allowed their particular accents and colours, which brought out the earthy Russian-ness of the sound more markedly. The winds had much the same attractive individual piquancies, with the clarinettist a confident and sensitive soloist in the third movement (an elongated beat at one point scarcely interrupting the flow). The brasses had tricky syncopations to content with in places, but they registered many more thrills than spills, and were there in glorious array for the big moments, as were the percussion, enjoying their more delicate scintillations and ripping into the big moments with gusto (I noticed a nearby audience member, startled by the timpanist’s precipitate entry at one point, was ready for the next onslaught when it came – no circumspection or half-measures here, but instead, a very exciting and appropriately full-blooded sound.

It adds up to yet another successful and heart-warming occasion generated by efforts of the NZSO in helping to proclaim the skills of our young musicians – and (briefly returning to my opening theme) how wonderful it would be to have some of that youthful beauty of concentration, engagement and sheer joy in music-making caught on film – the “golden lads and girls” of our own musical world, indeed!

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