Splendid concert from the summer sessions of the National Youth Orchestra

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra National Youth Orchestra

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Op.61
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto no.1 in E flat, Op.107 (allegretto, moderato, cadenza, allegro con moto)
Gluck: Iphigénie en Aulide Overture
Stravinsky: Suite from Pulcinella

NZSO National Youth Orchestra (concertmaster, Hilary Hayes), conducted by Tecwyn Evans, with Santiago Cañón Valencia (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 17 February 2012, 6.30pm

Friday night’s splendid concert began with a work by a suitably youthful composer; Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he wrote the well-known music for Shakespeare’s play (well beloved of Radio New Zealand Concert).   It was good, too, to have youthful New Zealand-born conductor at the helm – even if sartorially, he did not match the orchestra members.

This was a new venture, to bring together the Youth Orchestra in the summer, in addition to their usual early spring session.   However, it was not the full orchestra, but consisted of 52 players.  The small orchestra, as a friend pointed out, doesn’t give the same breadth and depth of sound as we are used to from the National Youth Orchestra.  That said, it was appropriate to have a smaller orchestra for the Stravinsky and Shostakovich works.

Mendelssohn’s music is wonderfully ethereal.  In 2002 I attended a ballet in Budapest that was a dance version of the Shakespeare play; the music was Mendelssohn’s, including his Italian symphony, which is very much in a similar mood to the Midsummer Night’s Dream music.  The dance really gave the work life – since we never hear it performed with the play.

The woodwind sections came through well in this performance, while the brass were excellent.  There was good variation of dynamics, but not quite that smooth, satin sound one hopes for from the strings; they played well, nevertheless.  In the passages that seem to evoke the fairies, the playing was appropriately unearthly in effect.  Those for violins alone were well unified, while the timpani provided strong support.

This was a generally fine performance.

Shostakovich’s music dwells in a completely different sound world, and inhabits a much darker, more sombre  milieu.  It was quite amazing to find a 16-year-old playing such music, without the score, and with complete accuracy and complete confidence.  It was scored for chamber orchestra, as was the later Stravinsky work; there would not be too many other 20th century works so scored.

Young Colombian cellist Santiago Cañón Valencia is studying at the University of Waikato, because his mother learned cello from James Tennant who now teaches there.

Shostakovich opens with the cello alone intoning a theme the composer uses elsewhere in his œvre: the notes B-A-C-H (in German notation; in ours, B flat, A, C, B), doubtless proclaiming his admiration for that composer.  I find the repetition of this motif too incessant for my taste.  The cello is soon joined by the winds; especially prominent are bassoons and oboes, all playing impeccably.

To regain the upper hand, the solo part soon goes to the upper register,  way down on the finger-board.  The sole horn enters with the Bach theme; later, he has important interplay with the cellist, which young player Sung Soo Hong managed pretty well, despite one or two fluffs. The cello soloist has little respite from constant playing in this spiky first movement, referred to in the programme notes as ‘especially sardonic’.

A great contrast comes with the smooth opening of the slow movement.  The horn got briefly getting out of kilter, but his very exposed part was played splendidly on the whole, and he showed great control of dynamics.

The soloist introduced a beautiful, rather sad theme with minimum accompaniment – violas, and pizzicato on cellos and basses.  A marvellous clarinet solo entered, counterpointing the cello part.  Muted strings arrived, giving the soloist a rest as they played a sombre variation on his theme.

Then the solo cello entered again with a high, mellifluous melody, which Valencia played quite beautifully.  Another solo was accompanied by clarinet and bassoons.  At all times Valencia appeared the consummate artist – accuracy, dynamics, expression were all of a high order, belying his youth.

Here was fine horn playing, and delicate phrases on the celeste advancing the sudden ethereal quality of the soloist playing harmonics, while the violins wander quietly in Never-Never Land, until the movement tailed off to nothing.

Almost without a break, a protracted grave melody from the soloist introduced the third movement ‘Cadenza’, which was entirely cello solo.  Valencia employed left-hand pizzicato and simultaneous two-strings pizzicato.  Bravura playing emerged: up and down the finger-board, before the orchestra came in with some trenchant chords then the woodwinds had their moments of acrobatic glory, all heralding the allegro final movement.  The soloist gave us a sort of perpetuum mobile while the other sounds cascaded around him.

The playing was electric, but always with gorgeous tone.  Back to Bach, with the familiar motif, played on winds as well as on the cello, with the accompaniment as at the opening of the work.

This was a splendid performance, and after enthusiastic recognition by the audience, Valencia played as an encore a slow movement from Bach’s sixth cello suite, very skilfully and soulfully.

Following the interval, we went back in time to an operatic overture by Gluck (with an ending arranged by Wagner).  The slow opening befitted the serious, classical subject.  Throughout the work there are lovely contrasts between the concerted passages and the delicate filigree on the strings.

There was a clear, fine sound from the strings; they were absolutely together and accurate.   The overture  was very attractively played.  I couldn’t pick the Wagner ending particularly, although the sound was certainly bigger at the end than it had been at the beginning.

Stravinsky’s attractive and highly entertaining Pulcinella suite was the last item on the programme.  Delightful, charming and colourful are all appropriate descriptions of this suite of eight pieces from the ballet music the composer wrote for Diaghilev, based on music of the early eighteenth-century composer, Pergolesi.  The orchestra was slightly reduced for this work.

The opening Sinfonia set the mood of the neo-classical style, with some wonderfully grunty sounds from the violins and winds, and solo work for the concertmaster, extremely well executed.  The Serenata that followed featured excellent oboe playing with splendid tone, from Hazel Nissen.  After the third movement (Scherzino – Allegro – Andantino) came the rapid, animated Tarantella, which featured more solo playing from the concertmaster, Hilary Hayes, with bassoon accompaniment.

‘Toccata’ gave opportunity for the brass and woodwind sections to show their skills, the piccolo being a particular feature, while the Gavotta that followed used all the orchestral colours, the second variation being for woodwind entirely.  The Vivo movement was fun to hear – and probably also to play, requiring lots of energy.  It was a good movement for the double basses to demonstrate their skills.

The Minuetto – Finale began languidly, then the string quartet of the section leaders with winds played elegantly with winds.  A great trombone solo followed, the finale bringing the work to an exciting conclusion.

The performance was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the audience, and the conductor ensured that every section had its turn in the limelight of applause, but there was special attention for the leaders of sections, and especially the superb trombonist, Joseph Thomas.

It is marvellous to witness the highly skilled, confident playing of the young people; it augurs well for the future of orchestral music in this country, as well developing audiences.  Not only were the ‘regulars’ at symphony concerts there (on a free ticket if they were NZSO subscribers), but also the families and friends of the performers, who may not be regulars.

Tecwyn Evans appeared to guide everything carefully, ensuring entries were signalled, but in an undemonstrative style.  He can feel as pleased as the audience was with the outcome of his efforts.

I feel compelled to say something about the printed programme.  Surely print designers must say to themselves “Who is going to read this, and in what circumstances?”  Given that the majority of the audience would have been over the age of 55, this was not a user-friendly piece of printing, with design appearing to take precedence over practicality.

Why did some composers’ photos need to have half their faces rendered green?   Why was the typeface of some pages (not all) so peculiar – a font I have never seen before, that appeared unevenly inked.   The notes for the Stravinsky work (or Stravinky, as it appeared in one paragraph) seemed less well proof-read than the others and were very difficult to read, even in broad daylight the next day, let alone in the dim light of the concert hall.  The inking of the minims (upright strokes) was less than for the round letters, giving a most peculiar appearance. The lower case ‘g’ seemed to stand out everywhere on the pages with this font, as though it were more inked than other letters – which it was, being composed of two circles.  In the semi-dark of the concert hall, these pages looked as though they were printed in Hebrew!  Punctuation marks were practically invisible.

Other pages were printed in a slightly more readable sans-serif font.  Tests have shown that such fonts are not as readable as fonts with serifs, since the latter help to carry the eye forward.  In the United Kingdom, the Arts Council has for years required promoters of concerts receiving funding from it, to provide large-type programmes for sight-impaired people.  I am not sight-impaired, but would be relieved to have programmes that can be more easily read.  In addition, there were places where white print was over a light background, or a photograph, where it became virtually unreadable.  My colleague says he wishes ‘they would stop overlaying letterpress on pictures and design features. The two elements should be kept apart.  It’s a tiresome fashion that a respectable organisation should be able to resist’.



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