Fine touring youth orchestra from California victim of certain difficulties

Ravel: La Valse
Copland: Clarinet Concerto
Billy the Kid Ballet Suite
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier Suite

California Youth Symphony conducted by Leo Eylar, with Jeffrey Liu (clarinet)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

There were a number of unfortunate features to this concert: it was not well advertised, and I suspect that thus, the audience was mainly made up of members of the Cathedral congregation, and parents and supporters travelling with the orchestra.

Secondly, the leaflet about the Cathedral’s Winter Festival of Music gave the starting time as 7.30pm.  When I got there at 7.20pm the concert had already started; in fact the Ravel item had finished.  It began at 7pm.  Yet most of the audience was already in place, which confirmed to me that they were mainly people ‘in the know’.  The Cathedral was less than half-full.

Finally, there is the difficulty with the Cathedral’s acoustics (once described by a Wellington singer as ‘bathroom acoustics’!)   The sound was surprisingly good in softer passages, but once this large orchestra hit forte, let alone double-forte, the noise was almost deafening, with no definition of sound; the various parts of the orchestra could seldom be heard distinctly.

While a chamber orchestra, particularly if playing baroque music, can be heard tolerably well here, it is no place for a very large orchestra, especially if they have little time to adjust to the acoustic.

It was generous of the orchestra to donate proceeds of the concert to the Christchurch Earthquake Relief Fund; they know about earthquakes in California.  This was an orchestra of 111 players; surprisingly, over three-quarters of the members were of Chinese or Korean ethnicity.

Given the date, it was understandable that Copland featured twice on the programme.  The clarinet concerto is a very effective work, with many virtuoso passages for the soloist, who was an outstanding performer.  The reverberation was a bit of a problem in fast solo passages, but otherwise was not as much of a concern as had I expected.  The orchestra sounded very fine, and lush in places.  The piano is used quite extensively, and, as part of the orchestra, spoke clearly enough (which is not the case with solo piano in this building).

The music was jazzy in places; it was an absorbing and enjoyable work, given an accomplished performance, especially by the soloist.

The conductor spoke to the audience in the interval about Aaron Copland (1900-1990), but much of it was inaudible, except perhaps to the people in the front few rows.

The story of the Copland ballet follows the life of the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid. The suite takes music of the ballet.  It begins by depicting pioneers trekking westward. The action shifts to a small frontier town, where young Billy and his mother are present. Billy’s mother is killed by an outlaw; Billy kills the murderer, and goes on the run.

The scene then shifts to Billy living as an outlaw in the desert. He is captured (the gun battle is featured in the music by percussion effects) and taken to jail, but manages to escape after stealing a gun from the warden during a game of cards. Returning to his hideout, Billy thinks he is safe, but eventually he is caught and killed. The music ends with the opening prairie theme, with pioneers once again travelling west.

The playing was always exciting, especially that of the brass section, but they particularly were rather mangled by the acoustic, especially when joined by the percussion; the timpani reverberated on the floor and from the pillars to an excessive degree. The strings gave a marvellously smooth and projected timbre.

The Strauss work (one played far too frequently on RNZ Concert) acquired very little precision, and became a jumble – not the players’ fault.  Wind solos got lost.  Nevertheless, when one could hear them separately, all the sections played well.  As far as I could tell, they were accurate, and phrased well.

At times it became an endurance test in the loud passages.  The famous waltz fared better, being for strings alone, with a modicum only of brass and woodwind in places.  The violin solo for the concertmaster was very fine.  However, the final iteration of the waltz came over as far too loud.

As an encore, the orchestra let it rip with Sousa’s famous march Stars and Stripes for Ever.

This is a splendid orchestra, but it needs to be heard in the acoustics of a normal concert hall to be fully enjoyed.

(Details on Billy the Kid from Wikipedia).



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