Youthful brilliance from the NZSO National Youth Orchestra

NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Summer Concert 2013

ARNOLD – Brass Quintet No.1 Op.73 / BALLARD – frisson (world premiere)

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade Op.7 / GRIEG – Two Norwegian Airs Op.63

BRAHMS – Symphony No.2 in D Major Op.73

NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Conductor (Brahms) :  Kenneth Young

Town Hall, Wellington

Friday 8th February 2013

Called a “Summer Residency Concert”, this NZSO National Youth Orchestra presentation most effectively highlighted the skills of some of the country’s top youthful musicians.

This was done by allocating works featuring the orchestra’s different sections to make up the concert’s first half. Following this, the whole orchestra came together to perform Brahms’ genial and much-loved Second Symphony.

The idea looked good on paper, and worked, I thought, marvellously in practice, thanks in part to the judicious programming.  In each of the pieces, the young musicians tackled the specific challenges fearlessly – in fact, I found the results astonishing as regards the virtuosity and musicality of the orchestral playing.

At this point I ought to apologise for what might seem a lengthy review to follow – but I want to try and do these young players’ efforts suitable justice by discussing just what I thought it was that made this concert such a special event.

First up were the brass players, five of whom presented themselves on the platform to take on Malcolm Arnold’s First Brass Quintet, written in 1973.

Arnold himself was a brass player who, in his youth, desperately wanted to play like jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong.  Perhaps he didn’t quite achieve this aim, but he was certainly a good enough musician to win places in both the London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestras in the post-WW2 years. Eventually he gave up full-time playing in order to compose.

A complex personality, dogged throughout his life by profound depression,  Arnold wrote a wide range of music, some of which did confront his demons – though much of his output turned its back on his life’s darker aspects, and resulted in a number of exhilarating and accessible works , as is the case with this piece, though the second of the work’s three movements did cast some shadows.

The Quintet, written in 1961 ideally demonstrated the technical virtuosity of these NYO players – two trumpeters, a horn-, trombone- and tuba-player. The “game of chase” opening movement delighted us with absolutely scintillating trumpet work at the outset, galumphing rhythms throughout and swirling fanfares at the end. The middle movement, a Chaconne, brought out a more serious, even occasionally menacing mood, with tragic sequences calling to my mind parts of the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, along with similar echoes of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary.

But the con brio finale swept the skies clear of these clouds, Arnold bending his opening melody by throwing in occasional characteristic grace-notes, and writing irreverent glissandi for individual instruments wanting to “bale-out” of the toccata-like figurations. Everything went with a swing,  the players maintaining both intonation and ensemble with remarkable poise and touching in moments of real brilliance throughout the work.

Next was a world premiere performance of Sarah Ballard’s frisson, a work written for brass and timpani. Winner of last year’s Todd Corporation Young Composer Award with a work Bitter Hill, inspired by the Pukekawa District alongside the Waikato river, Sarah Ballard’s new piece seemed a rather more abstracted, cerebral affair. Ballard acknowledged the influence of the late Elliot Carter with this work, in particular the spectacular timpani solo that opened the piece in flamboyant style, the player transfixing us with the theatricality of his pop-drummer-like gestures and the boldness of the sounds produced.

The ensemble – trumpet, two trombones and timpani – produced some amazing individual and concerted sonorities, though I felt sorry for the trumpeter not having a “counterpart” to play off against, unlike the other two brass players, who were constantly setting timbre and figuration against one another to brilliant effect. As it was, both timbral and gestural effect stipulated by the composer was astonishing in its range and scope, even if I thought the trumpet line seemed isolated in places, less integrated in the argument compared with what the doppelgänger trombonists were doing! In places the trumpeter coped well with treacherous figurations, while the trombonists seemed able to “wrap” their lines around one another’s before either would detach with a peremptory gesture. So, for me, it was a work of great contrast and some tension in the “working out” – the composer got a good reception afterwards, and the comments I heard were favourable.

Onto the platform then came the wind players, ready to give us Richard Strauss’s youthful Serenade in E-flat, Op.7, a brief though enchanting work, and an assured piece of composition for an eighteen year-old. I enjoyed the performance greatly, partly because the players (unconducted) seemed less concerned with “moulding” the sounds and instrumental blends, and more with bringing out the different timbres and colours of these combinations. Having previously sat through concerts of wind ensembles with well-nigh perfect intonation throughout but singularly bland and unexciting results, I was here constantly stimulated by the ensemble’s actual “sound”. There was charm, gaiety and energy by turns, and one sensed the players’ delight in interaction, occasionally fulsomely-scored moments contrasted cheek-by-jowl with felicitous delicacies. Yes, there was the odd ill-tuned patch (which a friend, sitting near me, commented on afterwards), but I much preferred that to dull perfection, regarding the results overall as varied and characterful – so enjoyable!

It wasn’t until the string ensemble entered and began playing that I remember being struck by the “conductorless” status of the music-making – truth to tell, I had enjoyed the performance of the Strauss Wind Serenade so much I was obviously of a similar mind to the famous wind-player about whom the story is told that he was asked who the conductor was of a performance of “The Magic Flute” he had recently taken part in at Covent Garden –  to which he replied, “Don’t know – I never looked!”

Well, there may have been the odd phrase-beginning where intonation and ensemble might have benefitted from a guiding hand, but nothing which besmirched the delight and pleasure I felt at the group’s performance of almost all parts of the Grieg work chosen , which was itself something of a rarity in concert – Two Norwegian Airs, Op.63, though I knew the second of the “Airs” as “Cowkeeper’s Tune and Country Dance”, rather than the given titles in the programme of “Cow Call and Peasant Dance” (it obviously depended on which agricultural college one attended!).

I thought the ensemble was of a high standard throughout, both in terms of attack and in the flexible handling by the players of the music’s phrasings and pulse.  Grieg’s lines here sang and breathed with an unforced naturalness which I found beguiling.  Nicely-phrased lower strings gave us a beautifully wistful folk-melody, and then, augmented by the violins, playing of great delicacy, allied with command of weight and nuance – a real treat for the listener.  I enjoyed especially the upper strings’ wind-blown variation with its chromatic dying falls – in places uncannily anticipating Sibelius’s Tapiola.

The following “Cowcall” captured the same kind of rustic charm and sensitivity at the start, doing full justice to those very “northern” textures and harmonies characteristic of Grieg , contrasting the wistfulness of the opening with the more “earthy” emphases of the lower strings when they added their weight to the sound-picture. My one caveat was that I thought the following “Peasant Dance” too fast and slick-rhythmed, lacking a true “bucolic” quality – here, the players I thought needed to “dig in” a bit,  and trust more to accenting and “pointing” rather than to speed,  to give themselves space enough to properly bounce the bows on the strings near the bridge, and generally sound more like folk-fiddles.  The music seemed suddenly, throughout this section, to lose some of its character.

Still, in the light of the wonderful playing and conveyance of feeling and colour I’d heard earlier in the work, I felt as though we’d been treated to something special.

Having demonstrated their compartmented skills the players then had the opportunity to put their talents together, via a performance of the Brahms Second Symphony. Kenneth Young took the podium, and Salina Fisher (who had superbly led the strings throughout the Grieg work) swapped the concertmaster’s chair with Arna Morton, whom I’d often seen in the role, leading always with tremendous zest and intensity.

I was looking forward to Ken Young’s interpretation of the Brahms – my favourite of his symphonies –  as I very much enjoyed his work as a conductor. I liked his brisk, no-nonsense way with music, and his ability to draw from players great intensity and plenty of excitement. Very occasionally I’ve felt his work missing that last ounce of breathing-space, applying that no-nonsense quality a touch too rigorously, to the point of being a bit oppressive and lacking in repose – so here was a chance to experience what he would do with music I knew extremely well.

From the beginning the playing had a buoyancy, an “upward-thrust”, with the ends of phrases “speaking” to those that followed, and suggesting the music’s lovely, pastoral character. Though briskly-unfolded, the music wasn’t straitjacketed at the outset – I’ve never forgotten Young’s comment to the players at a rehearsal I once attended – “Don’t count it – FEEL it!”. Having said that I was in subsequent places reminded of Toscanini’s approach to this work, the first big climax passionately, almost fiercely declaimed, with plenty of onward drive, and perhaps with some of the figurations a bit unyielding, if very excitingly played.

The brasses in the development section sounded properly louring and purposeful, similarly activating the rest of the orchestra, and creating crescendi whose climaxes were like waves crashing one after another on a beach. Afterwards was a wonderful horn solo from Alexander Morton, ably supported by the strings, and characterfully riposted by the winds.

Slow movements don’t necessarily mean relaxation, and straightaway Young encouraged his players to really “dig in” and feel the intensity of this movement – very focused, impassioned ‘cellos at the beginning, more strong and vigorous rather than lyrical and warm, though the upper strings suggested some sunlight breaking through the clouds. There was another piece of lovely horn-playing, leading to heartfelt sectional exchanges, the whole having a “real and earnest” character, something of a battle for supremacy between light and dark. Finally the strings, with help from the bassoon counterpointing its way through the battlefield, managed to bring some hope, even though the shadows re-emerged near the end, with thudding timpani suggesting the abyss beneath this world’s feet. A not-quite-in-tune final chord helped suggest a slightly-out-of-sorts concluding mood.

Though it’s marked “allegretto grazioso” Young got his players to “energise” the third movement in places as if it were a true scherzo, the playing often emphasizing the music’s thrust and “spike”. Strings found ensemble with a couple of their entries precarious but they eventually came together, and their deep-throated “burgeoning” of tone in the music’s middle section made a great impression. After a stylish skip-and-jump away with the winds, the strings again touched our inner places with a “beautiful and strange” reprise of the opening theme,  put then to rights by the oboe, the sounds poised and lovely at the end.

A nicely “charged” first chord at the finale’s beginning was succeeded by swirling ambiences of strings and winds, rather like crowds of people gathering for the start of a great event – then, a great shout of exuberance, and the music was off over hill and dale, horses and riders parting company at some of the jumps, but everybody managing to remount and catch up at the singing second subject theme. I was reminded by Young’s headlong tempo of a recording I’d recently heard of the NZSO’s inaugural 1947 concert, with conductor Anderson Tyrer setting what was, for those players, an impossibly breakneck speed – by comparison, these young players could handle the pace, even if I felt a somewhat “hectoring” quality in the music in places.  The contrasting , gently-oscillating sequences just before the reprise of the opening gave us some much-needed respite, before it was “Yoicks! Tally-ho!” once again, and we were off!  It was all undeniably exciting, right to the end, with the look of exhilarated wonderment on one of the front-desk cellist’s faces after the final chord, with its “Wow! Did we do that?!” quality speaking volumes, as did the tremendous ovation for all at the music’s ending.























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