2013 National Youth Orchestra shines and glows

NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2013

SAM LOGAN – Zhu Rong Fury!
BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor Op.37
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.5 in E Minor Op.64

Richard Gill Conductor
Lara Melda Piano

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 30th August, 2013

This event was one of those marvellous musical experiences that proves to be as much a celebration as a concert. It was an evening that showcased some 75 young kiwi musicians brimming with talent, passion and stunning professionalism. They were led by Australian conductor Richard Gill, an outstanding educator and musician who has encouraged thousands of youngsters in their journey to musical maturity, and the rapport between conductor and players was palpable from the initial downbeat.

The programme opened with Zhu Rong Fury! a short work commissioned for this concert from Sam Logan, the young NYO Composer-in-Residence. It was a programmatic work depicting the furious struggles between the Bronze-Age  Chinese deity Zhu Rong and his son Gong-Gong who played out a creation myth not unlike that of Rangi and Papa in Maori legend. The score was highly inventive in its colourful orchestration, and exceptionally demanding technically, particularly for the percussion whose role was to express all the fury and violence of the divine confrontation. It was an explosive start to the evening and the NYO pulled it off with great panache.

The following Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37 called for a complete quantum shift in the players’ mindset, but they did not falter. It was clear that this performance had been crafted by conductor, soloist and orchestra with great care and devotion: each was attuned to the other in a mutual understanding of the profound depths of this music. Yet that understanding was tempered with a lightness that wonderfully expressed the youthful joy they found in the rich delicacy of melodic writing, offset against the powerful dramatic contrasts that typify the work.

The 20-year-old British soloist Lara Melda was born in London to Turkish parents, and currently studies at the Royal College of Music. She is rapidly making her mark in the world of recitals and international competitions, and is also an accomplished viola player who enjoys chamber music on both instruments. This broader background was obvious in the conversations she created with the orchestra, and particularly with the woodwind principals as together they wove melodic fabric of exquisite complexity and sensitivity. Her dynamic range displayed an astonishing mastery of the keyboard, and a technical command that enabled a reading of this concerto that left a sense of  real musical completeness. It brought the house down, and she returned with an encore of Chopin’s Butterfly Etude – sixty seconds of magic executed with breathless lightness and delicacy.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64 comprised the second half of the concert. This huge work is a real endurance test for any orchestra, but the NYO and Richard Gill threw themselves into it, and clearly revelled in the opportunity. The brooding theme of the opening Andante was beautifully stated by clarinets and bassoons, and followed by a rich warmth from the massed strings that immediately set the scene for the breadth of  this score. They moved effortlessly into the drive and energy of the following Allegro con anima and gave great colour and contrast to its sudden shifts in temperament.

The Andante Cantabile opens with one of the most famous and evocative horn melodies in the entire orchestral repertoire. It fell to principal William McNeill who, unlike many professional orchestral principals, was not supported by a fifth horn to take over some of the slog of extended tutti passages. Undeterred, he played it with great sensitivity that truly captured the heartbreaking beauty of this melody. And this yearning passion marked out the entire movement as the whole orchestra reached far into the depths of its richly expressive writing.

The Valse that followed was played with a lilting grace that endowed this classic courtship ritual with a delightfully youthful, slightly breathless aura.

The huge Finale movement was tackled with no hint of the exhausting demands of this huge work. Players and conductor alike launched themselves at its furious, larger-than-life orchestration with no holds barred. Following the somber majesty of the introduction, they gave full force and brilliance to the power of its relentless drive, right through to the final dramatic chords. It was a fitting end to an outstanding performance of this work that would do credit to any professional orchestra.

I had only one issue with this concert. It was a remarkable display of youthful kiwi talent, yet the management chose to bypass that same talent in their selection of the solo performer. New Zealand has so many outstanding young musicians who would do more than justice to this role, be it on piano or some other instrument, yet that call was not made. If it was good enough to showcase a kiwi for the Queen Mother’s special youth orchestra concert in 1966 (with violinist Michael McLellan), why not now and in future years?


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