NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2014 tackles showpieces with a will

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

Conductor: Alexander Shelley
Assistant Conductor: Gemma New
NYO Composer-In-Residence 2014: Sarah Ballard

SARAH BALLARD – Synergos (World Premiere)
RICHARD STRAUSS – Also Sprach Zarathustra Op.30

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Friday 18th July

ASB Theatre, Auckland, Saturday 19th July

This year the NZSO National Youth Orchestra is fifty-five years young – it’s a Gilbertian kind of paradox that the orchestra seems, with each passing season, just as youthful, energetic, enthusiastic and capable as ever!  Here on Friday evening last week were some of New Zealand’s finest young musicians brought together in the time-honoured manner for a short rehearsal period, before shaping up for their first concert in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre. With two famously brilliant late-romantic orchestral showpieces on the programme plus a newly-conmmissioned work by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Sarah Ballard, the concert was set to be something of a blockbuster.

Things couldn’t have gotten away to a more thrilling beginning with the opening of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem Don Juan, the first of the two pieces commemorating the composer’s two-hundredth birthday this year. British conductor Alexander Shelley didn’t “spare the horses”, getting from the young players oceans of vigour, colour and red-blooded commitment in realising the music’s infectious excitement and sheer bravado – impressive stuff from a twenty-four year-old composer! Romantic feeling there was a-plenty as well, with several superb solos delivered from within the opulent orchestra textures, solo violin and winds covering themselves with glory.

I wasn’t altogether surprised by the playing’s brilliant and whole-hearted qualities, having attended a number of concerts from recent years given by the orchestra, and invariably being knocked sideways on these occasions by the sheer impact of the music-making’s elan and range of expression. The 2009 performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, for example, remains for me an unforgettable occasion, the performance as thrilling as I’d ever previously encountered of that work, either “live” or on disc, one most fittingly marking the orchestra’s fiftieth birthday.

But this concert seemed to me to present just as challenging a prospect in a different way – from a listener’s point of view these two Strauss works appear to demand just as much brilliance and energy as does any Mahler Symphony, or orchestral work by Bartok or Debussy, but along with an additional degree of tonal weight and depth that “goes with the territory”. More so than with the other composers mentioned, Strauss’s works are, perhaps along with Scriabin’s, the most sumptuously-orchestrated of his era, requiring players to generously pour forth their tonal resources, and frequently occasioning the command “all you have!” from conductors.

I wasn’t worried by a couple of momentary ensemble spills that accompanied the thrills throughout the concert – but I was concerned that these youthful players would be able to summon up enough breadth and depth of sound to put across the sheer physical impact of this music. It wasn’t so crucial during Don Juan, whose music has for much of the time a volatile, quicksilver urgency that relies on brilliance as much as, if not more than, weight. As I’ve said, these players, guided by Alexander Shelley, threw themselves into the fray and realized all the music’s glittering energy with great elan.

Among those who acquitted themselves splendidly were clarinettist David McGregor and oboist Thomas Hutchinson – the latter in particular made a beautiful thing of his famous solo in Don Juan depicting ‘the red-headed woman, Donna Elvira”, an embodiment of the “Ideal Feminine”, making the Don’s frenetic drive towards a kind of fulfillment seem even more precipitous and his decline and death more shocking – here properly and chillingly realized!

A different kettle of fish was Also Sprach Zarathustra (“Thus spake Zarathustra”), Strauss’s response in orchestral terms to the thoughts and philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche. A more epic, and longer-breathed work, its textures every now and then pointed to the orchestra’s relative lack of both size and tonal resource. Perhaps the long string-melody soon after the very beginning of the work most obviously illustrated this shortcoming – the first few measures were beautifully negotiated by the solo strings, but the relative smallness of the sound of the full section thereafter stressed a need for more tonal weight and vibrancy.

Happily, these few moments were outweighed by the impact of the playing of the more vigorous passages in the score. The famous opening came off splendidly – despite there being no pipe organ at hand  in the MFC (whomever it may concern, please note the “veiled” reference here to the need for restoring the Wellington Town Hall to circulation as quickly as possible!) Conductor Alexander Shelley kept things moving, allowing timpanist Sam Rich his wonderful moment of glory, while not pressing too hard on trumpeter Matthew Stein and the other brass players, who helped bring off a magnificent musical sunrise. Another heartening and joyous sequence was that of the Dance Song, solo violinist Jonathan Tanner leading the dance with easeful charm (some particularly lovely individual notes from his instrument!) and infectious gaiety.

So, the Strauss works can be said to justly represent another musical landmark in the orchestra’s distinguished history. But what of the concert’s new work, the “world premiere” of Synergos, written by the orchestra’s 2014 composer-in-residence, Sarah Ballard? The short response is that I and my various cohorts at the concert thought the work a brilliant display of descriptive orchestral writing, employing instrumental timbres and colourings to stunning effect. One friend (an experienced concert-goer) went so far as to admit to me that he was prepared to patiently “sit through” the work as a way of getting back to the “real” music afterwards – but to his surprise he enjoyed Sarah Ballard’s finely-crafted collection of orchestral “noises” much more than he thought he would.

This twelve-minute work achieved a great deal in a short time, being a kind of three-part exploration of instrumental timbres and tonal hues associated with each of two colours, red and gold, and of their eventual “synergos” or coming together. I thought the opening of the work extremely kinetic, and very “edgy” as regards the instrumental extremes of timbre and tone being employed. The opening sequences were arresting – scintillations of percussion, strings playing right at the “edge” of their tone, heavy brass growling, winds in a ferment, cackling like witches – a bedlam-like orchestral canvas! Being not particularly colour-oriented in my own thinking, I found myself inclined to characterize what I heard so far as being of a vibrant, active quality – by instinct seeking and forming a “behavioural” more than an “appearance” description.

By contrast I thought the second part of the work had a more open, broader-browed manner, the string-tones seeming to resonate or widen to reveal spacious aspects, the wind notes burning like stars in the ambient firmament, the harp-notes sprinkling showers of gently-scintillated warmth. The figurations sounded at ease with themselves, ready to cohere with whatever timbres or colours might be thus activated – the effect wasn’t unlike the ambience surrounding one of those huge, slowly-revolving reflector-spheres which collect and configure as much as reflect and scintillate.

So the opening scenario drew from the composer’s set of responses to red, or, as she called it “Alizarin”, while this latter sequence explored the contrasting effects of considering gold, or “Aurum”. My younger companion at the concert was delighted at being able to recognize the contrasting features of the two “colours” (she afterwards admitted to being attuned to colour in music, and was thus receptive to what Sarah Ballard’s work was exploring). What I found fascinating was what then followed – the amalgamation of the two parts, the synergos of the piece’s title.

Individual lines, figurations, punctuations and impulses began to push their way through, up and out of the textures, the breathy, toneless brasses awakening the winds, and finding their own voices, the two different ”waves” of occupancy eyeing, shouldering and pushing one another around a bit at first, displaying the prerequisite “attitude” as part of the synergistic process, before finding their places in the new order of things. I was left with a feeling of awe at the work’s conclusion, as if I’d been of some kind of journey which defined the nature of my own temporality in the face of the timelessness evoked by the tinkling glockenspiel at the piece’s end.

Very great credit to composer and conductor and musicians for a remarkable quarter-hour’s music, one which added to the overall enjoyment and fascination of 2014’s distinctive NZSO NYO occasion.












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