Beauty, poignancy, energy, focus – Kenneth Young’s CD “Shadows and Light”

Shadows and Light
Symphonic Compositions by Kenneth Young

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Young (conductor)

Atoll ACD 216

Over much too protracted a period I have lived with this disc of Kenneth Young’s music, playing single tracks at times when opportunities arose, and, in random-step-wise mode very gradually familiarising myself with the music’s sounds. It’s only recently that I’ve had the oportunity to tease it out from my constantly-attenuated “must-hear” collection of recordings, and given it the uninterrupted attention I’ve felt it deserves. Playing a track at a time, I remember being caught up in each one’s very different version of an intense experience, though in isolating my listening to the pieces I had little sense of “carry-over” from one world of intensity to another – it’s as though I was “beginning again” with each piece, and therefore having to re-establish my relationship with the composer’s sound-world before properly taking in any specific content.

Of course, away from recordings, and the luxury of repetition they provided, this was the old way of things, by which listeners got to know any “body” of work from a single composer – a public performance here, followed by another one there, and so on, except on those red-letter occasions when a concert featured a number of that same composer’s works! So in due course came my first chance to get a decent and protrated “listen” of Young’s new CD from beginning to end. What can I say as a result of it all? – just that the experience has had an overwhelming effect on me, putting me in no doubt as to the cumulative beauty, poignancy, energy and focus of the composer’s achievement over the span of this disc’s contents.

I had previously reviewed another all-Young CD, one from Trust Records which appeared as long ago as 1998, again featuring the composer as conductor, with the NZSO. I was, on that occasion, extremely taken with the composer’s “skilful and evocative way with orchestral colour”, and expressed admiration for “Young the executant as much as Young the composer”, who, to my ears had “so admirably controlled and balanced…..the sounds, even in the most heavily-scored passages”. At the risk of repeating myself, I can’t help but reiterate my pleasure at Young’s executant skills in relation to the more recent Atoll disc, along with, of course, his creative abilities. If anything, the touch is even surer, and the results honed with even clearer and more focused distinction.

Right from the beginning of the new recording, Young the composer takes his listeners to a place one feels is exactly where the composer wants us to go – he alludes as much to this feeling in his own words, reproduced in the booklet – “….it (Remembering) is the one work I’ve written in which I would not change a note”. From its drifting, evocative opening, in which NZSO concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppanen’s solo violin sings its “lone soul” melody, through sequences of quixotic interaction and constantly-shifting textures (Debussy’s Jeux occasionally comes to mind), to its cumulative and enriched “return” to tranquility, the music weaves its compelling amalgam of detailed re-engagement and visionary oversight in a richly compelling, and properly “memorable” way.

If Remembering seems very much the stuff of “things past”, then Lux Aeterna works on a much wider canvas, an amalgam of some kind of deeply-ingrained awareness of things past with a conscious present, and an exploration of various connective pathways between the two. Only a handful of minutes longer than Remembering, this second work at once seems to dwarf its predecessor, the chant-like unison melody mysteriously sounding as if from ages past (like the opening of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture) before a kind of “opening up” of the world, winds and strings filled with wonderment at the vast, colourful incomprehension of it all.

What impresses me is how Young manages to create sound-vistas which express these visions with the utmost clarity and conviction – the first section of Lux Aeterna sets a whole world of motoric activity in a backdrop of vast spaces that expresses an age-old question, that of life’s purpose and destination. Then after the chant-like melody reaffirms its continuum of consciousness, more vigorous impulses spread across the spaces, galvanising the textures and reactivating the “here and now” voices, until the solo ‘cello seems to patiently transcend such worldly preoccupations, dissolving their substance into a strange alignment with those greater, more transcendent spaces, the recurring chant encouraging the string textures to gater around and suffuse thew whole scenario with a kind of “peace that surpasses understanding”, its long-breathed lines trailing into a kind of eternity…..

Symphony No.2 came from a 2001 commission which marked the beginning of Young’s full-time career as a conductor and composer. A First Symphony had been written in the 1980s while Young was still an orchestral player, a somewhat Mahlerian “symphony is like the world” utterance, things paralleling further with the earlier composer when Young himself took up a conducting post (Conductor in Residence) with the NZSO. The new Symphony followed in the wake of Young’s active involvement in performing and recording seminal New Zealand works, along with fulfilling the occasional commission for an original work. Slow in its gestation, but enriched by experience both creative and recreative the Symphony came when it had to, and was finished in 2004.

With a phrase resembling a bird-call a solo clarinet began the work, setting up a world of dialogues with different variants and textures, the heavy percussion adding both scintillation and deep, spaced-out ambience beneath the chatter of the instrumental comings-and-goings. Urgent brass-calls brought forth eloquence from individual instruments – a solo violin, a bassoon, and a ‘cello all took their opportunities, separately and together, as the rest of the instruments tossed melodic and rhythmic scraps around, at times in the manner of a “concerto for orchestra”. An irruption of intent heaved upwards and energetically resounded among the brasses as string ostinati pattered like rain on the roof, and the winds squawked like ruffled birds, before the vigorous musical argument was becalmed by strings and tongued winds, and something of a new world brought to view.

Throughout, the music evoked a kind of volatile biosphere of activities, the instruments and their groupings skilfully and characterfully employed by the composer to interact, contrast, oppose and throw into bold relief. Always there was a characterisation involving declamation or interaction, brought about by Young’s well-honed instrumentation skills, the sounds enjoying a coherence of intent and/or effect, the silences bringing forth breath-catching moments of further tremulous expectation.

The concluding sequences presented a kind of nocturnal world, bolstered by tight brass harmonies, and ennobled by an extended ‘cello solo threading its way through ambient orchestral textures, soft percussion scintillations, and celeste-like colourings. After the energies and volatilities of the work’s central sequences, these defty-wrought impulses (including a delicious “tuba dreaming tuba dreams” passage) came across partly as very much a “recharge-batteries time” tempered with undercurrents of unease – nothing lasted, tranquility least of all, and the “we want to go home” statements grew in agitated frequency and intent to the point of anarchy until the detailings surrendered as quickly as they had thrust themselves forward. What had been fractious and abrasive became conciliatory and accommodating, as the end approached, and all things gave way to the silences.

Invocation, written during Young’s “Composer-in Residence” period with the Auckland Philharmonia during 2014 highlighted the skills of the NZSO’s principal oboist, Robert Orr, here playing the oboe d’amore, a slightly larger and mellower version of the standard orchestral oboe. At first the melodic line was free and exploratory, and inclusive of other lines, sometimes in tandem, at other times in a hand-over sense, but as the music continued a fantastic sense of tumult broke out as if across an overhead sky, stunning the watcher into silence. The agitations filled out to what seem like cosmic proportions, both overhead and from underneath, deep percussion seeming to activate the very ground beneath the observer’s feet – as with the symphony, the sounds seemed to reduce human proportions to a size which seems insignificant, were it not for the return of the oboe d’amore’s plaintive voice, suggesting a kind of steadfastness and strength amid those vast, self-sufficient spaces, a place in whatever scheme of things might be. Commentator Roger Smith’s description of the piece, reproduced in the booklet, spoke aptly of a search for light, life and positive energies through music.

The disc’s final work, Douce Tristesse, inhabited a much gentler and readily inhabitable world, the music inspired by what Young calls “an idyllic Bay of Plenty holiday spot” much visited and enjoyed by his family. Confessing that an “English pastoral zephyr” gently moves through the music, Young mentioned the names of Finzi and Butterworth as two of the shades of the friendly ghosts peering out from copses, hedgerows and water-shaded willows, perhaps delighted at being asked to cast illumination upon Antipodean vistas for a change! Perhaps at times these found themselves a little disconcerted by the relative intensities of the light, which, however broughts out its own unique versions and sensibilities.

Whatever attention I’ve given this disc over the duration, I’ve found it pays back most handsomely, be it a “one work at a time” experience or as a representation of a “single concert”. The latter experience is something to aim for, as the works are judiciously placed to have a kind of cumulative effect, with the Symphony as the great central crossbeam, before the final two shorter works return us, as it were, to our lives. On all counts to my ears – compositional, performance and recording quality – the disc makes a compelling case for the cause of Ken Young’s music.

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