At last! – the 2020 NZSO National Youth Orchestra gets to show what it can do

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
“Finale” –  the NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2020

LISSA MERIDAN – Firecracker
JOSHUA PEARSON – When a pale blue dot breathes
PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – Fantasy-Overture “Romeo and Juliet”
SERGE PROKOFIEV – Suite from “Lieutenant kije”

(Joshua Pearson is the NZSO National Youth Orchestra Composer-in-Residence 2020)

NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2020
Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 18th December, 2020

NZSO Chief Executive Peter Biggs called this evening’s concert “a belated wish come true”, after the NZSO NYO’s plans for mid-year Wellington and Auckland performances together with the NZSO of Shostakovich’s epic “Leningrad” Symphony were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. After such a disappointment, the young players were “overjoyed” that the lifting of restrictions nation-wide enabled a new concert to be announced for the year’s end, with the Shostakovich project re-scheduled for 2021.

Conductor Hamish McKeich put the occasion in an even wide perspective in welcoming us all to the concert after the orchestra had performed the first two items, Lissa Meridan’s spectacular 2000 work Firecracker, and Joshua Pearson’s 2020 NYO-commissioned When a pale blue dot breathes, by asking us, amid the joy of having our National Youth Orchestra performing tonight, to spare a thought for young musicians in other places around the world at this time unable to come together in like manner due to pandemic-induced restrictions. So, added to the relief of being able to perform was a determination on the part of all present to make the very most of the occasion, which the music-making to my ears certainly achieved.

I can still remember the excitement of first hearing the Auckland Philharmonia’s CD set of NZ commissioned “Millenium Fanfares” brought out by Atoll Records in 2000, one that began, as here, with the aforementioned Firecracker by Lissa Meridan, a brilliant evocation in orchestral terms of light, colour and energy, stunningly realised by McKeich and the players – what an “ear” for sound on the composer’s part was displayed here! Meridan wrote this fanfare while serving as the Director of the Lilburn Electroacoustic Music Studios at Wellington’s NSZM, and the music’s astonishing blend of textural fluidity and dynamic variation suggests the kind of limitless possibilities open to one well-versed in sonic explorations, the kaleidoscopic instrumental combinations as ear-catching when lightly-scored as they were overwhelming when flooding the ambiences with wave upon variegated wave of brilliant and impactful irruption.

As the thoughtful programme note by Febry Idrus indicates, NZSONYO Composer-in-Residence Joshua Pearson’s new work When a pale blue dot breathes suggested a kind of antithesis to Lisa Meridan’s scintillating creation, at the outset a realisation of a kind of William Blake-like “world in a grain of sand”, the “pale blue dot” of the title representing the earth glimpsed from outer space silhouetted in a sunbeam, a dot containing “a crowd of cacophony”. Its componentry is further characterised by sound-vignettes representing the space-ship Voyager’s “Golden Record”, one containing sounds and images from Earth as a kind of “message in a bottle” for forms of life as yet unknown to us conveying various “essences” of human existence, including examples of spoken language.  The piece’s opening underlined its subject’s relative insignificance in relation to the surroundings, the sounds creaking, shuddering and shivering into being, the ambiences eerie and strangely non-corporate, until, like nature abhorring a void, a tumult of voices rose as if an act of sheer will, looking to somehow co-ordinate its impulses, rallying trumpet fanfares and jaunty piccolo tunes putting flesh on the music’s bones and characterising the self-conscious “outreach” of humankind into the unknown, from its “best of all possible worlds”.

It’s all somewhat Tower-of-Babel-like, one that appears to lose its voice at one point when the wind and brass players “sigh” tonelessly through their instruments, as a mute recognition of language and gesture perhaps needing more, or perhaps giving way to simply being and putting faith in a process of continuance. I liked the balloons being spectacularly burst towards the end, possibly as a sign of risking all and expending empty baggage……the composer was well received by the audience at the piece’s thoughtful, enigmatic conclusion, the latter prompting thoughts of the music being a kind of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” for our time, perhaps?

After this, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture might have required something of a quantum shift of brain-cell response on the part of listeners – but in the end the music’s opening ambiences seemed to grow out of the resonances already stirred and shaken, the winds this time unusually “weighted” by the bassoon’s prominence over the clarinet throughout the introductory measures. Hamish McKeich kept everything else poised and expectant, hinting at the unease and tension which then sprang eagerly forward at the fist signs of warring unrest between two feuding families, the strings generating speed rather than weight and building the excitement towards full-blooded conflict most excitingly.

McKeich prepared his players beautifully for the famous love-theme’s appearance, the oboes deftly supported by the horns, and the strings’ veiled quality readily suggesting the tenderness between the lovers from the outset – again some lovely work from the winds and horns, and afterwards harp and cor anglais. Urgency ahead of any initial suggestiveness marked the strings’ plunge into their reiteration of hostilities between the warring families, the percussion nicely “terracing” the music’s dynamics, and delivering maximum weight when required – the return of the lovers’ theme wrung our sensibilities out properly (excitingly supported by the bass drum at one point) – and the players brought off the music’s jagged syncopations with great elan as the conflict peaked and suddenly imploded, the lower strings digging deeply into the black depths of tragedy reinforced by the shattering timpani roll, the ensuing funeral march almost perfunctory with sheer numbness.

As much as I would rather the composer had defied his mentor, Mily Balakirev, and retained his earlier, quieter ending for the piece (I’ve always found the brassy ending to the work too “stock”, too conventional, and seeming to run counter to Shakespeare’s concluding lines in his play  “A glooming peace this morning with it brings/the sun for sorrow will not show his head”), the players here made Tchaikovsky’s harshly-expressed finality hit home with all appropriate force at the end.

And what a brilliantly-conceived contrast followed! – even when separated by an interval! – Serge Prokofiev’s totally delightful Suite (originally music for a Soviet film of the same name, “Lieutenant Kije” – actually, in Russian, “Kizhe”) was put together by the composer shortly after the film’s release in 1934, with the composer’s Paris-based publisher using the French form of the name. Prokofiev then expanded the somewhat fragmentary film music soundtrack, and re-orchestrated it for full orchestra – he described the process as “difficult”, but was determined to complete the task, as he wanted to try and “normalise” his relationship with the Soviet authorities after returning to Russia from the West.

The film’s source for the story was lexicographer Vladimir Dahl’s 1870 publication of a collection of “Stories from the Time of Paul I” (son of Catherine the Great and Peter III, Paul I was Tsar between 1796 and 1801 prior to his being assassinated), the tale describing the life, adventures and death of a mythical officer, invented as a result of a clerical error, which couldn’t be admitted to for fear of angering the Tsar! It was taken up by the novelist Yury Tynyanov, who wrote the screenplay for the film. The story naturally appealed to the Soviets as an example of ridicule of the “old order”, though the bureaucratic bungling and fear of displeasing one’s superiors was to remain a worldwide trait throughout most of the twentieth century.

Prokofiev’s music was a wholly delightful affair, right from the very first magical solo cornet/trumpet strains  (it isn’t specified which one was played here, but Isabella Thomas was the flawless off-stage soloist) which announced “The Birth of Kije”, to the same theme’s slightly augmented reappearance at the Suite’s end. This dream-like encapsulation belied the rest of the music’s excitement, colour and immediacy, the characterisations of both the hero and his adventures springing engagingly to life-life, as with all rattlingly good yarns! The composer’s penchant for vivid orchestration gave the NYO players ample opportunities to shine, the percussion in particular having a proverbial field day though mention must be made of the distinctive contribution made by the tenor saxophonist (Tessa Frazer), her playing deliciously enlivening the textures of both the second movement Romance and the third movement, Kije’s Wedding. My favourite of the Suite’s movements has always been the Wedding, though its effectiveness depends on the degree of tongue-in-cheek “swagger” given the trajectories by the conductor and players – here, the “oohm-pah” brass rhythms were an absolute delight, underpinned by outrageous explosions of festive joy from the full orchestra, the percussion holding nothing back!

Concluding the concert’s listed items was a piece by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, Danzón No. 2, a piece championed by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel during that orchestra’s tour of Europe and America in 2007. I thought the music had a kind of “Latin American Gershwin” kind of feeling in places, with firstly the clarinet and then the oboe voicing the melodic lines, piano, percussion and pizzicato strings encouraging the music’s impulse to ‘dance’, each refrain introducing livelier trajectories, swooning into sultry, suggestive passages which build the harmonies to expressive heights before re-energising the rhythms once again – the bursts of energy set against contrasting episodes of languor gave the piece a volatility whose climax drew from conductor and players plenty of edge-of-the-seat abandonment and a cataclysmic finish!

Despite, or perhaps because of the brilliance of the concert’s ending an encore seemed more than appropriate by way of extending the occasion’s frisson of excitement, with Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance from the ballet “Gayaneh” brought scintillatingly into play, the famous glissandi brass notes more expressive that I can ever remember, rather than producing merely the usual “snarl”, and the shock of the abrupt changes of texture and dynamics towards the end startlingly pulled off! Very great glory, indeed, to this year’s NYO, conductor and players making the most of their opportunities and to the NZSO for making it all happen in the face of unforseeable difficulties.



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