NZ National Youth Orchestra 2023
Conductor: Giancarlo Guererro
Nathaniel Otley – The convergence of oceans
Aaron Copland – Billy the Kid: Suite
Edward Elgar – Enigma Variations
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Friday 30th June 2023
This year’s NYO conductor started playing in the local youth orchestra in Costa Rica, where he grew up, before studying percussion and conducting at a university in Texas. He was an inspired choice for the NYO, given the percussion-heavy first half of the programme, and they clearly enjoyed working with him.
Nathaniel Otley is this year’s Conductor-in-Residence. He has already received a Fulbright Scholarship and a scholarship from the Sydney Conservatorium, and in 2019 won the Todd Corporation Young Composer’s Award. The convergence of oceans was written with the percussion section in mind, featuring what the composer called ‘novel techniques’ and a huge array of percussion effects, including sounds made by ‘found instruments’. Unfortunately, from my seat in the back of the stalls it was impossible to see what was being played, so I cannot explain what made the various bangs and hisses unless it was clearly evident: the tam tam, the whip, bowed timpani. The composer encouraged the percussionists to assemble a trap table of objects that might be picked up along the shore, so it’s anyone’s guess. Bottles? Rocks?
The convergence of oceans was a 10-minute work that felt longer. It is composed in short sections that feature many different effects (a harp glissando, a sussuration of lightly bowed higher strings that becomes a rumour of sound, mouthpiece pops from the brass) without adding together into a whole. It certainly didn’t sound like the convergence of oceans to me, which is both continuous, noisier, and considerably more chaotic. I can imagine that it was a complex and frustrating work to rehearse. The large (six desks each of first and second violins) and highly competent (led by Peter Gjelsten) string sections didn’t have much to do. Even the harpist (Harrison Chau) was under-employed, with occasional single notes and once or twice a glissando. I would have liked the work more if it had been half the length and a bit more horizontal. But the orchestra was fully committed to the performance.
Billy the Kid is the orchestral suite Copland wrote based on the ballet score of 1938. It’s a perfect work for a youth orchestra, being both attractive and crammed full of solo opportunities for everyone. It demands a large orchestra (four horns, bass trombone and tuba, contrabassoon, lots of percussion) but the music is eminently accessible. The sad story of Billy the Kid can be discerned from the music, but the hero of the work is the Wild West itself. From the spacious opening featuring a wistful oboe solo (Milli Manins) and muted trumpets, to the movements that capture the journey westwards by the settlers, all jaunty tunes, wild rivers, and long days in the saddle (woodblocks!), Billy the Kid evokes both a period and a myth.
The orchestra clearly enjoyed the work, and rose to the playing demands it imposed, which are essentially solo after solo after solo, with complex rhythms and fast tempo changes. I loved it, especially the gunfight scene, with volleys of shots from bass drum, timpani, xylophone, and side drum, assisted by shot notes from the trumpets. Impressive too were the big crescendos, and the careful detail of the build up and down. Some gorgeous playing from the lower brass, especially the bass trombone (Tavite Tonga) and tuba (Sam Zhu). Guerrero is a detailed and sensitive conductor without being fussy. There was evidence of a lot of careful work during rehearsals that resulted in a crisp and atmospheric performance.
The work after the interval was Elgar’s beloved Enigma Variations. Oh to be a young orchestral player, coming to the work for the first time! The NYO played it as though they had fallen in love with it. There was a change of concertmaster, with Hazuki Katsukawa, the co-concertmaster, taking over from Peter Gjelsten. The string sound was gorgeous, rich and golden, and the tempi were well chosen. Once again, terrific timpani playing (Camryn Nel and Ciaran Wright) and a very beautiful warm horn sound (Evan Metcalfe, Maia O’Connell, Caspar Adams, and Hannah McLellan), well supported by the bassoons, trombones and tuba.
My favourite movement is ‘Nimrod’ (Variation IX), and I was delighted by the way it grew from almost-silence into a stately inevitability, tender and loving, never rushed. There was a very nice bassoon solo from Tor Chiles, with excellent lower brass and timpani, and a glorious string sound. I suspect Guererro’s tempo was well under Elgar’s marking of adagio, but there was absolutely no sense of strain in the playing, just an elegant crescendo, then a beautiful diminuendo e ritenuto. Still, Variation XII gave Nimrod a run for its money, featuring gorgeous solos from Benjamin Carter.
The last movement began with textures of Sibelius (lovely horn playing), and finished with a beautifully controlled crescendo, pulled as if from nowhere. This was a reading that was more subtle and better played than most performances I’ve heard from professional English orchestras.
Of course, the almost full Michael Fowler Centre went wild. For the third curtain call, Guerrero came out and stood with the flutes and oboes to take the bow, expressing his solidarity with the players, whom he had called ‘truly inspiring’. Bravo!