16 January 2012

Eagerly awaited

I’ve been awaiting the return of the Australian Youth Orchestra since their last National Music Camp here in Canberra two years back. We’ve only experienced day 1 of the free concert series, but we were not disappointed: two concerts, both generous in time and variety, both intriguing and energetic and with a fascinating and, at least for me, obscure repertoire. And always that energy and passion and joy that the AYO is drenched in. This year I was more aware of just how young are some of these performers. The AYO takes musicians from 14 to 30 years of age, so there are seriously young players amongst developed students and semi-professionals. And the size of this undertaking is impressive. At one time, the AYO reported using 81 rooms. The day 1 concerts were orchestral: each featuring two large symphony orchestras and a chamber orchestra. The music camp has 250 young musicians as well as programs for music admin, music journalism and more. It’s an impressive undertaking and apparently internationally renowned. So what did we hear?

Concert 1 was called Orchestral Passions Concert 1. We can excuse the dismal title because the music was great. The Nelson Cooke Chamber Orchestra started it off with a piece of dignified baroque, CPE Bach’s Symphony no.1 in C major (1773). This is music of the era: at times delicate, sometimes bumble-bee busy with rolling waves of scalar lines, a slower, pre-romantic middle movement, and a third movement that sounded sometimes tragic before a return to rolling scalar lines. Lovely! The next piece was Barber’s Adagio for strings (1936). It’s not a favourite of mine, although maybe I could come at it as part of a bigger work (it was written for that). I find the strings too unrelenting and mewling and the feel too sentimental. I could see myself appreciating it just after a War-To-End-All-Wars, but I’m just not sad enough. The chamber orchestra has 30 players and visiting European Mats Zetterqvist as director.

The Bishop Orchestra followed with Elgar’s In the South (1903/4). It’s lush and attractive and rollicking and bouncing. Everyone loved the huge, fat, sweet tuba that easily overwhelmed 8 string basses, and otherwise it was exhilarating, pastoral, grandiose and sometimes muscular. I heard propellers and jack hammers, but later realised the work was written before flight. It’s from the turn of the 20th century and clearly speaks to Victorian England, although apparently its musical references are to Italy. It’s a 20th Century work, but only just: on the border of a new world and evoking a time that’s about to disappear. Nicely done and very attractive and indelibly conservative.

The Alexander Orchestra finished this concert. First was Stravinsky’s Four etudes for orchestra (1928). It surprises me how some earlier works sound more modern than other later works. This developed, exploratory, yearning for new sounds and experiences. It starts with a quizzical march, then proceeds to tonal variations, lots of crescendos and devilishly difficult syncopations, frequent silence and sparse, jagged melodies that have one note played here, another there, and dissonant harmonies and counterpoint that still flabbergast a modern audience. I had great respect for the players here: this must have been a difficult chart. But it was so well done and a favourite. Then to finish, James MacMillan’s Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990). Apparently it was an instant hit when premiered at the London Proms about 20 years back. This is a musical depiction of the torture and execution of Isobel Gowdie, a Scot who was tried for witchcraft in 1662. It was big and dramatic and emotional (strangely, I thought I heard bagpipes at one time!) with crescendos and sudden, massive dynamic changes. I was fascinated by an early passage of slides on the strings: strange and unearthly and very effective. Wonderful, new and dramatic, and unexpected.

Just the start, we thought, as we went off for a quick dinner. This was impressive playing and the repertoire was looking to be varied, modern and exploratory. And there’s lots more to come. The Nelson Cooke Chamber Orchestra performed CPE Bach’s Symphony no.1 in C major and Barber’s Adagio for strings and was directed by Mats Zetterqvist. The Bishop Orchestra performed Elgar’s In the South with Christopher Seaman conducting. The Alexander Orchestra performed Stravinsky’s Four etudes for orchestra and James MacMillan’s Confession of Isobel Gowdie with William Conway conducting.

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