Youth breaks through


Melbourne Youth Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Sunday March 21, 2021

Brett Kelly

Over the past year, it’s been hard to ferret out live orchestral performances. Not that they haven’t been going on in some form or other but most organizations have wanted you to revel in recordings and tapes of past triumphs. Well, you can hardly blame them: pandemic restrictions have militated against large groups banding together as was their wont to work through the repertoire. To be honest, looking back in this way hasn’t appealed to me, even if the only chance to hear live music means that you have to be content with chamber groups or solo programs where contiguity is manageable or irrelevant. I’ve seen the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra give a concert under the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall banner – in fact, I believe several programs were broadcast from Hobart – but Sunday afternoon’s transmission from Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium impressed me as the clearest indication yet of orchestral life returning to normal.

Mind you, I wasn’t anticipating a youth orchestra. In years well gone, I’ve listened to – and reviewed – the Australian Youth Orchestra, and even a few chamber ensembles populated partly by secondary school students, but childish things were put away after I stopped secondary school teaching in 1997. So this New World program brought up a sense of deja entendu, not least for its mixture of ease and ambition. Director/conductor Brett Kelly opened with some sectional samples – Strauss’s early Serenade for Winds, then Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, a freshly-written percussion trio by an MYO member, the woodwind-and-brass Scherzo alla marcia from Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 8, another brass/woodwind (now with percussion) extravaganza in J. Cook’s reduction of the first Pomp and Circumstance – before everybody knuckled down to the big last Dvorak symphony.

It’s a young person’s product, the Strauss Serenade: written when the composer was 17, but packed with hurdles concerning production and dynamic control This tredectet opened benignly enough with an oboes/clarinets/bassoons combination of fine weighting, and this characteristic continued across most of the brief score’s duration. The bugbear of intonation problems soon reared up, however: from the horns in octaves at bar 25, somewhere among the 4 players negotiating F sharp in bar 46, the horn/clarinet downward scale in bar 60, the horn quartet at bar 71. Not that anybody was off-pitch for a notable length of time, but these blips stuck out from an otherwise satisfying sonorous mesh. And specific members made excellent contributions, like the supple oboe solo at bar 81’s Tempo I, and the restrained second clarinet and first bassoon duet from bar 167 to bar170.

Dur4ing the initial bars, Elgar’s Serenade impressed for its push/pull phrasing – a real piacevole from everybody. In these pages, the first violins impressed for their confidence in attack, still going strong at the Letter F/bar 92 recapitulation, with only a touch of looseness about the bars 109-110 change-over to blot an otherwise amiable surface. Elgar’s Larghetto was handled with a straighter bat, the second violins unsubtle in their bars 10-11 exposure, and some points made little sense like the hefty attack on bar 34’s first note. Still, these details were counter-weighted by a passionate first violin- and-violas duet starting at bar 54, while the last 12 bars came across with impressive restrained eloquence. Later, in the Allegretto, both violas and cellos matched each other very successfully; a disappointment, then, to have the pace pushed too hard after the key change at bar 42, such doggedness also detracting from the upward motion at bar 68 that should lead towards a placid conclusion to the score.

Substituting for the Fanfare pour preceder La Peri for brass by Dukas, a burnished showpiece that was dropped from the original program, MYO percussionist Joseph Fiddes wrote a short trio, Percussion 2021, for himself and colleagues Madeleine Ng and Felix Gilmour. This involved marimba, timpani, and (I think) glockenspiel with wood-block as a side-dish. A brief interlude, possibly in E minor, the piece proved active and packed with syncopations, winding up in an impressive accelerando plus presto (or the other way round?) finish.

Also a surprise replacement for the Dukas, Vaughan Williams’ scherzo asks for crisp delivery, here well illustrated by a deft first trumpet solo of 8 bars (repeated) at Number 3. For a work that doesn’t ask much in terms of rhythmic complexity, the simple suspensions two bars after Number 8 came over as slovenly. Things picked up noticeably in the latter part (last 7 bars) of the movement’s trio but the final unison woodwind demi-semiquavers failed to register, and not just because of their pianissimo marking.

J(eff?). Cook’s arrangement of the first Pomp and Circumstance march served to show how much of the work relies on non-string forces. Naturally, you miss the warmth of timbre in the big theme, but the bustling elements don’t suffer from the abstraction of string forces. This reading emphasized the pomp and came across with few signs of refinement in delivery, as witnessed by a fair dose of clutter accompanying the jump into Letter G (and later at Letter P), and an unorganized belting of the chords that accompany the Land of Hope and Glory tune at Letter K. The piccolo that spikes out over all at the Molto maestoso 5 bars after R seemed just slightly off-true, which put a sealant on an inescapable sense of musicians operating outside their potential, the results blunt and blowsy.

Then we arrived at the big canvas of Dvorak’s E minor Symphony: a gift to its interpreters and their audiences alike. After a long interruption, any orchestra would have needed time to feel out an interpretation of this familiar score, let alone a set of young musicians who put this program together after a rush of full rehearsals conducted across a short space of time. So Sunday’s performance necessarily moved between various levels of achievement. Across the four movements, certain stretches made a positive impression, mostly in ensemble passages. The greater part of the introductory Adagio worked positively, despite an over-eager violin anxious to hit the Allegro molto proper. A fine flute and oboe duet emerged at bar 91, setting out that G minor melody thrown off by Dvorak with his habitual prodigality. Later, when the same tune is given in the major beginning at bar 129, the ebb and flow in ensemble phrasing proved exemplary; just what you’d expect from a professional body.

After the first movement’s development pages began, the horns came under more exposure – not just with the occasional solo, but more with the need to administer plenty of stentorian chords which, in some cases, proved flawed. As well, the upper strings would have profited from more definition and prominence, even in restrained passages like the repetitions beginning at bar 269, as well as observing the conductor’s wish to disallow any racing ahead. I also noticed a lack of upper string power at bar 408 where everyone else has abrupt chords, leaving the violins to slash out some exhilarating upward arpeggios that should cut through the surrounding full orchestra blasts. Speaking of which, what comes with regular rehearsal is reliability in chording – the complete consort belting together – rather than some of the splayed results we heard in his movement’s final pages.

Another highly congenial ground was established for the Largo by the brass/wind/timpani combination chords across the first four bars. The MYO cor anglais would have enjoyed greater success with one of music’s most recognizable melodies if she had enjoyed stronger lung power, ensuring that the minims at the end of each two-bar phrase lasted their full length. Yet again, the strings were urging forward at bar 27 through a passage that calls out for indulgence. At the key change to C sharp minor, Un poco piu mosso, another flawless first flute/first oboe doubling brightened the atmosphere by its purity of ensemble; further along, some momentary carelessness marred the loaded final violin quavers in bar 82. Another pacing problem arrived at the staccato flute solo in bar 90 which was taken very rapidly, making matters hard for all involved before the sudden brass outburst at bar 96 which finishes all shenanigans before the cor anglais tune returns. Finally, the whole string corps might have made more of a point at their final forte point finishing bar 112 before the moving collapse to the concluding bass chords (another detail that would have gained from a good deal more Molto adagio).

The orchestra fared better the second time around with the Molto vivace‘s initial 59 bars. Further into this movement, the strings were showing signs of fatigue at the Tempo I resumption but showed more dedication with the poised leaps from bar 193 onward. With their arpeggio bursts during the coda, the MYO horns had mixed success, faring better with the consequent loud block chords that thinned out efficiently from bar 285 to bar 291. A few pages further on, at the Allegro con fuoco, trumpets and horns made a fair showing in the movement’s main theme, the sound solid and aggressive. While the violins scrawled unhappily through their exposed line at bar 120, the violas emerged from the ruck with distinction in a substantial patch of passage work from bar 154 through to bar 171, keeping a firm collegiality of attack and phrasing.

While the brass held their fire at the bar 190 tutti, they more than made up for it later, at the mighty dominant-based declamation of bars 208-213, I’m not sure what happened in the all-horn stringendo at bar 271 but the effect was not as exhilarating as expected and the subsequent pages proved to be something of a trial as Dvorak urges towards an apotheosis that eventually ends in an ever-welcome final bar of transfigured woodwind and brass, giving us a soft landing after all the rhetoric.

Taken as a whole, this performance let itself down on details, points where the score is demanding and others where you would not expect to find difficulties. Kelly kept his young musicians on the move, every so often making a distinctive point but usually determined to forge ahead. In the end, the MYO made a valiant effort at a too-well-known masterpiece, keeping their communal head with very few serious lapses and presenting us with an honest reading, even if the final pages proved to be something of a relief.