Saturday, 25 November 2017

SYO - The Masterworks

Last week I had the good fortune to attend Sydney Youth Orchestra’s third and final concert of the year, entitled The Masterworks, in Sydney Town Hall. As with the last concert, it was opened by the SYO Philharmonic presenting an overture by Wagner, this time the Rienzi. This was followed by Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony.

On the face of things, the Rienzi Overture is a curious choice for a concert called The Masterworks, as it comes from an early opera that is much less thought of than Wagner’s ‘masterpieces’. However, it is an impressive piece of work and bears all the traits that, to my mind, are characteristically Wagnerian. My own knowledge of the overture is interesting to note here too. In my late teens I bought many classical CDs sold in those wire bins department stores have for discount CDs and the like, including two collections of works by Wagner, who I then held as a favourite (blame Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd). I expected to have some overlap, probably from the Ring Cycle or Tannhäuser, but no, the only piece on both albums was the Rienzi Overture. So, even if the opera itself doesn’t do as well as Wagner’s later works, the overture remains a popular one for orchestras, and in the SYO Phil’s hands it was easy to see why.

Wagner is known for his use of themes, and for being grandiose, and the Rienzi Overture, in that sense, is very Wagnerian. The thing to remember is, for the grand moments to work, they must be balanced with sufficient pathos in between, and in those moments I think Wagner produced some of his best themes and thematic presentations. Working them in performance puts an orchestra to its limits, it must rise in subliminal glory, then sink back to gentle, without losing continuity or that Wagnerian vitality. The SYO Phil traversed the thematic shifts with aplomb, leaving us entranced and awed all at the right times. I always enjoy seeing the triangle come out in the percussion section, and I’m putting its role in this overture as the best triangle moment of the SYO’s concert year. That sounds trite, the triangle being the butt of so many jokes, but that’s why I love seeing it and hearing the extra effect it gives, which comes across more clearly in live performance.

Now, I’ve mentioned my love for Dvorak before, so I won’t go on about that here. The Cello Concerto was one of the first pieces of his I really knew – besides his ninth symphony of course – and his music’s place in my heart owes a lot to this. It was another of those discount albums that introduced it to me, I found it at the back of a Woolies in Bathurst … I know, weird, but clearly meant to be. It’s a very Bohemian work, not in the coloured skirts and crocheted ponchos sense you’ll find on Pinterest, but the style of classical music from Bohemia in the late 19th century sense. Like Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Country), there is a strong evocation of the natural landscape of Bohemia; soaring mountains and dark forests, matched with fields and friendly villages abound in my listening to much ‘Bohemian’ music. There are passages in the Cello Concerto which also remind me of Dvorak’s symphonic poems which tell of dark and tragic Bohemian folk stories, with wild and malevolent beings ruining people’s lives, but in such beautiful folkloric ways.

This performance captured all of that. This was no doubt helped, not only by the skill and passion of the soloist, Umberto Clerici, but also his obvious rapport with the orchestra. Between solo passages Clerici not infrequently looked at and to members of the string section with encouraging nods and appreciative smiles. And the orchestra clearly responded, as, with Clerici, they evoked the fantastic forests and mountains within my imagination and thrilled me with the highs, and made me swoon with the slower passages.

As an encore, Umberto Clerici performed a piece by Giovanni Sollima, who I believe he said he is friends with. It was a shortened version of the piece ‘Alone’ and it was truly electric. I mean that in the way it was alive, and energetic, and liable to jump like lightning arcs in unexpected but utterly spectacular and completely natural ways. Clerici apparently recorded it for an album produced by ABC Classics, I’ll let you know more when I’ve tracked that down.

The final piece is one I can claim no prior knowledge of, which is a terrible oversight on my part. One thing it definitely is, is a great work to end The Masterworks on. Aside from one slow movement, it is all Allegro. It is energetic and full of passion – indeed the final movement is Allegro energico e passionata – and the orchestra rose to meet the demands of this thrilling score. It also features a number of solo moments that allowed members of the orchestra to shine and all who were called on to do so, did so with appropriate verve and skill. It was a fitting finale to both a great concert and a wonderful year for the SYO, I’m honoured to have witnessed the concerts. 

Monday, 7 August 2017

Ambition and Virtuosity

Ambition and Virtuosity was an apt name for SYO’s latest concert as the pieces selected were certainly ambitious and all require their own virtuosic performances.

The concert in Sydney Town Hall (August 5) was opened by the Sydney Youth Orchestra Philharmonic under the guidance of Brian Buggy OAM. If the SYO was the Australian XI, the SYO Philharmonic is Australia A, but there was little to tell them apart in quality. Brian Buggy, in his stylish velvet jacket, leaned into the performance, moving his body as much as the baton, as he guided the young musicians through the Act I Prelude to Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg.
Any Wagnerian work is monumental and this overture is no exception. It isn’t as dark perhaps as some of his more overtly emotional pieces, but his thematic phrasing and orchestration are as expertly rendered here as in any of his most celebrated compositions. And none of the epic sound or drama was lost in this performance, an impressive feat for such a young orchestra.

But the star turn was next, the SYO with Naoko Keatley performing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Naoko stood out boldly against the orchestra, partly because of her bright blue dress against the black of the ensemble, but mostly because of her playing. It is a tricky work, full of the sort of romantic passion Tchaikovsky is famous for, and completely demanding of virtuosity, and Naoko did not falter. Her bow flew, her fingers were a blur, and we were all held in awe. When it was the orchestra’s turn and she had a chance to rest, you could see her in the music. She didn’t appear to be just listening and waiting for her turn, she was feeling it flow around and through her. Then when her turn came, it continued to flow through her and into us, the lucky audience.

None of which is to suggest that the orchestra was remotely lacking, quite the opposite. Like most great concertos, Tchaikovsky’s demands as much of the orchestra as the soloist, and only if they succeed can the soloist truly shine. The SYO met the challenge. The music weaved its magic seamlessly; there were none of the little wavers I noted in their last concert, and they showed that with diligence and enthusiasm, youth is no barrier to great orchestral performance.

This was even more evident in the final piece of the night Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony. This was an ideal selection for a youth orchestra as it gives every section, and many individuals, a chance to shine. It also capped off the night well, all three works come from the late Romantic period, but carry their composers’ distinctive styles, all of which pack a punch. Dvorak is a personal favourite of mine, so I went into this concert with excitement and trepidation at hearing one of his symphonies. I need not have been concerned.

The seventh has all of Dvorak’s range of moods, even if they don’t reach the extremes of the transcendent ninth (my all-time favourite symphony), and this is expressed through the instrumentation, which is what made it such a good showcase work for this talented orchestra. Full professional orchestras may provide more polish, but they don’t have school to attend.

Their ambition was high, but they had the virtuosity to reach their goal. Bravo SYO!

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Virtuosic Return

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was eight. It’s still played by world-class orchestras today. Naoko Keatley did not write a symphony when she was eight. She did, however, play Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in her debut with the Sydney Youth Orchestra. That’s no easy feat. To get some idea of how impressive that is, watch this clip of adults playing it. 

Before leaving the orchestra after completing school, Naoko also premiered the Matthew Hindson Violin Concerto, a very different but no less challenging piece of music. Clearly there was talent aplenty, and a passion to match in this young girl. The following is a recording of Naoko playing the first movement of the Hindson concerto with the New Zealand Orchestra under her maiden name (Miyamoto). 

Scintillating, right?

Her dedication remained and after studying at the National Conservatorium of Music she pursued her career in England, becoming a young member of the London Symphony Orchestra. She also performs in the Royal Opera House Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and a modern group, Riot Ensemble.

But Naoko hasn’t forgotten her roots and returns to Australia to perform in the Australian World Orchestra whenever she can. Now she returns to where it all started, and will be the soloist in the Sydney Youth Orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, part of their Ambition and Virtuosity concert. Having such a talented and successful alumni playing with the orchestra must be inspiring, and a good chance to learn from someone the young musicians can look up to, and relate with.

Tchaikovsky’s Concerto is a virtuosic piece, full of energy and verve, so Naoko will need all her talent, dedication and passion to master it. Somehow, I think she will. I look forward to finding out.


Sunday, 2 April 2017

SYO - The Intrepid Voyagers

During my early teens my great aunt gave me a set of CDs from Reader’s Digest. Most of what was on them I barely listened to and I’ve forgotten much of the rest, but some tracks remain with me. One in particular lit my imagination ablaze, Mussorgsky’s ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ from his Pictures at an Exhibition, the power and expression in that piece blew my young mind. I was in my early 20s before I found a recording of the full work, this being in the days when you couldn’t stream any piece of music you wanted whenever you want. At about the same age I was first listening to the full work, the talented musicians of the Sydney Youth Orchestra have been learning to play it as one of the pieces for their Intrepid Voyagers concert tour. The tour began today with a sort of farewell performance at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, and will continue shortly with six performances in Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Germany.

Today’s concert opened with a new work by George Palmer that was commissioned for the SYO by the family of Timothy O’Brien who died last year at the far-too-early age of 20. When I saw the name of the piece, ‘In Paradisum’, I thought first of Faure’s Requiem, so I expected an ethereal work of great beauty and emotion. Instead, Palmer presented a work that moves through several moods without ever drifting into open lament or the mystical airiness of Faure’s ‘In Paradisum’. It’s a programmatic work, in that there is a story of sorts being told in the music, something explained in the program aptly enough. It is a beautiful piece, and it has what I thought of as a ‘cinematic gloss’, which is to say, there’s a filmic quality to the sound, with a vision always before and behind it, only it is for the listener to see it. What a wonderful way for Timothy to be remembered, and what a great new addition to the Australian repertoire.

Following this came Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations, a work I hadn’t heard before and was excited to discover. I’m happy to say it is signature Dvorak, with all the shifts in tempo and volume, the jaunty sections and dreamy passages reminiscent of the dark woods of eastern Europe, land of countless folktales and nightmares. But always the exuberance wins out and the work finishes on a stunning high. It’s a great piece for an orchestra, with the many variations giving them a true journey to undergo. I admit to taking an almost perverse pleasure in what I like to think of as a triangle solo. Seeing a percussionist standing there holding a triangle in readiness has too many comic connections for me not to enjoy it, but the truth is it was a vital part of the piece and rang through beautifully. And that’s one of the differences of hearing it live and seeing the performers, I noticed the instrumentation much more clearly than the blend of sound on a recording.

Finally, there was the masterwork, Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s hard to imagine a better show piece for a youth orchestra to take on tour. First, there’s its sheer power and range, from the haunting beauty of the Old Castle to the stark majesty of the Great Gate – not to forget the fun of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. Even better, Ravel’s orchestration covers the whole orchestra, giving every section and many individual instruments a chance to shine, there’s even a challenging tuba solo.

As for how these works were performed, I could not have asked for better. There were some blips, a slight strain or a wobble, but they were minor and few and far between. Most importantly, they never threw anyone off to create a domino effect, they happened and the music went on, as you would expect from musicians who are both talented and professional – as I expect many of them will be in the not-too-distant future. As they blazed into the final blasts of the Great Gate, I shut my eyes and let the music I’ve loved for so long wash over me, there was no mistaking the skill and passion behind the playing.

Well done SYO, I wish you every success for the tour and all the music to come.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Dusting off some French Piano Trios

Tonight I decided to listen to an album that's been sitting on the virtual shelf collecting e-dust for a while now, the Joachim Trio's first collection of French piano trios for Naxos.

It opens with Debussy's Trio No 1 in A, which is classic Debussy, the fluidity and gentle beauty of the music is utterly captivating. The way he can carry the soul off on a journey, like a leaf floating down a river, here it eddies, here it ebbs, swirls and stills, but always moving and always enchanting. The short scherzo in the second movement is a favourite bit for me, a rollicking interruption to the sumptuousness of the first movement before a return to the slower gloss of the third. And the finale is something of them both, it has pace and grandeur, but still with the Debussy sheen.

Ravel's drama comes next, opening with the supposed 'Modere' which I take it means moderately. The first few bars are apt to that description and juxtapose intriguingly with the high finish of Debussy, but then we're launched into a hectic patter of piano with no hint of moderation. Only then, being Ravel, we are plunged back into a slow and evocative passage with the violin riding above the sombre cello and the piano adding high and low lights to fully round out what, on its own, would have to be described as a swoon. But then comes the 'Pantoum Assez vif', a high-paced rhythmic jolt reminiscent of the Assez vif movement in his String Quartet which is simply stunning.

Again there's a mood change as the third movement dives into the depths, slow and dark, as fluid as Debussy but with water more icy and the colour of Amber. From this depth we rise high as the violin turns bird and takes wing, with the cello a playful bear cub chasing it. At least, that's where my mind went listening to it this time. And it ends on an equal high to Debussy's trio.

The album finishes with Florent Schmitt's Tres lent, a short but poignant piece that shares the fluidity of the first two but lies very much in the sadder, slower end with no showy flights to lift us back to the joys of Debussy or Ravel's finale.

While all three composers share the fluidity and somewhat sumptuous feel to the music, they all have distinctive moods behind their works. What makes this recording so compelling is the way the Joachim Trio capture those moods. There's no mistaking which composer you're listening to at any point in time. They really know their stuff.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Joy of Russian Piano II - A Modernist and a Classicist

Continuing from yesterday, today I listened to two 'Russian' (more accurately Soviet) composers who I haven't heard much of before. The first one, Galina Ustvolskaya, I'd never heard of before, but she was under 'Related Artists' on Spotify's page for Shostakovich, of whom she was a student and who defended her music when it was attacked for its modernism (see Spotify's page About Galina Ustvolskaya). I listened to her 12 Preludes but I must admit they didn't capture me entirely, although at times they were quite moving. I can understand why she was attacked for 'modernism', but I don't think that's a bad thing, you just have to be in the mood for the discord.

Going back, I found Reinhold Gliere, who's name I knew but nothing else. There's a collection of his piano music performed by Anthony Goldstone and you can hear it on Spotify here. Gliere's music is much less 'modern' and is really quite charming. It's well worth listening to, even if few of the pieces stand out. I added the first of his 25 Preludes and the second of the 3 Mazurkas to my new Dancing Piano playlist, (which will continue to grow), but the rest blend into a delightful background piano set. There is more emotion in the 12 Esquisses, particularly the Agitato, but again there's nothing that really grabbed me.

As the music continued beyond that album however I accidentally discovered his 8 Pieces, Op 39, for violin and cello. These are beautiful short pieces in a number of styles. The cello provides a deep base over which the violin skates and twirls. The Gavotte in particular took me off to that lovely space where there is only music and the light of your own stilled thoughts. If you take nothing else from this blog, follow this link to the album. It also has pieces for cello and for two cellos. The Ballad, Opus 4, is like a mini cello sonata and quite beautiful, while the 10 Duos (for two cellos) range from sweeping slow movements to rapid pieces. The slow movements are the best in my opinion, particularly the Andante, as they have more emotion than the others. Finally, the 12 Pieces, for Cello and Piano, are sumptuous works that highlight the emotional power of the two instruments together, a wonderful collection.

Keep exploring!

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Joy of Russian Piano Music - At least sometimes

I'm kicking off my classical music listening this year with some Russian piano music from last century. I started with Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas 2 and 9 performed by Ilya Yakushev in a new recording only released this year. You can find it on Spotify here.

They had what I consider Prokofiev's typical joy, with the appropriate jarring qualities for such a figure. Both sonatas were full of life and rollicked along under Yakushev's expert fingers. Prokofiev may knock you from your comfortable listening position to sit up and take notice, but he certainly never bores you.

Following that I went for some Shostakovich and found Volume 2 of the complete music for piano duo or duet. First up on the album the piano duet version of his Piano Concerto No 2. This was an upbeat piece for Shostakovich, also full of life and not without its listening challenges, but it is much smoother than Prokofiev's works. The second piece is an arrangement of Shostakovich's Symphony No 15 for piano duet. It's as monumental as that suggests, with intricate sections of what must be highly fiddly finger work and grand moments of high playing. And of course some of Shostakovich's humour comes through as the opening movement has the galop from Rossini's William Tell Overture as a recurrent theme. The second movement throws a much darker mood out, reminding us of the difficulties both these composers faced in their lives. The pianists on the recording are Min Kyong Kim and Hyung Jin Moon, and they are faultless in both the virtuosity and the emotion of the works. You can find that one on Spotify here.

After my long absence I hope to present little blogs like this more often this year, but there are no promises. Either way, remember to keep exploring the wonderful world of music as much as possible.