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.