NZSO National Youth Orchestra, cond. Alexander Shelley
Saturday 19 July, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre Auckland
Review by Leonie Holmes
The NZSO National Youth Orchestra performance is something to look forward to every year. Always vibrant and fresh, it is the result of an intensive week of immersion and rehearsal by young performers at the beginning of their musical careers. Conducted by Alexander Shelley, the 2014 concert was unusual in that it featured two Richard Strauss works, programmed to celebrate the composer’s 150th birthday. There are notoriously hair-raising technical difficulties in this music, but it is also challenging in its complexity and intelligent capriciousness. Suddenly changing moods, suspended moments followed by scuttering recapitulations of exposed intensity, whimsical dances and glorious lyricism all have to be navigated. The opening of Don Juan was bright and bold, and principal winds were beautiful in the slow middle section. The Aotea Centre venue lacked the intimacy of previous NYO concerts in the Town Hall, and the acoustic was a challenging one in which to project the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra opening, but there was a wonderfully rich sound from all the sections as the piece gathered momentum – the sight of a double bass section swaying in full “ships at sea” throttle is one of the best orchestral images!
Given the slightly unusual programming of these two churning and existential post-Romantic tone poems, I’m sure it made a refreshing change in rehearsals to move into a different sound world for Sarah Ballard’s work Synergos. One of the most satisfying and exciting aspects of the NYO course is the inclusion of a Composer-in-Residence. The resulting premiere adds relevance and value to the programme both for the orchestra and, importantly, the wider peer network. It was heartwarming to witness the anticipation this new work generated, and the young audience of friends and fellow musicians who were there to cheer the composer on.
It goes without saying that the residency is also a dream opportunity for the composer, with a sympathetic conductor able to devote plenty of time to the crafting of the performance, and instrumentalist peers available for consultation and feedback. Sarah has taken full advantage of this opportunity, creating a work which explores the textural potential of the orchestra.
In Synergos, a sonic exploration of the colours red (alizarin) and gold (aurum) has resulted in a glittering shimmer of a work, with textures that could almost be physically felt in the air. The idea of transforming colour properties into sound or “hearing colour” is not a new one, although for me in this case an intriguing addition was that of the elemental or mineral implication, a source of inspiration also noticeable in some of Sarah’s earlier works for orchestra and chamber groups. Conceptually, it felt like an impersonal/elemental version of colour translated into sound had been alternately mixed and contrasted with a potential human/emotional response to that colour, then these two ideas used to build a sound world based on textural exploration. At any given moment, if one orchestral section or group tended towards sustained events, another could have more rapid rhythmic gestures, whilst a third might be caught in the middle of the two, mimicking aspects of both, yet not part of either. This third section would then be used to morph into the next moment, whilst on top of all was a wonderful and complex array of constantly shifting timbral shading. In fact the first movement seemed to come to life with such momentum, and the material was so detailed, that some moments went by and become lost to memory before I wanted to let go of them, and this affected my sense of an overall trajectory to this movement, which faded all too quickly into brassy, breathy sighs. By comparison the second movement was longer and more expansive; this time the music was allowed to escape and bloom. Again I fancied the use of the number three as an organizational factor - sustained notes in upper strings alternated with silvery glints and gasps from harp and metal percussion, along with more structural, vertical blocks of sound. The ending was magical, with a final hardly audible sul pont tap like a quick gleam of gold before dark falls.
The combination of technical detail and intuitive gesture in this piece resulted in a work that the generous Aotea Centre audience warmed to, whilst leaving plenty to explore on further listening. A great addition to the orchestral repertoire, which I hope will be played many more times. The orchestra did an excellent job of bringing the piece to life; the performance felt assured and comfortable. Bravo to all involved.