AYO learns from the Maestro

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Published: 29th February, 2012

This is a review with a difference, as what I heard was far more than a one-off performance – however electrifying. English maestro Christopher Hogwood, a pioneer in the performance of Mendelssohn’s music, prepared the Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO) for a demanding concert of that composer’s works – and was on the rostrum to see it through. Christopher Hogwood, universally acknowledged as one of the most influential exponents of early music, is equally passionate about music of the 19th and 20th centuries. He has worked with leading symphony orchestras and opera houses around the world, and has made 200 recordings with the Academy of Ancient Music. The Australian Youth Orchestra is formed from musicians aged 12 to 28 from all over Australia, selected in a highly competitive rigorous national audition process. Its alumni accounts for 65 per cent of Australia’s professional orchestral musicians, with former participants featuring significantly amongst the world’s greatest orchestras. The AYO has toured internationally and performed at prestigious venues and festivals including the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the BBC Proms and at home at the Sydney Opera House and Perth Festivals. There was a third element in the first of two concerts given by the AYO at the Melbourne Recital Centre that contributed greatly to its success: this was the presence of Amir Farid, a superb pianist, known to many as a member of the Benaud Trio, and (as this concert proved) very at home with the 19th century repertoire. Unusually for a soloist in a symphony concert, Farid played a solo: one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words Op. 38, No.6 in A flat. The pianist made the melody sing while giving play to the harmonies of the broken chords that move the piece along. The orchestra sat in entranced silence, as did the audience. The only quibble those in the Stalls had was that the positioning of the grand piano directly in front of the conductor blocked the view of both keyboard and performer. It seems that Hogwood was concerned to have as an authentic performance as possible – and this accounted for a positioning of the orchestra that may have been unfamiliar to modern audiences. The opening work was the crowd-pleasing Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Apart from a few smiles of encouragement Hogwood treated the AYO as he would any established symphony orchestra – and drew a corresponding performance from them. The strings shimmered, exactly punctuated by the brass and rigorous percussion, while the winds had a beautiful clarity. Similarly, in the Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op. 25, the balance between all parts – including Farid’s breathtaking command of the piano – was evident. Not only had Hogwood shown the musicians the full-blown romanticism of the work but the importance of the contrasting moments of quiet. Precise timing was the key to the next work War March of the Priests from Athalia – but it also allowed the AYO to demonstrate all the strength of a mature symphony orchestra. This they needed for the sensational work that ended the concert: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.107, Reformation. (Here Hogwood turned teacher, informing a surprised audience that there was a “new” movement, for flute, before the final majestic Chorale). The AYO’s performance of this major work, in all its variety – from sonorous beauty to massive power – left no doubt that the musicians’ time with Maestro Hogwood has advanced their knowledge of their craft, music history – and most importantly, ensemble-playing at its best. This is knowledge that will be invaluable as, in 2013, Orchestra travels to Europe to perform with the great German conductor, Christoph Eschenbach and Grammy Award Winning violin soloist, Joshua Bell. The AYO with Christopher Hogwood is giving a second concert of Mendelssohn’s music tonight (1 March) at the Melbourne Recital Centre, with a webcast from 7:30pm. For details go to www.ayo.com.au