The sight of a large body of young orchestral players is always uplifting, but the sound created by the Melbourne Youth Orchestra in their program featuring Shostakovich’s Suite The Gadfly was nothing short of inspiring. And there were plenty of youngsters in the audience who would have found inspiration in these dedicated role models.
In a program with an emphasis on tunefully accessible music, chosen to showcase the strengths of the musicians and give them experience in mainstream repertoire, Chief Conductor Steven Hilliger elicited an unexpectedly wide range of expression and depth of tone. A conductor of vast experience with young musicians, Hilliger’s clear direction made for a tight, confident ensemble. It was also apparent that MYO tutors had drawn on their extensive professional experience in major orchestras to provide valuable training.
Beginning with Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the expansive orchestral sound more than filled the hall. The brass was particularly resplendent in the final majestic restatement of the opening themes. In addition to substantial tone, the violins were notable for a well-integrated sound and a unity of purpose that continued throughout the afternoon’s performance.
From German Romantic repertoire the program moved to a contemporary work by one of Australia’s most popular composers. Elena Kats-Chernin’s 2004 composition, Mythic, was commissioned for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and is coupled on disk with Wild Swans, the work for which she is probably most widely known. Mythic is an eleven-minute work that Kats-Chernin describes as a passacaglia-like chordal progression that begins in a lengthy, slow dark mood and eventually grows into “a kind of hymn with variations, sometimes almost Romantic”. The title Mythic “refers to the mental image I had of musically entering into a large, mythical cave.” Her instrumentation gives all sections of the orchestra an opportunity to impress, particularly her extensive use of brass, and the players made the most of these. A couple of guest double bass players added the essential dark-toned resonance and the small viola section made a good showing as they joined the cellos in evocative sliding passages. Harp arpeggios, flutter-tongued flutes, the four horns singing a melody against muted trumpets and trombones, jazzy passages, brutal outbursts leading to moments reminiscent of the Harry Potter theme, unusual percussion and a host of inventive combinations and juxtapositions were brought to life by some accomplished playing. This was no mean feat considering that the Australian Music Centre gives Mythic a difficulty rating of “Professional”.
The eponymous item on the program also tested the virtuosity of the players. Although Shostakovich is better known for music that the Stalinist regime condemned as being “inaccessible”, Shostakovich found favour in their critical eyes as a composer of film music. The Gadfly Suite is a selection of music derived from the 1954 film The Gadfly arranged by Soviet composer Levon Atovmian. Comprising twelve movements of contrasting moods and demands, it is best known for the Romance movement featuring solo violin that was used as the theme for the TV spy drama, Reilly, Ace of Spies. In addition to his fine work as Concertmaster, Patrick Shannon gave a creditable reading of this melodious theme. Principal Cello Caleb Murray was also given an enthusiastic reception, including foot drumming by other members of the orchestra, for his graceful playing of the cello solo featured in Nocturne. Bassoons, brass and timpani drove the dramatic tension of Scena and some terrific trumpet work led by Sam Beagley made an important contribution to both the Scena and the warlike marching Finale.
The audience felt compelled to applaud at the end of each movement – and who could blame theme? This was an exciting program played with great enthusiasm by a talented bunch of young musicians. They probably won’t all go on to have a career in music, but one thing is sure: Melbourne Youth Orchestra provides vital cultural enrichment for both them and the community at large.
This performance by Melbourne Youth Orchestra was at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on March 26, 2017.