Australian Youth Orchestra: Debussy and Mahler

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Published: 20th July, 2015

From the opening undulating murmurs of La Mer it was clear that the Australian Youth Orchestra was about to produce something special. A long and demanding program comprising two major works from standard orchestral repertoire, it was at once the ideal training ground for honing the skills of young musicians and an opportunity to showcase what could be done given the right combination of talent and guidance.

Under baton of Sir Mark Elder and the tutelage of principal players from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra these very young musicians (maximum age twenty-five) exhibited a technical and musical maturity that left no doubt that the future of Australian orchestras would be assured at least in terms of professional ability.

Another ardent supporter of AYO musicians, Richard Mills had already trained many of the same musicians, a large proportion of them new to AYO, for Victorian Opera’s performances of The Flying Dutchman in February. Many of the section leaders and tutti players were the same as for this July project, including Concertmaster Lawrence Lee, so perhaps the oceanic swellings of Wagner’s masterpiece had primed them for Debussy’s impressionistic incarnation of the sea and its shifting colours.

Whatever previous experiences these musicians had been offered, the care with which they had been trained to listen and feel as one body was apparent throughout the evening. This was the case within and between sections in both works. The string tone was warm, full and very well integrated at key moments and Lawrence Lee played his short solo passages with assurance. The wind section was in good form and featured some lovely flute playing.

If Debussy’s work tested the AYO’s ability to convey the sea’s character with varying timbre, rhythmic elasticity and dynamic range, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 did all that and more. Even with a change of some principal players in the wind and brass sections, the stamina of the young players was well and truly put to the test. Once again, they proved themselves equal to the task as youthful energy and enthusiasm powered Mahler’s expansive score. The dynamism invested in the opening attack of the marching strings at the beginning of the symphony was sustained until the final fatal hammer blow and concluding string pluck.

Three harps, multiple celestes, timpani and a whole battery of percussion including appropriately atmospheric on- and off-stage cowbells, all contributed to the emotional rollercoaster of Mahler’s so-called “Tragic” Symphony with astonishingly accomplished playing.

Among the outstanding individual contributions to the success of this performance was Joshua Rogan’s principal trumpet. As an eleventh hour emergency substitution, unacknowledged on the program or in an insert, his experience with the AYO and at the Australian National Academy of Music ensured that he was able to undertake such an incredibly taxing prominent role and bring it off splendidly. The way he was able to blend with Ashley Carter’s trombone in the Finale was one of several magical moments of this complex work when a handful of instruments sounded as one. Another was when woodwinds, again in the Finale, produced a quite uncanny sound that was perfectly integrated. There was also outstanding work from oboe and clarinet elsewhere and some lovely warm extended passages of horn playing from Rebecca Luton in the Mahler.

Such a lengthy program might have proved a challenge for some listeners, especially children who came to be inspired by players not a great deal older than themselves; however, the enthusiastic response from the audience vindicated the choice of works and reflected an appreciation of the opportunity to experience the exceptional strengths of our future orchestral musicians in a program that really stretched them.

Heather Leviston reviewed this concert at Hamer Hall on July 17.