Melbourne Youth Orchestra: Mahler 1

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Published: 13th June, 2019

Melbourne Youth Orchestra’s Mahler 1 concert began on a sad note with CEO Dorian Jones dedicating the performance to the memory of MYO’s inaugural conductor, Eric Austin Phillips. Eric would have been delighted, however, with what over fifty years of dedication to music, education and entrepreneurial activity had brought to fruition in this ambitious program.

In addition to having almost ninety young musicians on stage, a feature of the concert was the many very young members of the large, enthusiastic audience. While it is true that numbers were slightly reduced after interval, the rapt attention devoted to the American first half of the program was heartening to see. Doubtless, many of the youngsters were there to be inspired by the playing of young violinist Anne-Marie Johnson as she dazzled them with Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Untold hours of practice may not yield the same results in less gifted violinists, but it may at least secure a place among the ranks of the MYO string players – and that is certainly something worth aiming for.

As a concert opener, the brilliance and melodic appeal of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide: Overture provided an ideal way to energise players and audience alike. Conductor Brett Kelly took the piece at a spanking pace, relying on his charges to negotiate the tricky rhythms with confidence. Listeners unfamiliar with the calibre of this orchestra may have been surprised by the impressive technical skill evident in all sections and the players’ capacity to respond to the conductor’s shaping of dynamics and tempi. Perhaps the most arresting feature on display was the full-bodied orchestral sound.

A short work by another (unrelated) Bernstein followed. Elmer Bernstein is possibly best known for writing the film score of To Kill a Mockingbird and the orchestral version of his Suite, which summarises key sequences of the film. Eclipsing the darker, more dramatic moments are passages that evoke childhood innocence and nostalgia. Nicole Ng (piano) and Gulliver Poole (celeste) made notable contributions along with some effective work from the wind section. Again, surging string tone, particularly from the lower strings, provided contrasting emotional impetus.

Orchestral power was occasionally too prominent in the Barber; despite Brett Kelly’s best efforts, Anne-Marie Johnson’s sensitive re-creation of Barber’s delightful lyricism was sometimes overwhelmed in the first movement. The following two movements fared better with Johnson’s impassioned expressiveness and technical virtuosity on full display for an appreciative audience.

Even without the Blumine movement (the rejected andante second movement), Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is a seriously challenging undertaking for a youth orchestra. There might have been a few untidy moments along the way, but there was also a great deal to admire. When the presenters of ABC FM’s Classic 100: Composers told listeners that the MYO horns were “pretending to rehearse” while catching some choice morsels of the broadcast, I wondered if the distraction would have an effect on the final product, especially given the notorious difficulty of the French horn – even for professional adults. Yes, there were blemishes, but I am happy to report that the MYO horn section did themselves proud; it was a stirring moment when all seven rose to their feet, along with the trumpet and trombone principals, for the climactic triumphal iteration of the affirmative theme. Along the way, Ben Muddyman’s flute and some excellent trumpet work were valuable assets. The viola section too produced pleasing warm tone for their featured solo passage. Full of colour and dynamism, Mahler’s popular symphony makes a great vehicle for showcasing and honing musical skills.

MYO’s Mahler 1 concert was a vindication of the effort that goes into preparing a successful musical event such as this. Whether or not these young players become professional orchestral musicians or perform in smaller ensembles and our increasingly proficient community orchestras, the skills and talent on display reassured listeners that classical music will remain a vibrant component of the cultural life-blood of Melbourne.

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Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Youth Orchestra’s Mahler 1 concert presented at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on June 10, 2019.

The accompanying image is part of a series of visual interpretations of four symphonic works which feature in the MYO’s 2019 flagship season. Dylan Martorell was invited to provide a creative illustration for this program.