Presented by the UC Christchurch Youth Orchestra and NZSM Big Band
Reviewed by Tony Ryan

It’s always inspiring to see and hear young people performing to such a high standard; sometimes, as here, even more inspiring than concerts presented by seasoned professionals. Our experience of recordings and past performances of the music can’t help but invite comparisons, but on Saturday night the expression of the music shone forth in a way that transcended any consideration of the music’s many difficulties and complexities. All such technical considerations quickly faded into the background as the opening fanfare of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture blazed out confidently on the Christchurch Youth Orchestra brass. The following Vivace brought wind and string playing of equal fluency and the whole added up to a most impressive display of musical spectacle and the sort of youthful high spirits that made it an ideal choice for this orchestra.

The other main orchestral work on the programme was Borodin’s popular Polovtsian Dances, a work requiring considerable technical strength in all sections of the orchestra, especially from the wind. But under the clear direction of Helen Renaud, and a tangible feeling of rapport between players and conductor, those strengths were fully demonstrated with virtuosity, discipline and flair.

The strings then left the stage, leaving wind, brass and percussion to play Steven Reineke’s 2004 concert band composition The Witch and the Saint. This was one of the very best original concert band works that I’ve encountered. Not only is the music’s melodic, textural, structural and rhythmic content appealing and exciting, but it enables every instrument to shine; and ‘shine’ is what the members of the CYO did, at times achieving shattering climaxes without any loss of textural clarity or musical tone quality – stunning!

For the second half of Saturday night’s programme, the orchestra was joined by the New Zealand School of Music Big Band from Wellington, along with their Musical Director, that doyen of NZ jazz, Rodger Fox. 

Although I rarely attend jazz performances, I was certainly blown away by the band’s tightness of ensemble and rhythmic vitality. The many solos oozed personality amidst the full band’s high-impact virtuosity. Even if I prefer the original versions of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Suite, I enormously enjoyed these performances from the combined forces of the CYO and NZSM Big Band in Paul McDonald’s superb arrangements.

A central set of vocal numbers was skilfully sung by Ella Dunbar-Wilcox and, if her expression is yet rather generalised and lacking some variety from song-to-song, her mastery of the style with a real sense of improvisation was extremely impressive. I especially enjoyed Cole Porter’s Love for Sale in which the CYO strings contributed a wonderfully evocative atmosphere of romance and period nostalgia.

If ‘Revolution’ was not the usual format for an orchestral concert, it was all the more engaging for that. Everything in this imaginative programme was superbly performed and left me feeling that, amidst forebodings of doom concerning the state of music education in the twenty-first century, it’s clear that we can take enormous comfort from the work being done by The Christchurch School of Music, The New Zealand School of Music and the University of Canterbury. 

Tony Ryan is a regular music reviewer for The Press, RNZ Concert and Theatreview