The CSM UC Christchurch Youth Orchestra – “Confessions”

Charles Luney Auditorium – Saturday 11 August 2018

Reviewed by Tony Ryan

Verdi, Elgar, Holst and Sibelius – great names; great music – and brought to us by young people with a such a sense of exploration and discovery that, somehow, the music speaks freshly in ways that experienced professionals cannot always achieve.

The last time I heard Verdi’s Overture to ‘Nabucco’ in concert was years ago from the NZSO in a spectacular and efficient performance as an opening programme warm-up. The element of spectacle was just as present in Saturday night’s concert from the Christchurch Youth Orchestra, but the added dimension of youthful discovery conveyed a real feeling of revelation for me too. From the quietly ominous opening brass chorale, to the lyrical Hebrew Chorus melody and the more spectacular and colourful episodes, Verdi’s overture proved an ideal vehicle for this orchestra, enabling them to demonstrate the variety of their technical and musical accomplishments, and the strengths of every section of the ensemble.

A huge advantage of a youth orchestra concert is the ability to be more than usually creative in programming. So the following two works tend to be less frequently heard in live performances. And, although we did hear Elgar’s ‘Sospiri for strings’ quite recently from the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in what struck me then as a pleasant, if superfluous, makeweight, here it became a piece of hushed magic, no doubt reflecting the care and rehearsal time that the CYO strings were able to devote to it.

But Gustav Holst’s ‘Suite for Military Band’ is not a piece that I’ve encountered previously in concert. Based on English folk songs, these four movements proved immediately approachable and hugely appealing. The touch of humour in the third movement ‘Song of the Blacksmith’, where one of the percussionists entered with a whole builder’s apron of tools to play the anvil, was a delightful touch. The work also enabled quite a few of the CYO’s string players to show off their considerable skills on wind and brass instruments, as well as giving many additional players a chance to participate in the concert – is there no limit to the resources of talented young musicians that the Christchurch School of Music (CSM) has mentored and developed?

The biggest challenge of the night came in the second half of the programme with Sibelius’s mighty ‘Symphony No. 2’. Even if the daunting challenges of this work were frequently evident throughout the performance, they were fearlessly and effectively confronted by the players under the clear and nurturing guidance of conductor Helen Renaud, whose courage and determination in bringing such a performance to fruition is most impressive. This is a very difficult piece to bring off, and Sibelius’s mosaic of myriad textures and structural building blocks were certainly more analytically exposed than we’re used to hearing, but, for me, that added to my experience of this work, especially in the context of witnessing talented young people bringing a timeless masterpiece to life.

After Saturday night’s CYO concert, I spoke to some of the players. Their pride in their achievement, and their passion for the music that they had just played, was a heartening reminder that, amidst corporate and media manipulation of the music ‘industry’, great music will always communicate to independent and thinking minds of all ages. Gratitude for this is certainly due to Celia Stewart and the amazing Christchurch School of Music, along with the University of Canterbury’s Professor Mark Menzies whose mentoring throughout the rehearsals and whose animated participation in the second violins for this concert was admirable, to say the least.

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


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