The CSM UC Christchurch Youth Orchestra – “Halloween”

CGHS Auditorium – Saturday 27 October 2018

Reviewed by Tony Ryan

I can’t quite put my finger on why familiar classical hits often, as here, come to life in performances by talented young people more than they sometimes do in the hands of seasoned professionals. Could it be a certain sense of discovery that communicates more tangibly to the listener; or maybe that the challenges presented by the technical and musical aspects of the repertoire require a greater degree of commitment and effort than the almost nonchalant, and consequently less engaging, ease that more experienced players sometimes demonstrate? Whatever the case, the Christchurch Youth Orchestra’s Halloween concert proved to be an exceptionally involving experience for the whole audience.

Mussorgsky’s ghoulish “Night on Bald Mountain”, in Rimsky Korsakov’s luridly colourful version, opened this Halloween-themed concert with confident and spectacular effect. Conductor, Helen Renaud, controlled the work’s structure effectively and convincingly with well-judged and finely-disciplined contrasts in tempo and dynamics. And there was no holding back on volume in this relatively intimate venue when the music asked for it, so that the impact was powerful and dramatic. Only in the quietly atmospheric ending did I wish for a little more eloquence and expressively shaped phrasing in some of the wind solos. But the overall effect was certainly a vividly graphic depiction of the ghosts and ghouls that inhabited the evening.

The element of the macabre was also very visually represented, with the stage and surroundings decorated to the hilt with skulls (some with red-lit eyes and the like), skeletons, spider-webs and other grotesquery. Many of the players were also adorned with capes, witches’ hats, masks and makeup, but none of this detracted in the least from the music-making; in fact, it contributed superbly to the nature of the chosen music and made me wish that all orchestras could be less formal and traditional in their presentation.

Lighting also contributed significant atmosphere – blood-red for the Mussorgsky, then eerie white moonlight for the following, even more overtly spine-chilling work, Saint-Saëns’ graphically descriptive “Danse Macabre”, with its scordatura (out-of-tune) devil’s violin, stunningly and energetically played from memory by CYO concert master Rakuto Kurano. The soloist was also “disembodied” by being isolated in his own spotlight away from the orchestra whose members relished the piece’s blood-curdling effects with almost anarchic abandon – great fun!

The orchestra’s six percussionists then took over for a performance of Earle Brown’s innovative, early 1950s work “4 Systems”. My research has managed to uncover only a piano work of this name, but, given the graphic style of the score’s notation (lines and dots rather than conventional notes on staves), it lends itself to almost any musical media, and this percussion-only performance was certainly wonderfully effective. And it was also perfectly in keeping with the concert’s theme, with spooky effects produced by, for example, string bows scraped on cymbals and vibraphone, and unusual beaters on gong and bass drum, to mention just a few of the atmospheric sonorities produced by this impressive team of musicians.

Then the augmented wind and brass sections gave us Eric Whitacre’s surprisingly effective three-movement wind symphony “Ghost Train” where, again, the dynamic and powerful impact of the playing gripped the audience throughout its duration. I say ‘surprising’ because until now I’ve been familiar only with Eric Whitacre’s choral music, which I find rather artificial and derivative. But “Ghost Train” gave me a new respect for this composer; the train sound effects were nothing short of amazing, and the atmospheric expression, as played here, was extremely compelling.

“Oblivion” by Astor Piazzolla featured another violin soloist, this time CYO Assistant Concert Master Hijiri Yamamoto. This is one of the Argentinian composer’s best-known tangos and the playing of both the soloist and the CYO strings was notably stylish and idiomatic. Hijiri Yamamoto’s way of ‘bending’ onto notes was always natural and effective with nothing sounding artificial or ‘painted on’, so that the performance was genuinely moving. The committed playing of the orchestral strings also added considerably to the success of the performance to the extent that, for me, this was the highlight of the programme.

Finally, both the first and second suites from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” incidental music were put in context by helpful and expressive narration from David Chambers, who held the entire evening together with introductory commentary on each work.

Grieg’s more finely-spun and exposed orchestration proved the greatest challenge of the evening for these young players, but conductor Helen Renaud wisely prioritised the music’s effectiveness over absolute polish and precision. The drama and expression of Grieg’s music were never compromised and the same was true of the whole concert, so that this rather long programme was involving and spell-binding (forgive the pun) from start to finish – a very entertaining and effective night of music-making.

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


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