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Musical highlight of the summer

Koerner Hall
07/29/2018 -  
Alison Yun-Fei Jiang: River Memory
John Estacio: Moontides
George Gershwin: Catfish Row
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, op. 40

The National Youth Orchestra of Canada, Jonathan Darlington (conductor)

(© David Popoff)

The National Youth Orchestra of Canada was founded in 1960 and its alumni can be found in every orchestra in this country and in many around the world. This year’s members, 95 players from across the country, constitute an array of breathtaking talent.

The evening opened with Alison Yun-Fei Jiang’s River Memory, a 10-minute work inspired by Niagara Falls. The music wells up from a small kernel of sound, then recedes, then swells up again, leading to a thundering finish. This piece was commissioned for the 2018 tour, as was the next work, John Estacio’s Moontides. The work has a moody start but quickly springs up with sweeping passages, leading to a haunting theme reminiscent of Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. After a gloriously energetic episode it melts away. The audience respected the silence at the end.

The opening works were finely crafted and provided a showcase for solo players and sections, but George Gershwin’s Catfish Row brought forth a whole new energy level. The work is a suite from Porgy and Bess, featuring many of the best–known tunes from the opera. The piece demands dazzling contributions from several soloists (violin, piano, banjo, etc - all terrific) and a highly-developed sense of rubato as melodies shift from one group of instruments to another. It is scheduled to be played six times on the tour and is sure to be a major hit each time.

My first experience with the NYOC was back in the 1970s when they performed Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 under the now-legendary Georg Tintner. It was a stunning performance in every way and the performance of Ein Heldenleben impressed me just as much and confirms my belief that a young group likes and needs to gets its teeth into a dense, meaty work. Here again various sections of the orchestra truly shone (the brass and woodwinds especially), and the solo played by concertmaster Roxanne Sicard was a sit-up-and-take-notice moment. I realize it is easy to be impressed by the sheer volume of a 95-piece orchestra in an 1100-seat hall, but such a situation would also reveal any flaws. There were none. Maestro Darlington managed to maintain clarity for the various layers of sound, even during the tumult of the fourth section, “The Hero at Battle”.

It’s pretty much impossible to perform an encore after the mighty Strauss work, but this orchestra managed to do so - twice. Part of their workshop involves singing, and they all stood and sang, a capella, two lovely pieces: Marie-Claire Saindon’s Terre-Neuve and Matthew Emery’s Lead us Home. Both enchanting. These pieces, plus those by John Estacio and Alison Yun-Fei Jiang were commissioned for the 2018 tour.

Aside from the four pieces played at this concert, the orchestra’s repertoire includes Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 3, and Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 2, featuring orchestra member Martin Mangrum. Each program during the eight-performance tour has a different mix of works. It seems a shame that, as currently scheduled, Ein Heldenleben only gets two performances. Toronto was lucky to have experienced it.

The NYO tour this year includes two dates in Germany and an appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. They have played overseas in previous years and, in fact, were the first Canadian orchestra to perform in Europe. Here is more information on Canada’s National Youth Orchestra.

Michael Johnson



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