Carmen Bruno, cello, National Youth Orchestra of Canada, Works by Richard Strauss, Santa Ana and Rachmaninoff, Chan Centre, August 6, 2015. 

For a long time, I was suspicious of how good national youth orchestras could be.  This all changed about twenty years ago when I happened to see Christopher Seaman put the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain through its paces at the Barbican, bringing an unforgettable freshness and energy to Elgar’s First Symphony.  There was something of the same feeling on this occasion: 90 young Canadian musicians aged 16-28 playing their hearts out under young British maestro Michael Francis, the culmination of 5 weeks of intensive training for their 2015 TD National Tour.  In addition to his current work in bringing NYO Canada to excellence, Maestro Francis has just assumed the position as Music Director of the Florida Orchestra, is in his fourth year as Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, and also is Music Director of San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival.

There was a nice mixture of young and old at this well-attended event at the Chan Centre, University of British Columbia.  The ensemble showed the results of a pretty rigorous training under the maestro, and all parts of the orchestra displayed their mettle.  The brass was incisive throughout -- the horns impressively smooth -- and the winds exhibited musicality and occasional virtuosity, particularly the clarinets.   The strings were clean and disciplined, although the slight lack of richness and smoothness, relative to professional groups, was entirely to be expected.

Strauss’ Don Quixote is not the easiest work for a youth orchestra to undertake but it came out quite splendidly here, yielding a sharp, tightly knit reading, electric in feeling and concentration, perhaps somewhat in the spirit of Pierre Fournier and George Szell many years ago.  One key was the soloists, who provided both feeling and character to set against the lean and purposive backdrop.  I was so impressed with cellist Carmen Bruno, who brought genuine expressive warmth and subtlety to many of her passages, along with considerable sinew. Overall, I thought she exhibited a command and sensitivity far beyond her years. Her two comrades, violist Catherine Grey and concertmaster Emma Morrison, were hardly less fine, bringing a fresh feeling of discovery to their solo parts, all three acting as genuine ‘voices’ within the orchestral tapestry.  The full ensemble handled both Strauss’ more exotic and more exuberant passages with finesse and confidence, making for quite a magnetic experience.

The work that followed was Ocaso, by Vancouver composer Alfredo Santa Ana, commissioned by NYO Canada and just having received its world premiere three days earlier in Montreal.  This was a well-written piece that did not outstay its welcome. It started from string pizzicato alone, vaguely in the spirit of the second movement in Britten’s Simple Symphony, eventually broadening out to allow a more cinematic theme on the brass.  After a more relaxed interlude for winds, a neoclassical fervour in the strings took over in the concluding section, building to an abrupt ending.  The structural cogency of the work was distinctive and its performance here was impeccable. 

The showpiece of the evening was Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, dispatched with tremendous drive and verve, and vitally displaying what the orchestra is capable of.  I found this inspiring to watch but it would probably not be the sort of interpretation I would want to live with.  In reality, it needed to relax more, reaching out to find the work’s moments of sultry rhapsodic languor, and its atmosphere and shading.   The finale achieved volcanic weight and thrust, very impressive in its own terms, but again tended to the unrelenting side, too sharply controlled and propelled.  A true spectacle in any case, showcasing the skills and sheer joy of these young musicians performing at white heat.  It was quite sufficient to bring the house down.

The two encores gave us a real surprise, since they were in fact ‘sung’ in multi-part harmony by the ensemble without any instrumental accompaniment whatsoever.  The vocal renderings of ’Il est bel et bon’ by Pierre Passereau and `Now Is the Month of Maying` by Thomas Morley were most impressive indeed, and were a delightful way to end a most rewarding evening.  Perhaps the ensemble’s next tour will be as the National Youth Choir of Canada! 

© Geoffrey Newman 2015