Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra

British Festival 3

NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Saturday 14 July 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sir James MacMillan, conductor
Colin Currie, percussion


The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra (world premiere) – Celeste Oram (b. 1990)
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (Percussion Concerto No. 1) – Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959)
Vespro (world premiere) – Reuben Jelleyman (b. 1993)
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
(Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell)
– Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs


The short story (tldr):
A remarkable programme: two world premieres, a percussion concerto and a favourite educational masterpiece – all relatively contemporary works.  Each of the pieces referenced a previous work by another composer. It was a surprising, entertaining, impressive and enthusiastic performance by a young orchestra and their mentors: Sir James MacMillan and Colin Currie.


The long story:

This was a remarkable programme: two world premieres, a percussion concerto that has been performed almost 500 times in the last 25 years, and a favourite educational masterpiece. I am not sure it was planned, but each of the pieces referenced a previous work by another composer: Veni, Veni Emmanuel from a 15th-century French plainchant; Reuben Jelleyman’s based his Vespro on Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers; Britten’s Theme of Purcell was based on that composer’s 1695 composition; and Celeste Orams … more about that later. It was a surprising, amusing, entertaining, impressive, skilled, enthusiastic and joyful performance by a young orchestra and their mentors: Sir James MacMillan and Colin Currie.


The first surprise was with the entrance of the concertmaster, Estelita Rae. After her bow, she faced her orchestra, ostensibly to get the tuning note from the oboe. In fact, the woodwind, and then the brass, produced transistor radios and in a jumble of static we were aware of a radio broadcast about a symphony orchestra performance. Celeste Oram’s piece had begun! The strings produced their transistor radio too. As last, the concertmaster indicated with her head and the orchestra proceeded to play the first few bars of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, but it disintegrated again. The conductor arrived and then there was a mix of radio static, interviews and announcements, and the orchestra played all sorts of fragments of other composer’s pieces or their styles: Britten, Bernstein, Haydn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz …. even the NYChoir performing Hine e Hine – the good section of the back row stood up to sing! The fragments were detuned or deconstructed. The radio announcements contain lots of relevant (musical or topical) jokes too. When the announcer said that the Britten would be played, Sir James conducted the whole thing – but the orchestra left their seats and wandered in to the auditorium. When they were spread about the aisles of the Michael Fowler Centre they began to play and James sat down in the first violin seat and read the paper!

Most people would not realise, but the progenitor of the composition, Celeste Oram, was tucked behind the harp fiddling with (I guess) a computer or a sound board teeing up the ‘radio sounds’ for the transistors. In her programme notes, she noted that “This piece is a love letter to radio in New Zealand, Radio New Zealand, the uncompromising exuberance of the NYO, …”   Certainly, it succeeded by it’s own ‘chutzpa’ and the commitment – and the enjoyment – of everyone onstage. I am not sure it could succeed anywhere else.


The beginning of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel was relentless: Colin Currie striking a gong and the whole orchestra blaring a fortissimo chord. Brass and woodwind had a rock-y rhythm and the Colin Currie ran amuck with wood blocks, cow bells, conga, bongos, tom toms. What was surprising was the volume from the NZSO-NYO. The instrumentation was basically for a standard symphony orchestra: strings; 1harp; woodwind 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons;  2 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 tenor, 1 bass trombone and a tympani – no other variants (bass clarinet, contrabassoon, tuba, no other percussion). But, the orchestra made a LOT OF NOISE!

This was a much more accessible concerto than his second concerto played last week. This time the soloist and the orchestra were on the same page – rhythms and melodies were exchanged from the percussion to the orchestral player and vice versa. I particularly like the interplay of the string and the brass – syncopated onbeat/offbeat rhythms. After that, Colin was playing a dextrous marimba solo and the strings and woodwind had lyrical, slow, steady chords, and the first violin had a lovely melody line – channelling Vaughn William’s maybe?

Then it built up with a pedal note/chord – dynamically and tempo-wise to a apocalyptic chord, and the woodwind emerged with the Veni, Veni Emmanuel plainchant theme. The dynamic was decreased and, progressively, the brass, the woodwind, the strings left their instruments on their laps and gently struck chimes or cymbals. In the meantime, Colin Currie went to the back of the stage and hammered on the tubular bells. Again, there was a crescendo of dynamics and tempo to a clangorous, clamorous resonance – a resounding tintinnabulation. James MacMillan signalled the end of the piece but he indicated a suspension with his hand until the last note was ringing and resounding about the ‘rafters’ faded away. Amazing.



Reuben Jelleyman’s piece, Vespro, was quite mysterious and forceful at the same time. A slap of percussion, a drop-off from the brass, the sustained chords from the woodwind and pianissimo, sul ponticelli tremolo bows for the strings in their very high register.  Abruptly, the flute and trombones blew violently over their mouthpieces without a note. There was a repeated rhythmic pattern for the gong and bass drums, bowed vibraphones and some melodic themes emerged from the horns and woodwinds. The strings had a hocketting pattern of accented down bows, the first violin had a chirruping, piping bird-call and the piece ended with a dreamy, evaporation. In his programme note, Reuben said: “…the restoration of an old building, where old stone buttresses mesh with glass and steel. You can excavate shards of the Vespers in the very fabric of the work; but you can also very clearly see it amidst the central structures.

[When I think about this concert, Vespro is the piece that remains with me most. Something about it got to me – in a good way! I would like to hear it again.]


The final work for this concert was Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell) by Benjamin Britten. The work is so well known, so I will not speak about the process of the music but only the performance. And the NZSO NYO did an excellent job delivering this masterpiece. Is it not easy, even with professional orchestras.  In the first part, the whole sections: the woodwinds, the brass, the strings and the percussion – were quite simply, superb. In the individual instruments, the oboes and particularly the clarinets were brilliant. In the strings, the Violins I and II were at last let loose – they rushed to their lyrical lines like a duck to water!  The double bass were a delight – a dancing melody with nimble scale passages – and the galloping trumpets and the potent trombones and tuba were especially noteworthy.


When the orchestra came together again – the brass majestically announce the Purcell’s theme, and the rest of the ensemble decorating and illuminating the possibilities of Britten’s invention – it was so gratifying to see the commitment, the enthusiasm and the joy of these young people making music.


The conductor and the soloist were outstanding –  I have the same comments about them that I mentioned last week:  Sir James MacMillan’s gestures were economical but decisive and clear. He indicated what he wanted directly but totally in service of the music. Colin Currie was committed, dexterous, agile and his delicacy of touch, his dynamics and the stick and mallet work was masterful. What was impressive was their professionalism but mentorship, their educative, pastoral work with these young musicians.


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