NZSO NYO Celebrates

NZSO NYO & NZYC Celebrates

Friday 5 July 2019, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Glen Downie: light speckled droplet (2019)
~ 2019 NYO Composer-in-Residence Work (World premiere)
Tuirina Wehi arr. Robert WiremuWaerenga-a-Hika
Jean SibeliusThe Oceanides, Op. 73 (1914)
Edward Elgar The Music Makers, Op. 69 (1912)

James Judd:  conductor
New Zealand Youth Choir
– David Squire: music director
Catherine Carby: mezzo-soprano

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

tldr: the short story

The orchestra and the choir were thoroughly professional, committed, and experienced.
Glenn Downie’s piece was a gentle and sensitive piece, accessible but contemporary and balance of the choir and orchestra was skilfully maintained.
In the Elgar, the strings enjoyed the passionate and rhapsodic melodies, the woodwind and brass were tuneful and balanced, the choir was dynamically impressive and the solo mezzo soprano was marvellous.


The long story:

Despite my best intentions, words kept cropping up in mind before the concert that could be used for a review: ‘enthusiastic’, ‘youthful’, ‘maturing’, ‘fresh’, ‘burgeoning’ … even ’embryonic’! Well, it was the National YOUTH Orchestra and a NZ YOUTH Choir after all.

That was not the case at all. The orchestra and the choir were thoroughly professional, committed, and experienced. In their musicianship ‘youthfulness’ was not an issue (with maybe the exception of the Sibelius – see later.) I should have been expecting that – I know some of the instrumentalists and singers from the university, and many have more experience with masterful works, composers, ensembles and conductors in the last four or five years than I have been exposed to in my 50 years musicmaking!

The concert was announced (VERY robustly) by one of the trombone players, and James Judd reiterated the debt that the NZSO NYO orchestra and management that was owed to Verna and the late Denis Adam.¹ It was a timely gesture for these marvellous philanthropists.
The concert was a celebration of the 60th ‘birthday’ of NZSO NYO, and they combined with the NZYC who celebrated their 40 anniversary this year.²

The first piece was a world premiere, a combined choir an orchestra piece by Glen Downie: light speckled droplet. He was the 2019 NYO Composer-in-Residence. Tom toms from the percussion and low brass led the beginning of the piece with almost a jazz feel. The alternating orchestra and the voices emerged, the choir using only vowels, colouring the musical mood and texture. The strings used harmonic and glissandi and paired sections of flute and trumpet, or harp and finger cymbals were featured. It was a gentle and sensitive piece, accessible but contemporary and balance of the choir and orchestra was skilfully maintained. An excellent piece.

David Squire conducted the next piece for choir only. Given the distance from his podium to the choir he managed the control of his forces marvellously – but he had a choir that was superb. Balanced, tuneful, dynamically superior, tonally appealing.

The piece was forceful and displayed their range beautifully. Several voices chanted repetitively ‘Your messenger has brought sad tidings …‘ almost like a soulless telegraph while two cloaked sopranos chanted a mōteatea karanga, a lament for the dead. The piece built up with a potent crescendo and then a heart-stopping pause at ‘We grieve for you – E tangi nei mō koutou‘ …. and the last two lines were poignantly appropriate:
We, the young ones, are drawn to seek answers
Hearing of your unwavering valour moved my very core for you the fallen chiefs.

He pī ka rere
He koha e titi kaha nei e
Mōhou e te paenga rangatira e.

The piece closed with a stopped chord from the choir with a solo voice, chanting in Māori, as a choking lament. Very moving.

The last piece in the first half was The Oceanides by Jean Sibelius. It was evocative and compact, but it didn’t impress me. Again, it was a gentle beginning: two timpanists rumbling and muted strings. The two flutes had much to say and the horns and rest of woodwinds had long chords and exacting moments – but they didn’t gel at all. The intonation was awry and the balance was askew. With the climax, a colourful stormy passage, the strings were fine, but it was scarcely a melody – lots of tremolo and arpeggios, but not rhapsodic. James Judd energetically and assiduously exhorted his performers, but the orchestra’s enthusiasm was not apparent from my point of view.

I liked James Judd as a motivator, a speaker and an educator – his knowledge of Elgar’s music is impressive – but not so much as a conductor. He is a sideshow on his own, over-the-top with his gestures and mannerisms. Suffice to say, I hope that when he is conducting I hope that a large person is in front of me that blocks my view of James’s histrionics, so I can concentrate on hearing the music.

Because James Judd is a specialist ‘Elgar’ scholar, the orchestra and the choir were lucky to have him as a conductor. The ‘gel’ that was absent in the Sibelius was profoundly present in this work. The strings enjoyed the passionate and rhapsodic melodies that were absent in the first half of the programme. The woodwind and brass were tuneful and balanced, the choir was dynamically impressive and the solo mezzo soprano was marvellous.

The piece was remarkable – as James Judd said (paraphrased): ‘a neglected masterpiece, a profound, intense personal pieces full of memories and ghosts.’ I am glad that I got to hear it, and I suspect the audience AND the performers were pleased to experience it too – certainly the applause, the accolades, were rapturous and well deserved.

But it was a ‘interesting’ (read ‘curious’) programme for a YOUTH orchestra and choir. The first piece was marvellous – gentle, ethereal, almost compassionate piece. The second choir piece was a poignant, stirring – and relevant – lament. The third was evocative but not particularly challenging. And the fourth – the Elgar – was personal but quite despondent. Out of 10 verses, the only optimistic section was in the seventh verse, and the eighth stanza was pompously triumphant. For the most part, it was a disheartened, ‘wintry’ piece, full of regrets and disappointments. An ending, not a beginning.

I appreciate that a choir and orchestra programme should have a ‘meaty’ piece for these performers to ‘get into’ and a piece that they would not have performed before, but also I think that the programme should have one exuberant, animated piece too. The Sibelius was not it.


An account of Verna and Denis Adam from the Arts Foundation.

From the NZSO website:
In 2019 we celebrate the 60th anniversary of our National Youth Orchestra.
Over this time it has proved itself pivotal in shaping New Zealand’s musical future through bringing together many of New Zealand’s most gifted young orchestral players. The high percentage of players in the NZSO – around 50% – who at one stage or another were members of the NYO, demonstrates the lasting effect this establishment leaves on our young generations.
In 2019, the NYO will work with another performance partner celebrating a significant anniversary – New Zealand Youth Choir celebrates 40 years of energetic music making.

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