The substantial size of the NYOC tends to govern orchestra’s programming, which is usually dominated by hefty scores from the Romantic, Impressionist and Modern eras. As well, the orchestra always hits the road with a new Canadian work in its music folders. And when it’s time for an an encore, the NYCO has a charming tradition of singing a couple of a-cappella selections. (They are a multi-talented bunch.)
This year’s tour is extensive – with concerts coast-to-coast, from Vancouver to Halifax – under the baton of conductor Jonathan Darlington. And as a musical bonus, some of the performances (including Wednesday’s gig in Toronto) also featured the National Youth Choir of Canada, led by Timothy Shantz.
Brahms’ Nänie Op. 82, which opened the program, featured the choir and orchestra together. Balance was a challenge here, with a choir of about three dozen behind a much larger orchestra. Yet there was warmth and fluidity in the performance, thanks to Darlington’s long phrases and unrushed tempos.
The abilities of the choir were put to the test in two contemporary works for voice alone. Come to the Road, by American composer Zachary Wadsworth, is a beautiful, piece, lush and modally tonal, but with a few tricky harmonic twists and turns. Canadian composer’s James Rolfe’s Come Lovely and Soothing Death was more tonally adventurous – a solemn piece, that stretched the range of the choir. Both pieces, conducted by Shantz, received secure and sensitive performances from the NYCC. The choir rounded out its a-cappella selections with a lovely performance of Elgar’s “Nimrod,” re-arranged as Lux Aeterna.
With Ravel’s La Valse, at the close of the program’s first half, the orchestra had a chance to really show what it could do. Darlington’s conducting suggested that security, rather than risk-taking, was his goal (probably a good idea) – and within the steady parameters he established, his young musicians gave a bright and vivid performance.
The second half was dominated by “The Unsilent Project” – a response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s inquiries into abuse in Aboriginal residential schools. This was a broth served up by multiple chefs: music by commissioned composers Ian Cusson and Juliet Palmer, with texts by the late poet Zacccheus Jackson, as well as other Native poets writing in slam and rap styles: Brendan McLeod, Zoey “Pricelys” Roy and Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight.
The results of these collective efforts were engaging, if rather uneven. Cusson’s A Child’s Bright Eyes was a turgid chunk of writing, lying in the shadow of Stravinsky’s Rite. More effective, I believe, was Palmer’s Invicta, which set the intensity of Jackson’s and the other poets’ trenchant words against some fascinating orchestral textures.
It was a brilliant stroke for Darlington to immediately leap into Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration at the close of Invicta. With this piece – a “grand finale” to the evening – the NYOC musicians proved themselves entirely equal to the demands of an expansive, Romantic tone-poem. When delicacy was needed, their playing was delicate. When muscularity was called for, their playing was muscular. But whatever the Affekt of the moment, there was always a palpable sense of commitment from the orchestra. It was 24 minutes of pure alacrity.
Judged by the standards of a professional orchestra program, this one was pretty weird: a little of this, a little of that. But judged by the standards of professional playing, this concert was as good as one might hope to hear from many a civic orchestra in this country. And that fact lent the evening an aura of optimism. The audience for classical music may be aging at an alarming rate. Music education in schools may be on the decline. Mass media, including the CBC and daily newspapers, may be turning their backs on classical music with indifference. Indeed, the whole economic foundation of the classical-music “industry” may be uncertain and precarious. But at least the kids are alright.
© Colin Eatock 2017