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Young Players, Huge Challenges

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
07/31/2014 -  
Richard Wagner: Preludes to Acts 1 & 3, from Lohengrin
Alberto Ginastera: Harp Concerto, Op. 25
Jordan Pal: the afar
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

Antoine Malette-Chénier (harp)
The National Youth Orchestra, Emmanuel Villaume (conductor)

With a fifty-year-plus history, Canada’s National Youth Orchestra is among the nation’s major performing arts and educational institutions. The recent Ottawa performance may not have been the best in the ensemble’s recent history – that citation would go to their astounding 2009 reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. However, under the baton of Strasbourg born Emmanuel Villaume, the concert was consistently professional and often very impressive.

The evening’s indisputable highlights were the Ginastera Harp Concerto, with the brilliant, award winning soloist Antoine Malette-Chénier (a member of the orchestra this year) and the afar, a single movement work by the emerging Canadian composer Jordan Pal, effectively a tone poem celebrating the arid beauty of Northeastern Ethiopia. Both compositions, for all their elaborate and admirable subtlety, are showpieces well suited to the energy of young musicians.

Malette-Chénier brought uncompromising finesse, grace and charm to the unique and conspicuously taxing demands of the harp concerto and to his instrument’s ongoing dialogue with other players and sections of the orchestra, including percussion during the conflicted, nightmarish second movement. He also played spectacularly during the work’s cadenzas. The orchestra, under maestro Villaume, matched and supported him admirably in a benchmark mid-twentieth century score which distilled elements from Ravel and Stravinsky through Bernstein.

The afar also is a work that harks to music from fifty to a hundred years ago (in terms of evocatively atmospheric orchestration, the obvious comparison is Strauss’ Alpine Symphony). It is however as original as it may be derivative and needs to be heard more than once. Hopefully, other Canadian orchestras will bring it to their audiences, and perhaps recording studios.

The concert commenced with Preludes to the first and third acts of Wagner’s Lohengrin. The triple pianissimo opening strings were delivered with fine control, at first almost inaudible. However, the performances never really took off and the playing tended to be academic.

The final work, Ravel’s complete score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, had many impressive moments and, overall, was well sustained and unified. This score is dependent throughout on demanding solo playing, and the wind and brass players weren’t always at par; also, the lack of the wordless vocal chorus further limited the performance’s impact. Nonetheless, this is one of the supreme orchestral masterworks from the twentieth century, and the composer’s staggering accomplishments and masterly invention most of the time were served with sensuous finesse by the brilliant players in Canada’s National Youth Orchestra.

Charles Pope Jr.



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