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ALTHOUGH still a youth, the Canberra Youth Orchestra is one of the gems of Canberra’s rich music life. It celebrated the 50 years since its incorporation with a scintillating concert in Llewellyn Hall offering music that predominantly had its roots in musical theatre.
Conducted with considerable flair by its resident conductor Leonard Weiss, the concert featured two compositions by Leonard Bernstein, a suite John Powell composed for an animated movie and a selection of songs by such composers as Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Stephen Sondheim and Charlie Chaplin.
As one former member of the orchestra murmured during interval, “I wish they’d played music like that when I was a member”.
Programming the two Bernstein pieces was a brilliant idea. Both were composed by Bernstein around the same time, when he was still comparatively young, and both still dazzle with youthful invention and daring, offering this young orchestra some substantial challenges.
The “Overture to Candide”, which opened the program, was given a spirited performance, and although the strings tended to get swamped and the cello legato was messy, there was still much to enjoy in the performance. Similarly with the “Symphonic Dances From West Side Story” which ended the first half. This arrangement of music, written for the Broadway musical in 1957, with its constant changes of dynamics and rhythms, demands razor-sharp precision from each section of the orchestra. In the main, the orchestra coped well with the challenges, particularly confident in the strident loud passages, less successful in the more exposed softer areas, particularly the “Somewhere” section. Nevertheless, the end result was a very creditable and enjoyable performance.
Perhaps not as showy as the Bernstein, the “Suite from How to Train Your Dragon”, which opened the second half of the program, provided a great showpiece for the brass section, with the string section being particularly successful in achieving the lush warm tones required for this sweepingly cinematic composition.
It was an inspired choice to include “The Idea of North” in this celebratory program. This acclaimed quartet had its genesis at the Canberra School of Music in 1993 and has gone on to achieve international recognition. Three of the singers, Trish Delaney-Brown, returning for this occasion, Nick Begbie and Andrew Piper are all founding members, with Naomi Crellin, who was responsible for several of the superb orchestral arrangements, joining in 2002.
The orchestra revelled in the challenge of creating the varying mood styles required for Idea of North’s songs, confidently matching the dazzling professionalism of the vocal quartet, with a swinging big band sound for Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell” and Rodger and Hart’s “Where or When”. The intricacies of an imaginative treatment of Bobby Sherwood’s “Secret Love”, the lush Hollywood orchestrals for Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and dancing pizzicato for Chaplin’s “Smile” kept the audience enthralled.
For the jazz classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, Andrew Piper duelled with drummer Andrew Millar, saxophonist Quinn Weber and trumpeter Samuel Hutchinson, cleverly matching the sounds of their instruments with vocalisations, while Nick Begbie contributed a witty song, “F Sharpe”, which left his musically aware audience and the orchestra in stitches.
Officially, the concert climaxed with the orchestra and their guests presenting a joyful exploration of Cuban rhythms for Jorge Ben Jor’s “Mas Que Nada”. But predictably the audience demanded an encore, for which The Idea of North generously obliged with their unique interpretation of “Isn’t She Lovely”.
The Canberra Youth Orchestra has three more concerts scheduled for its 50th year. This celebratory gala not only provided a superb demonstration of what has been achieved to date, but a tempting entrée into what lies ahead.