AS Canberra Youth Orchestra finished tuning up in Llewellyn Hall last night, a shocked audience member turned to me and said: “Surely they can’t be happy with that?”
Those words return to me now as I write this very difficult review.
Lucy Sugerman is rapidly becoming one of Canberra’s treasures – a sweet-voiced, high-school girl who put this city on the map when she became a 2017 finalist on “The Voice”. Not only is Sugerman a talented singer-songwriter, she is also a competent player of violin, piano and guitar. This was her first performance with an orchestra.
She deserved better.
The last century of music history has seen a blurring of the lines between concert and popular genres. Don Banks and Igor Stravinsky incorporated pop-music elements into their orchestral writing and, from the other side, bands such as Kiss and Metallica have produced very successful concerts with orchestras.
But this kind of fusion cannot work when an orchestra treats popular music as a soft option, failing to respect the artistry and complexity of the genre.
Conductor Leonard Weiss is a fine young musician who this reviewer has championed many times, and will no doubt continue to champion, but his preparation of this concert must be called into question.
Even before the opening bars, it was clear that this repertoire was not being taken seriously. Issues with tuning were not adequately addressed and plagued the entire first half.
Other orchestral issues such as timing and balance indicated insufficient rehearsal time. It begs the question of whether such little care would have been given to a concert of Brahms or Beethoven.
Neither orchestral work by John Williams was played credibly. The opening “Raiders March”, from the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, suffered from poor intonation and an apparent inability to keep in time.
Weiss was seen visibly struggling, trying to hold the orchestra together in passages that failed to reach the level of a church fete band.
As a youth orchestra, this is not the fault of the players. The inescapable conclusion is that this concert was not properly rehearsed.
The disappointing orchestral playing was only highlighted by non-musical “special effects” – the brass section donning Indiana Jones hats, for example, or the flashing lights in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Devices like that can be very amusing if the music is played well – but when it isn’t the effect is tragic.
Lucy Sugerman was every bit as charming as we have come to expect. Beginning with her now well-known cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, she revealed a mature and expressive vocal capacity.
Throughout the performance of her original songs, including “I Understand”, “Young, Sixteen” and “Believed”, she displayed confidence and showmanship. In a two-hour concert she was never once out of tune, never once out of time. She was the best musician in the room.
She deserved better.
Despite Weiss’ lofty notes on orchestration in the concert program, the scoring and balance was consistently poor. In the Bowie song, particularly, there were moments where the orchestra totally drowned out Sugerman. Fortissimo passages were bombastic not elevated. The effect was crass. Seeing Sugerman rendered virtually inaudible at her microphone, one reflects on how a properly directed orchestra does not overwhelm unamplified singers in opera or oratorio.
Without Sugerman’s strong performance, this concert would have been disastrous. Everything, except her, was unprepared. The demeanour of the orchestra was far closer to that of a hired backing band than an ArtsACT-funded organisation.
“Surely they can’t be happy with that?”