Review / Training orchestra rises to the occasion

Music / “50th Anniversary Concert”. James McCusker Orchestra. At Albert Hall, November 30. Reviewed by TONY MAGEE

ORIGINALLY composed for a military band, the “English Folk Song Suite” by Ralph Vaughan Williams was arranged for full orchestra by his student Gordon Jacobs in 1924. Two pieces from the suite served as a sparkling opener to a most enjoyable concert by the James McCusker Orchestra under the baton of their talented and comedic musical director Shilong Ye.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary since founding, this student orchestra was joined by many alumni for the occasion.
The opening march, “Seventeen Come Sunday”, featured two beautifully played clarinet solos from section leader Kieran McConville while the second, “Folk Songs from Somerset”, featured effective use of percussion.
Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” revealed challenging work for the brass section, who after a shaky start, rose to the occasion beautifully with sustained and powerful fanfare-style playing in the opening “March”. Percussion once again featured and added a huge body to the sound in the final Russian Dance, “Trepak”.
The “Symphony No. 40” by Mozart presented the greatest challenge for the young players, albeit teamed up with more experienced alumni, and was variable in success. One thing to bear in mind with youth orchestras, particular the JMO, which is a training orchestra, is that the students need to experience the stamina and concentration required to play a large scale work.
While some tuning problems and slow tempi marred the overall enjoyment of the piece, the orchestra none-the-less played it through successfully from start to finish – all four movements – and delivered the overarching unity of the piece as a whole which drew to a satisfying conclusion. Of particular merit was the oboe solo in the final allegro assai played with feeling and beauty by section leader Gudrun Ursula Drake.
Guest artist and alumni Kristian Winther  gave a brilliant and virtuosic performance as violin soloist in Mendelssohn’s “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” with a sensitive and well-played accompaniment by the orchestra. It was the highlight of the concert, appreciatively received with deafening applause from the audience. In addition, Mr Winther made himself available to play within the first violins during the preceding Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, which was a humbling and inspiring gesture.
To finish this very special evening, the orchestra played selections from Kander and Ebb’s famous musical, “Chicago”. Opening with a well played and suitably nightclub style muted trumpet, the band bounced into life in this exciting medley of show-tune hits and played convincingly and with gusto.

Kristian Winther with his first teacher, violinist Josette Esquedin-Morgan. Photo by Peter Hislop

One particularly special moment at the end was the acknowledgement of special audience guest, distinguished violinist and teacher Josette Esquedin-Morgan, first teacher of Kristian Winther. The two embraced after the concert, providing some superb photo opportunities.

The Music for Canberra organisation continues the rich tradition of classical music training and ensemble for young people in Canberra. The experiences offered are a huge opportunity for all involved to enrich their lives through fine music. Under the leadership of their new CEO and artistic director Dr Stephanie Neeman, the future seems in excellent hands.

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