SYDNEY YOUTH ORCHESTRA : CELEBRATING STRAVINSKY @ VERBRUGGHEN HALL

Above : Principal clarinet of SYO Katherine Howarth on stage with guest conductor Jessica Cottis at  Sydney Conservatorium’s Verbrugghen Hall.

Following an international tour to the UK in 2019, the SYO, like so many other performing groups across the globe endured a forced hiatus with regards to public performance.

Back on stage for SYO’s Concert 1 of 2021, the youth defied the pandemic that fractured the routine of their secondary and tertiary education last year.

The learning experience behind this concert and presentation of an interesting music history snapshot was an admirable way for the group to return. They convincingly celebrated a revolutionary era in music making from the past as well as the unique complexity and voice of Stravinsky and Claude Debussy.

The event was narrated enthusiastically by Chief Artistic Director Christopher Lawrence. He outlined the parallels between health crises one hundred years apart, between our lives at the moment and the compositions performed in the time of the Spanish Flu and its aftermath.

The advertised ‘Celebration of Stravinsky’, and especially the composer’s neoclassicist tendencies was in capable hands here, with the clear and charismatic conducting of superstar Australian musical expat, Jessica Cottis.

This concert alternated members of the orchestra in various ensembles across the socially distanced and sanitised stage space. At all times, Cottis led with a dynamic precision and the SYO members responded with a myriad of gestural, rhythmic and stylistic subtleties.

The effective but brief opening Stravinsky’s Scherzo à la Russe in orchestral version (1946) was successfully candid. From such an apetiser right through to the concluding Pulcinella Suite (1922) this short concert represented a significant learning experience and development of elevated stylistic and interpretative techniques for the orchestra.

Above : Guest conductor Jessica Cottis was a great mentorfor soloists and orchestral or ensemble members in SYO’s Concert 1.

Conductor Jessica Cottis was obviously a wonderful choice of mentor for the presentation of a well-graded, never overplayed programme of rhe sonic worlds of Stravinsky and Debussy.

The Pulcinella Suite was an illuminating, variegated journey in manipulation of musical expression from the past. There was pinpoint accuracy here, with impressive momentum through any complexity. There were consistently strong degrees of contrast shown.

This concert was a formidable showcase for the wind players. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947) was a timbral treat as well as a celebration of Stravinsky and of ensemble playing. It was once again nicely moulded by this conductor.

The true highlight however was the insertion of Debussy in the programme, in what is perhaps a combination not typically heard. The excellent programme notes also highlighted the friendship between the two composers.

Clarinet soloist Katherine Howarth, the featured SYO principal in Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie, gave a joyous performance with intelligent attention given to the musical architecture, articulation and nuance.

Howarth’s placement of Debussy’s expansive clarinet lines above, across and through the orchestral textures was always well blended, with precise and exquisitely thoughtful articulation. Her clear tone and employment of a wide colourful palette as she moved above, across and through the musical tapestry was a pleasure to experience.

This effective rendering of Debussy’s virtuosic subtlety by Katherine Howarth and SYO musicians guided firmly by the guest conductor rang true for us.

The ease of conversation in this work extended to Concertmaster James Armstrong’s solo violin contribution, which also spoke with well-balanced character and suitable accent above the group texture.

This significant snapshot of twentieth century music from such composers was a substantial programme with which to start 2021. Its highlighting of soloists from the orchestral ranks and collaboration with a world-class conductor was proof of the success of SYO’s goals and contribution to the survival of our domestic live music scene.

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