Sydney Youth Orchestra 2020 Season: Curated by Artist Director Christopher Lawrence

Christopher Lawrence previews the mainstage concert performances by the Sydney Youth Orchestras’ two senior ensembles throughout 2020 by surveying the IDAGIO discography of some of the major programmed works and selecting his favourite versions for the examples they can set for aspiring orchestral musicians. His choices span seven decades of brilliant performances and recordings.


Dvořák: Carnival, Concert Overture for Orchestra op.92 – Karel Ančerl, Czech Philharmonic (rec.1961)

Sure, it’s a good-time piece – but that doesn’t mean things can get messy. The first couple of bars signal the danger: if the whole orchestra isn’t in rhythm immediately, violins will lag, brass and percussion will stray apart and lose the force of their rhythmic heartbeat, and the carnival turns into a pub brawl.

The great Karel Ančerl ensures that precision is maintained in this idiomatic performance from his time as Chief Conductor of the Czech Phil, shifting from exuberance to wistfulness (the flipsides of Dvořák’s music) and back again without any grating of the gears. I don’t know what it is about this orchestra, but there’s always an emotionality in its sound that makes these transitions so convincing – even when the music is laughing.

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique. V. Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat – Charles Munch, Boston SO (rec.1954)

How’s this for a fit with a youth orchestra? Music by a 26-year-old that rings the doorbell for the Romantic movement, featuring a ‘program’ of the music’s narrative. Obsession, unrequited love, depression and substance abuse – they’re all in here as causes for a set of hallucinations that frame the work’s five movements, each a masterclass in visceral excitement and the modern orchestra’s sonic possibilities. Nearly two hundred years after its 1830 premiere, the work dubbed by Leonard Bernstein as ‘the first psychedelic symphony’ is one of the concert hall’s most thrilling occasions and a technical trapeze act for any orchestra.

The discography bulges with recordings of the piece, none as wild-eyed as Charles Munch’s first stereo outing with his Boston Symphony, then the finest French orchestra in the world. Some detail and mordancy are lost in Munch’s headlong tempi in the final movement, but they’re compensated for by the listener’s adrenaline rush as this roller-coaster performance rushes down into the abyss. No wonder that after the Fantastic’s premiere in 1830, Berlioz and his 19-year-old friend Franz Liszt went to the pub.

Bruckner: Symphony No 7 in E major. II Adagio – Herbert von Karajan, Vienna Philharmonic (rec. 1989)

The SYO’s 2018 performance of the Eighth Symphony under Alexander Briger was a watershed in its development, and 2020 sees the Orchestra assay the Seventh as a follow-up, again with Briger. There’s a poignancy about young players taking on music that turned out to be Karajan’s valedictory recording project in 1989, and which in the Adagio movement becomes Bruckner’s tribute to the recently deceased Wagner, right down to the inclusion of Wagner tubas in the large brass section. Armed with a lifetime’s experience as he is here, the ‘Vonk’ (HvK) never confuses profundity with lethargy, producing a radiant reading matched by the Vienna players’ sound.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 4 in F minor, Op 36. IV Finale – Evgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic (rec. 1960)

The verdict on this recording has been near-unanimous ever since its release sixty years ago. The music of the Fourth is in the DNA of this astonishing orchestra that manages to sound both madly unleashed and totally controlled under Mravinsky’s baton. Even at such high speed, all of the detail in the score is made clear by near-miraculous articulation, with no blurring in those flurries of semiquavers, no speeding up on dotted rhythms. There’s an impetuous theatricality in the playing of the Russians that throws the Symphony’s bookending ‘Fate’ motive into more dramatic relief than in other versions. The music still audibly excites these players, and since they’re buying it, so do we.

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D, Op 77. II/III, Adagio/Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leonidas Kavakos (violin) (rec. 2013)

We’re spoilt for choice with a concerto that’s been on every great violinist’s bucket list since the birth of recording. (The SYO audience in 2020 will be fortunate to hear the British virtuoso Andrew Haveron as soloist.) If you’re a Heifetz or Szeryng or Neveu fan, it can be hard to view their recordings as anything other than definitive.

But there’s never a final word in such things, which is why modern performance can always tell us something new and beautiful about old friends like the Brahms. The work was itself partly a collaboration between the composer and his long-time friend (and famous violinist) Joseph Joachim, so there is a special dimension to the writing of the solo part. One could speculate that it’s a portrait of the player as much as the instrument.

Leonidas Kavakos certainly suggests a sensitivity to that friendship in this tender, discreet performance, eschewing both the rhetorical histrionics and (to my ears) sometimes excessive vibrato of some of his illustrious predecessors in favour of a cleaner line that resembles Joachim’s own, as evidenced by the elder’s handful of recordings from the first decade of last century. SYO players should play special heed to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s supporting role. The opening of the second movement features what I’ve long felt to be one of the most beautifully integrated woodwind sections around, with a caramel, organ-like tone.

Beethoven: Egmont, Op 84. Overture – George Szell, Vienna Philharmonic (rec. 1969)

2020 is a notable anniversary year in music. The big one is Beethoven’s 250th (hence our ‘modest’ tribute here – SYO loves Ludwig just as much between birthdays!) but there are many others for students of great performance. One is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Hungarian-born conductor George Szell, who made his lasting reputation as Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra for a quarter of a century, turning it into one of the best in the world along the way.

Szell’s fastidious approach to orchestral execution is evident in this recording with the Vienna Phil made (presumably) for the Beethoven bi-centenary. The playing is flawless, sitting right at the tip of the baton with no seeming overlay of ‘interpretation’. There’s a fabulously granitic tone in those first string chords, stone columns in sound. Indeed, it’s one of Decca’s finest achievements in the studio. When the famous Vienna horns have their exposed dotted triplet figure near the end, the heart stops just a little. Are you wearing headphones? Doesn’t matter – turn this one up.

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf, Op 67 – Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra, David Bowie (speaker) (rec. 1977)

Yep, you read this correctly. And just as surprisingly, David Bowie is superb in delivering Prokofiev’s story for children without try-hard bellicosity or condescension. He’s reading from a book at your bedside, not declaiming from an imaginary stage. The magic is sealed by the spectacular Philadelphians, whose work with Eugene Ormandy during their 44-year association remains one of the best and most consistent in orchestral recording history. Originally a violinist, Ormandy inherited the so-called ‘Philadelphia sound’ from his predecessor Leopold Stokowski and kept its flame alive. Listen to the strings playing the ‘Peter’ theme at the outset. It takes a long acquaintance to come up with something so rich, crisp and supple as that.

Koehne: Powerhouse for Orchestra – Edo de Waart, Sydney Symphony Orchestra (rec. 1996)

If you were a fan of Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner as a kid, there might be something familiar about the sound here – and there’s meant to be. Graeme Koehne’s work pays homage to the sound world of Warner Brothers cartoons in the 50s and 60s, driven by Carl Stalling’s adaptations of the music of Raymond Scott (even the title ‘Powerhouse’ comes from Scott’s 1937 jazz release of the same name). Koehne rubs out the dividing line between the ghastly classifications of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, a trend that’s one of the healthiest and most refreshing in 21st-century composition. And while we’re reminiscing about the mid-20th century in this music’s aesthetic, there’s a touch of bandleader Xavier Cugat in here as well, setting the work as a giant rhumba. Bugs and Wile E. Coyote dancing!

Gershwin: An American in Paris – Louis Langrée, Cincinatti Symphony Orchestra (rec. 2019)

It’s worth remembering that the French composer Ravel was a big Gershwin fan, and that no less than Toscanini recorded the American’s 1928 ‘rhapsodic ballet’ in the mid-40s. Big in scope and instrumentation – requiring triple wind, a trio of saxophones and a quartet of car horns in addition to strings and a large brass and percussion section – it’s the one major orchestral work I can think of that’s had a Hollywood movie named after it, one starring Gene Kelly and directed by Vincente Minelli to boot. The 1951 soundtrack arrangement of the original played for the famous ballet finale is in fact a stunning performance by the MGM Studio Orchestra and Johnny Green – you can stream this elsewhere.

Toscanini aside, famous cross-genre maestros like Leonard Bernstein and André Previn have made memorable recordings of this classical-jazz hybrid. The latest one comes from conductor Louis Langrée, and a cracker it is too with all the textures clear, full of the insouciance the composer wanted, and a superbly bluesy rendition of the famous trumpet solo. It’s fitting that this study of trans-Atlantic cultural clash is so vividly rendered by a Frenchman in America. Gershwin loved the Cincinatti orchestra; he personally supervised An American’s second ever performance with them in 1929, bringing his own set of car horns purchased in Paris. Ninety years later, you get the feeling the memory lingers.