★★★★½ An intense and emotional evening of music making from a fine youth orchestra.

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
March 19, 2016

One of the most satisfying musical experiences is going to hear an orchestra that one used to perform in and finding it in better shape. This was the case when I returned to hear the Sydney Youth Orchestra at Verbrugghen Hall perform two titanic works of Romanticism: Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1, Op. 15 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5, Op. 64. Billed “Intensity of Emotion”, the orchestra’s performance, under the directorship of Alexander Briger, was certainly intense and emotional, and demonstrated one thing: the next batch of Australian musicians are supremely talented.

Brahms occupied the first half, with Simon Tedeschi at the piano. After every performance I have seen of Tedeschi it feels like a tornado has hit the building, such is the muscular and indefatigable force with which he attacks the piano. He nearly lifted the roof off the NSW Art Gallery in January with his performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He also carries an unparalleled machismo that oozes into his playing: he less walks onto the stage than bounds, and he never bows past about 30 degrees, as this seems to be a distraction from getting his teeth into the music. He also maintains a youthful cheekiness, even while his playing continues to mature magnificently. I can also attest that, having performed the Grieg Piano Concerto with him and the SBS Youth Orchestra, in rehearsal he is workmanlike and consummately professional.

One of the intrigues of Brahms’ compositional history is that he was so impacted by the spectre of Beethoven that he was constantly drafting and altering works such that they can come across as disorganised in maladroit hands. The First Piano Concerto, for instance, went through various stages as a four-movement symphony and even a sonata for two pianos, before the three-movement piano concerto was finally settled upon. Briger and the SYO clearly have a very good rapport, as the performance was polished and compact.

The opening of the first movement recalls other Sturm und Drang movements of Brahms, particularly the first movement of the first symphony. The long introduction shows that this work really is a partnership between orchestra and piano. Such is Tedeschi’s restlessness that he couldn’t keep his feet still during the fiery and passionate opening. This wasn’t a distraction, however, and his entry was reasonably understated. This massive movement suited Tedeschi’s virtuosity well, with the many arpeggiated, rippling passages and successions of parallel octaves impressively accounted for, the drive and fervour maintained to the final fortissimo. The engagement between orchestra and pianist was quite spectacular. The second movement is the polar opposite, recalling at various moments the ethereal third movements of the first and third piano quartets. Tedeschi showed here that he is also capable of an understated and unpretentious tone, and the deadpan passages, at times barely audible, were exquisite. The control in the sostenuto lines of the strings was also noteworthy. In the finale we return to where perhaps Tedeschi is at his best: a bracing, rugged Rondo Allegro. His hands were in constant motion, bouncing off the keys gymnastically. The fugato passages set off by the second violins were each time invigorating: a youth orchestra with second violins as good as these is always a positive sign. Tedeschi’s macho performance was capped off fittingly by the pianist jumping off the stage and handing a bouquet of flowers to his girlfriend with a kiss on the lips, before returning for a seductive and sympathetic encore (Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 No 2).

The orchestra returned after the interval for one of the great symphonic tests in “Tchaik Five” (like the Jackson 5?), as youngsters call it these days. Notable apart from the astoundingly professional execution of this symphony (given the age of the musicians) were the highly audacious tempi that Briger – conducting without a score – chose. Many adult orchestras would have sacrificed precision. The opening clarinet solo was haunting, offset by a mellow tone in the lower strings. The intonation in the high string passages was also impressive. The very difficult horn parts throughout the symphony were admirably performed, particularly the lengthy solo in the second movement. The third movement is a collection of skittish passages, always a good test for an orchestra’s ensemble playing. A little work needs to be done here, but it was mostly very good. While there were a few jitters in the brass in the fourth movement, the trumpets carried majestically in the coda, while the lower brass were rock solid all night. Overall, this was a youthfully exuberant and authoritative rendition under a charismatic director.

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