WA Youth Orchestra: “Romantic Rachmaninov”, Perth Concert Hall

Under the title “Romantic Rachmaninov”, the WA Youth Orchestra presented works by Elgar, Rachmaninov and a new piece commissioned to Perth composer Rebecca Erin Smith. The Orchestra provides young musicians with the opportunity to work under the guidance of world-class educators and on this occasion, Tze Law Chan served as their conductor.

“Cockaigne (In London Town)” written by Edward Elgar in 1901, is an overture that evokes the city of London at the turn of the century, its themes provide plenty of interaction for the instrumental sections, racing the listener through a remembered city landscape where every sight and sound seeks to be captured. Tze Law Chan balanced the light-hearted mood of the work with the wistfulness that pervades it, bringing out the overlapping themes with forcefulness and poised phrasing.

“Cockaigne” also set the tone for the concert, with works that dealt with loss and the passing of time, but while Elgar does so with nostalgia, “Murakami’s well” by Rebecca Erin Smith is an expression of grief for the loss of loved ones. The premier of this new work was highly anticipated, Smith is WAYO ex-alumni and has gone to build an impressive career studying at the Manhattan School of Music and presenting works locally and abroad.

It begins with the low strings coaxing the woodwinds into action, perhaps a nod to the start of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony; but soon the work takes another direction, moving away from the push and pull of harmony so characteristic of Romantic music, emphasizing instead self-contained gestures that express an almost physical pain. An austere brass-fanfare leads one of the sections but it is the percussion that drives the work, providing the rhythmic backbone for the impressionistic orchestration; despite the grief that inspired it, “Murakami’s Well” contains hopeful passages where the melodies lighten up with dance-like rhythms that bring Ravel to mind. Smith’s self-assured handling of instrumental timbres, combined with a focused narrative make the piece sit well in a program of Romantic music; at the same time the lean, sharp style is more in line with the legacy of Minimalism, which validated a lyrical bent on contemporary composers.

The second half of the concert featured Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, a work that was first premiered in 1908 and remains one of the composer’s undisputed masterpieces. It brings together his gift for lyrical melodies and opulent orchestration. The long breathed melodies capture the listeners attention as they move forward, rising and falling with a sighing quality while the orchestra broadens the narrative to epic proportions; these melodies seem to drag the past along with them, clinging to it with resigned melancholy and yet, their forward momentum is fatalistic, not defiant as in Beethoven, but full of an aching sensuality.
The Symphony posed challenges to the young orchestra as some passages suffered from shaky intonation, and at times it felt the music was a series of disconnected episodes rather than a unified whole. Their best playing came on the fourth movement, where Tze Law Chan led a taut rendition of the finale.

Concluding the concert was “Tico Tico”, by the Brazilian composer Zequinha de Abreu, this charming Choro written in 1917 served as the encore that enlivened the mood at the Perth Concert Hall, doing away with all solemnity and bringing the focus into the here and now.

Eduardo Cossio