The twenty-first year of Asian Youth Orchestra

Asian Youth OrchestraBefore going into the concert hall, I tweeted, “How many times have I listened to the Asian Youth Orchestra performance? Many. I heard them when I was a youth and I no longer am!” Fellow twitterer Hiro Batten replied that his earliest acquaintance was when they sang Beethoven Ninth, back in 1995. There’s even a compact disc of the concert recorded. That’s sixteen years from now.

Enough nostalgia, and here I come, for yet another Asian Youth Orchestra (AYO) concert, featuring their music director Richard Pontzious conducting a hundred young musicians coming from territories around Asia. I always enjoy listening to the AYO. You can see devoted eyes fixed at the conductor, giving out their best with their instruments, with dedication unrivaled by many orchestras with a rostered season. You can expect an energetic, sometimes coarse but always committed performance of truly admirable standard.

There were years with surprises. The 2008 Shostakovich Fifth was memorably vivacious. A Mahler first years ago was stunningly great. When they have a right repertoire, they often bring the best energy of it, grenade it out with no mercy. That’s the excitement of being young.

But for this one, with Sergey Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony, it is somehow tricky. The Classical Symphony is neither rapturously fresh, nor it is perfectly refined. As we often say, this is “neither here nor there.” Sometimes I feel the tempo rather strange; a fluctuating gavotte, for example. But overall this is a fine symphony featuring some great solos in the orchestras.

The tempo problem becomes worse for Tchaikovsky. An intended hold of the quaver F in the beginning horn call takes me as a big surprise. The deliberate rubato, or liberty in tempo, is not something easy to go with ears familiar with the work. This discomfort is not something to go away as music proceeds. Mr. Pontzious takes quite much liberty, with rubato, incalzando, con moto or meno mosso around, and not all the tempo fluctuations are naturally understandable, if not sometimes puzzling.

With Tchaikovsky, however, no one is expecting an underwhelmed performance. The orchestra is always ready at full thrust, salting on the most heartbroken moments and glorifying the victorious times. The brass players are glistering, perfectly accurate and making confident noises. The woodwind is more uneven, but the solo players are shining through the dense soundscape. The melancholic theme of the second movement, squarely phrased but irregularly marked with breathing marks, is heard with the players managing so well the awkwardly articulated phrase. With razor sharp percussions at the back, the thunderous finale surely brings the house down.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw delivered a clean and amiable performance of two solo pieces, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Carmen Fantasy based on Georges Bizet’s opera.

This is the first time ever in AYO’s history playing in the City Hall. Great acoustic, great sound, the hall is always better than the Cultural Centre across the harbour, citing quick renovation as a reason. Good thing.

The now programme book and the 1995 CD featuring Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Date: August 21, 2011
Venue: Hong Kong City Hall

Orchestra Photo © Asian Youth Orchestra

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