National Youth Orchestra of Canada with Michael Francis (conductor) at Koerner Hall, Monday.
It started not with noisy tuning on stage, but a hearty round of applause as upwards of 100 young Canadians emerged from the wings of Koerner Hall. Yes, it was the annual visit of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, as its followers and alumni call it, although “Canada” must be added officially to distinguish the 55-year-old training ensemble from more recent pretenders. The concert on Monday was a night of good sounds and high spirits, usually in that order.
The main event was Holst’s The Planets. Mars is in no danger of losing its bellicose reputation. All the same, the British conductor Michael Francis managed to add an edge by upping the tempo while keeping articulation clear. Seldom has that quintuple beat sounded so convincingly like a menacing, off-kilter march.
In Saturn, the conductor reversed the strategy with a languid approach. Flutes in this movement are hard to get just right, but everything else was suitably hypnotic. We also enjoyed the lively chatter of Mercury; the strange swagger of Uranus; and the virility of Jupiter, even if the great central tune (despite Francis’s suddenly horizontal gestures) could have been stretched a little more. There were intonation problems here and there in Venus, a vivid seductress just the same.
For better or worse, the truly distinctive performance was of Neptune, in which the female fiddlers headed backstage to sing the ethereal chorus, and not very well. Do I ask choristers to pick up the violin? Nor did the slender complement of players on stage do the music justice. Nevertheless, this was an engaging tour of the solar system.
Earlier we heard Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto with Hugo Lee, an NYOC veteran, applying a bright sound and sure sense of curvature to the solo role. I wonder if the long line of the principal theme needed a comma or two. This was not a problem in the finale, alternately gamboling and lyrical. The accompaniment was as sweetly collaborative as could be desired. Lee (as we learned during an onstage presentation) is the winner of the Canada Council Michael Measures Prize.
The opener was the world premiere of monograph of bird’s eye views by Emilie LeBel. Lower case in the title was not the only conventional element of this eight-minute fabric of long dissonant tones and decorative tinkling. Encouraging young composers is not a bad idea, but I was hoping for something more original than this.