SCRUTINY | High Spirits And Bold Sounds From The National Youth Orchestra Of Canada

By Arthur Kaptainis on August 4, 2022

Sascha Goetzel conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (Image courtesy of the NYOC)
Sascha Goetzel conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (Archival image courtesy of the NYOC)

NYO presents BOREALIS; National Youth Orchestra of Canada; soloist Robert Conquer; Sascha Goetzel conducting. Aug. 3, 2022, Koerner Hall.

The National Youth Orchestra of Canada has a long history of bringing midsummer music to Toronto. The kids — average age just over 20 — were at it again Wednesday evening in Koerner Hall after a two-year hiatus.

This was the last stop on a six-concert tour of Quebec and Ontario. The big symphony on the program was Brahms’s Fourth. Sascha Goetzel, a Viennese conductor with a demonstrative and athletic manner, captured the heart and heroism of the score, slowing down markedly in transitional passages and letting the players loose at fortissimo.

The Andante con moto had warmth and the Allegro giocoso third movement came off with enough vitality to inspire a burst of applause. The variations of the finale were vividly characterized (with the help at one point of a soulful flute) and driven to an exhilarating conclusion. So animated did the conductor become in the final bars that he left the podium in the antigravity style of Leonard Bernstein.

Of course, the important thing was that the show of enthusiasm was reflected by the playing, without distortion or imbalance. My only reservation was a touch of steel in the first violins in the first movement. First and seconds were split, a common configuration these days.

No problems arose in Nino Rota’s likable Trombone Concerto of 1966. Strings were soft and nuanced. Robert Conquer, a Scarborough native now studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, was the mellow and nimble soloist. Amply applauded, he furnished a solo encore, Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for Trombone of 1969. It was an entertaining potpourri complete with rapid tonguing and multiphonics, the latter employed for comic effect.

Sascha Goetzel conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (Image courtesy of the NYOC)
Sascha Goetzel conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (Archival image courtesy of the NYOC)

The program began with Strauss’s Don Juan, a piece that often appears in orchestral auditions. This performance had superficial exuberance, but was simply too loud. Climaxes seemed built from the top down rather than the bottom up. The quiet central section, for its part, was overstretched.

Happily, the post-Brahms encore, the Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, had me tapping my foot without plugging my ears. Roots Beneath, a work on an arboreal theme by the Vancouver composer Katerina Gimon, started with layered sonorities before developing a rhythmic profile meant to represent teeming underground life. It was true to its subject matter in a cinematic style.

Finally, came the traditional sing-along from the stage. The choral sound was lucid — remarkably, since every musician at this point was wearing a mask.

The concert was given the usual NYOC reception. Indeed, the hullabaloo reached the fortissimo level even before the music started. It might seem curmudgeonly to say, but an important part of the concert experience for performers is to feel that applause is earned rather than inevitable. At any rate, the bravos in most cases were richly deserved.

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