The great bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman once reflected: “Too many young musicians today want to win polls before they learn their instruments.” Quite clearly, this sentiment doesn’t apply to the gifted young musicians in Canada’s National Youth Orchestra. For more than 50 years now, the NYOC has been a bridge between academic studies and a professional career, providing experience and high-quality training for young performers.
These high standards continue to be evident in their tenth and latest CD, an attractively packaged two-disc set featuring music by Ravel, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Neal Gripp and Jordan Pal under the direction of Emmanuel Villaume.
Despite a lukewarm reception at its premiere in 1912, Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé has long been regarded as his masterpiece. Typically Gallic, the score is sophisticated and sensuous, and the NYOC does it full justice. The ensemble achieves a sonorous, full-bodied sound with a wonderful melding of strings, woodwind and brass. While the tempos are perhaps a little more languorous at times than customary, this doesn’t necessarily detract from a fine performance.
The second disc brings us to 19th-century Germany and 21st-century North America. Wagner’s Prelude to the first act of Lohengrin is quietly introspective, the warmth of the NYOC strings evoking the magical mood of the fairy tale opera to come. In total contrast, the popular 1895 tone poem Til Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss is all exuberance and jollity, where the puckish charm of the hero is fittingly characterized by a virtuosic brass section.
The remaining two compositions are recent creations. Violist Neal Gripp’s Passacaglia was intended as a dialogue between flutist Carolyn Christie and her musical colleagues in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Archly neo-romantic, the music has an elegantly elegiac mood, contrasting with the bombastic The Afar by NYOC composer-in-residence Jordan Pal. A musical depiction of the Afar triangle in Ethiopia, the score is exciting and colourful, requiring the youthful ensemble to pull out all the stops. It does so admirably, bringing the disc – and the set – to a most satisfying conclusion.