Bringing the Talent to you

April 2013

As part of their European Spring Tour, 2013, the EUYO under the baton of their charismatic music director, Vladimir Ashkenazy, arrived in Lucca on 5 April to perform in the magnificent Romanesque basilica of San Frediano.

The increasingly high standard of our many youth orchestras and their well-attended concerts is commendable, but the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) is something else. First formed 35 years ago, it is funded by the EU member states and provides invaluable training and experience for young, aspiring instrumentalists who reside in the EU. There are up to 140 young musicians chosen each year from all 27 EU countries, together with several expert coaches, and competition is rife! Selection is made annually from around 4,000 candidates aged between 14 and 25, (the youngest this year is 16yrs) who take part in auditions throughout the EU, and members who want to stay in the orchestra have to re-audition alongside new applicants each year in order to keep their place. The standard of performance is therefore extremely high.
Interestingly, this year Italy is the country providing the highest number of orchestral players, with 11 musicians.

Vladimir Askenazy
When asked about his experience of working with this young orchestra, the great Russian-born pianist and conductor, Ashkenazy said that they are,
‘Really quite special’ and that ‘their spirit, too, is absolutely incomparable.’

These qualities were very much in evidence on Friday evening, much to the delight of the large audience, packed into the specially seated nave of the basilica. The concert programme was by any standards demanding, but the members of this young and exciting orchestra under their inspiring director showed that they were more than ready to take up the challenge.

Ballet Russes
The choice of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for the second half is not surprising, since this year is the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the ballet in Paris, (which nearly caused a full-scale riot among the audience). It was commissioned by the Russian choreographer, Diaghilev for his company, the Ballet Russes, as was the first work performed, the two musical suites taken from Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis et Chloë (first performed in Paris 1912).

The difference in colour, sonorities and musical styles between these two works first performed only one year apart, demonstrates clearly the emergence at the turn of the 20th century of a new diversity of sounds and structures in music, and a new freedom and desire to challenge the accepted mode of composition.
Although innovative with melody and harmony, Ravel was a Classicist in that he relied on traditional forms. He was a great orchestrator, and his craftsmanship led Stravinsky to describe him as ‘
the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers.’

Ravel in 1910

The story of Ravel’s ballet tells of the love between the goatherd, Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé and the music is sumptuously romantic, with lush impressionist sonorities. This long work, which Ravel described as a symphony with choreography is scored for very large forces, including two choruses (not obligatory in the concert version), and a huge percussion section with celesta and wind machine. This last in particular allowed him to produce a magical effect evocative of nature, with shimmering strings, lyrical, modal melodies and colourful harmonies. No wonder Stravinsky described it as, ‘one of the most beautiful products of all French music.’
This was a chance for the orchestra to shine, to show us what they could do both technically and expressively, and shine they did. The tonal subtleties, warm and expressive sounds and the sheer enjoyment of performance were exhilarating, and that first hour flew by in a sea of wonderful sonorities, of orchestral virtuosity and structural perfection.
The second half was taken up with Stravinsky’s
The Rite of Spring.

Like Ravel, Stravinsky used Classical structures and his music of this period earned itself the label of Neoclassicism. Both composers used very large orchestras for their works with unusual instruments, in order to gain the optimum colour; both moved away from traditional tonality and harmonies and both were influenced by and used folk-tunes and dances. They explored the area of Jazz; in fact, Leonard Bernstein called Stravinsky’s work, which depicts a pagan ritual as prehistoric jazz. However, there the similarities cease.

Stravinsky conceived this work almost immediately following the successful premiere of his fairy-tale ballet, The Firebird; he set it aside for the composition of Petrushka, then resumed in the autumn of 1911 and completed the score in the spring of 1912 in a hotel in Clarins, Switzerland. The story is based around the coming of spring, and the pagan ritual of a virgin sacrifice to ensure good harvests.
Stravinsky said, ‘I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite; sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.’

Clarins, Switzerland
The bitonality of harmonies heard a century earlier in the Choral Symphony of Beethoven, a work which changed the future of the symphony are once more heard in Stravinsky’s music, but with a much more violently clashing dissonance. Stravinsky found these colours at the piano while he was working in Clarins; the right hand playing a C major chord using white notes, against the left hand playing Fsharp major – black notes, each chord at opposite ends of the spectrum for maximum effect. Then there are the jagged, pounding, pulsating rhythms and the asymmetrical bar lengths and phrases, giving a raw primeval sound. But despite the revolutionary nature of this work, which Puccini described as the ‘work of a madman,’ the Rite is rooted in musical traditions. The melodies are based on Russian village folk songs; in fact the opening melody is actually a Lithuanian wedding song, but it is the way Stravinsky orchestrated it that caused so much controversy when it was first heard. The melody, around the note C natural is played unaccompanied on the bassoon in its very highest register, leaving it very exposed and giving a very eerie and plaintive sonority. It is joined by the cor anglais playing a counter melody using C sharps giving an unsettling bitonal dissonance and there follows a complex weaving of woodwind lines before as Stravinsky told his biographer, ‘when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke.’
This unusual combination of instruments – for example, a duet between the Eb clarinet and bass clarinet playing 2 octaves apart - can cause real problems with intonation, but none of this was evident. In fact, the faces of the young performers lit up as they energetically ploughed their way through virtuoso passages, showing a mature understanding of the composer’s intentions. It was made clear that it is this interesting orchestration that gives Stravinsky the opportunity to realize his vision, and to create unique washes of sound through unusual combinations of unusual instruments.
Performing this work is apart from anything else, physically very demanding, but the vitality and excitement generated by the young players and their conductor was electrifying. The joy emanating from the stage was felt all around the auditorium, and after playing an encore – Ravel’s Pavanne - with wonderful sensitivity, Ashkenazy blew farewell kisses to the audience and the players embraced each other before leaving the platform.
When asked what it was like to conduct this orchestra, Ashkenazy said,
‘Whenever you stand in front of a good orchestra, you feel that life is worth living!’