Debussy La Mer
Nielsen Symphony No 5
AYO/Thomas Dausgaard
Sydney Opera House, July 22

It is always a privilege and a pleasure to attend a concert by the Australian Youth Orchestra. The cream of Australia’s emerging orchestral talent is a joy to behold and this concert was a corker. They were directed by the splendid Danish conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, who was last here in 2008. We were offered two works, Debussy’s La Mer and Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. As this was one of the popular Tea and Symphony concerts with a shorter program than is usual, the Carl Vine Violin Concerto, which had featured at earlier performances, was not played. 

Debussy’s remarkable evocation of the sea never dates; it is never anything other than a miraculous orchestral creation. On this occasion Dausgaard encouraged his players to treat the music with airy lightness, a style which infuses the best French music of the period. The orchestral detail was as clear as a bell, the sparkle and splashes of water and light effectively observed.

It is probably an unfair comparison, but the upper strings and horns were in fine form compared to their counterparts in our permanent orchestras! The AYO strings played with a discipline and virtuosity not always on show in our concert halls. The horns were a far more reliable ensemble than I have heard recently, where too many bum notes often bring down the good work of individual players. The brass was in balance with the rest of the orchestra, which also made a nice change from what we are used to in Sydney. Dausgaard’s interpretation was exemplary. His control of the work’s moods, especially his thrilling pace for the storm-tossed final section.

Nielsen’s Fifth is a magnificent work. This is the famous piece where the destructive side-drum passages try to smash through the grandeur of the orchestral texture. The Danish composer’s strong musical ideas are ready to hand, with a few nods to Nordic countryman Sibelius. The taut unison woodwind phrases in the final movement are a good example of this.

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