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Youth orchestra offers up free show

National Youth Orchestra, August 11, 2013

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

The National Youth Orchestra of Canada visits Vancouver this weekend in what is sure to be one of the musical highlights of the summer. It plays at the Chan Sunday afternoon in a program including music by Wagner, Britten and Debussy.

As it turns out, there’s more to this visit than a single concert: the Vancouver gig is sponsored by the Health Arts Society, the brainchild of David Lemon, which brings top-quality performances of chamber music to audiences in Lower Mainland care facilities.

Lemon, who has also served on the board of the NYOC, founded Health Arts in 2006. For this event, an interesting model was hatched: get a limited number of backers to support the endeavour, then offer a free public concert, plus an ambitious outreach program of shorter chamber music programs, with orchestra members playing to listeners whose limited mobility effectively bars them from to traditional concerts.

“A free concert is a wonderful opportunity to hear challenging music played by this group, which plays very well after weeks and weeks of rehearsal,” Lemon says.

“These young people are highly trained and can take full advantage of such a wonderful learning experience. Their Vancouver appearance is a great opportunity to offer the majority of tickets free to the public at large – the best possible way to bring an audience to this wonderful youth group.”

Established in 1960, the NYOC has been of inestimable importance in Canadian musical life. British Columbia has always sent a strong complement of players, and this summer there are two further Vancouver connections.

Firstly is conductor Alain Trudel, who was the last to lead Vancouver’s CBC Radio Orchestra before it was disbanded in 2008. Secondly, James O’Callaghan, a composer and sound artist who studied at Simon Fraser University, has been this year’s Emerging Composer-in-Residence and Sunday’s concert features his new work, Isomorphia, for orchestra and electronics.


The chamber music aspect of the NYOC’s mini-residency is another matter entirely. In past years, there has been some criticism that big blockbuster programs don’t address the whole orchestral playing spectrum. Indeed, Arthur Kaptainis of The National Post’s review of the orchestra’s recent Toronto performance chided: “Once again I find myself tempering my commendation with the wish that Trudel would program some Mozart and Haydn to balance all the big stuff.”

Playing chamber music at least partly addresses this concern. As Lemon notes, “The chamber music component is very important in musical training. You have this enormous orchestra playing enormous works, but the balancing of it with chamber music experience is not so widely publicized.

“Chamber music is, by definition, music for small rooms, and that’s exactly the environment we can supply – audiences of about 40 people, who get very little live entertainment and music making of this quality. We have 11 groups, of four and five players each, and then a brass ensemble of 11 players. We’re squishing all this activity into two days. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to have this kind of outreach.”

Then there are the implications of gifted young players, on the thresholds of their professional careers, playing for marginalized audiences.

“The care home experience will be a definite eye-opening experience,” Lemon admits. “It will likely change some of the young players’ lives.”

When you get down to it, changing lives is what both these programs are about. The NYOC is a finishing school for up-and-coming orchestral performers; the network of provincial Health Arts Societies are about bringing the life-enhancing value of music to those who may well need it the most. “We undertook about 900 concerts in British Columbia last year, and the same number this year,” Lemon says.

Just as the NYOC draws from every province and territory, the HAS has gone national.

“We do have programs now in every province and territory, although the organizations are still nascent in some locales. We want all these satellite organizations to be adopted and staffed by local people,” Lemon says.


Composer uses field recordings of Vancouver’s environment

As the NYOC’s Emerging Composer-in-Residence, James O’Callaghan has enjoyed a unique opportunity during the last two seasons.

“I was able to not only hone my skills, but also experiment and try new techniques,” O’Callaghan says.

Though he had already had readings by the Victoria and Vancouver orchestras, this was a chance to take risks.

“The most surprising thing was actually how little I was surprised by the result. Since I come from an electroacoustic background, where the composition of the sound is always direct and immediate, the process of writing for orchestra can be very abstract for me (especially with so many instruments to keep track of). The result was very close to what I had imagined. Either I got lucky, or I’m getting the hang of this.”

Though the work has been performed elsewhere, hometown listeners may well have an edge in understanding the work’s sound materials.

“Most of the sounds are transcriptions of field recordings,” explains O’Callaghan. “Animal calls, water rushing, traffic jams, and other sounds of the environment. So, for listeners in Vancouver, what they will hear are ‘relics’ of this process.”

Thu Aug 8, 2013