Saturday, July 7, 2012


Although I appreciate Oamaru's 'Opera House' it is not an opera house. The stage is small, there is an echo from the back wall, no real opera orchestra would want to play in the tiny orchestra pit. It is a theatre, built more than a century ago, renovated at great cost and because it is here Oamaru can attract events usually only staged in cities. Such an event was the concert by California Youth Symphony and Christchurch Youth Orchestra. The youngest performer is thirteen, the eldest players eighteen.

We arrived early, because the poster in the library said '7p.m.' , but the Oamaru Mail got it wrong and advertised '7.30'. Worse,  'Oh, they're not coming here!' a volunteer at the Opera House told phone enquirers.  So we came early and stared at the uninhabited stage for forty minutes.  delicate metal chairs, music stands and a conductors' podium.

At 7.30 precisely the California Youth Symphony, one hundred and eighteen teenagers, boys in black tie suits, girls in long black skirts, walked on stage. In spite of having travelled down from Christchurch that day, after playing a concert the evening before, they must have made time to familiarise themselves with the Opera House stage because they knew exactly where they should be sitting there was no confusion. They sat like statues through introductory speeches. The young concert master, Ryan Lucas Luo gave the 'A'but instruments were already in tune.  The conductor
Leo Eylar looked little older than the players, raised his baton and Ravel's La Valse began, played with assurance and discipline. Then Leo Eylar paid tribute to the Opera House, changing the planned 'Billy the Kid suite' to the orchestral suit from 'Rosenkavalier' composed about the time the opera house was built.

During the intermission the Christchurch Youth Orchestra came on stage and practised their arpeggios in the way our National Orchestra used to. The Californians had been slender,dark haired,  mostly Asian. Christchurch Youth Orchestra was well built., fair skinned, mainly blonds and red heads. When concert master, Natalie Jones, turned her back to the audience to give the 'A' we were treated to the sight of a trim little figure in black trousers which demolished the calumny about New Zealand women having big bums. Conductor Luke di Somma raised his baton. What did we expect from a bunch of school kids who had lived through hundreds of earthquakes? We got 'From The Depths Sound The Great Sea Gongs.' Farr is not an easy composer, either to play or to listen to. His rhythms and harmonics are unconventional. But this 'bunch of schoolkids' gave us a listening experience that I think Farr would have had in mind when he wrote the piece. The music surged and meshed, the percussion demanded that we listen. It was fantastically good. (and I am not a Farr fan.)

For the last item the orchestras combined, literally. They helped each other cram nearly one hundred and fifty musicians, their instruments, their music stands, on to the stage. Natalie Jones gave the 'A' ,Luke  di Somma conducted and when Tchaikovsky's Overture to Romeo and Juliet finished stolid old Oamaru rose to its feet and cheered.

Outside in the late night fog, buses waited to take both orchestras back to Christchurch. The Californians will fly out to-day.

Think about it. Those young musicians probably had less than a week to rehearse playing together. I have heard a lot of great orchestras play Tchaikovsky, but I swear none of them were better than the combined youth orchestras of California and Christchurch in the  Oamaru 'Opera House' last night.

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