First Limelight YMCG story on the closing concert is already up!



“The only way to play music is: when we are on stage, we are all equal,” Yo-Yo Ma told the audience after emerging from the nether regions of the orchestra’s cello section. The superstar cellist addressed the audience in Xinghai Concert Hall in both English and Chinese at the closing concert of Youth Music Culture Guangdong, a ten-day event which saw young musicians from around the world – from countries including Australia, Hungary, Italy and Japan – gather in Guangzhou, China, for an intensive period of musical and cultural exchange centred around the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

It was with Bach that the fourth year of YMCG opened ten days earlier: under the deft baton of conductor Jing Huan, the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and the talented young musicians of the Guangzhou Symphony Youth Orchestra offered up a fascinating exploration of the many faces of Bach’s music. With heartfelt arias from Ma and American violinist Johnny Gandelsman presented alongside organ works reimagined for the colour and might of the modern symphony orchestra (by the likes of Stokowski, Respighi, Elgar and Schoenberg) the opening concert paid joyous tribute to Bach’s enduring legacy in the 20th century.

The closing concert on January 18 was likewise bookended by orchestral takes on Bach’s music, the 71-strong YMCG Orchestra – a mixture of ages and experience levels, spanning students to professionals, as well as keen players forging careers in professions outside music – performing selections from the Art of Fugue (in arrangement by Ljova) and finishing the concert with Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, all under the baton of Kansas City Symphony’s Music Director Michael Stern.

Between these pillars was a complete cycle of the Brandenburg Concertos and 11 performances by ‘Silk Road’ bands – groups who re-arranged, composed and improvised on Baroque dance suites in contemporary evocations of Bach’s own methodology. Finally, woven through the program were appearances by Yo-Yo Ma himself, performing excerpts from the Cello Suites he has been touring around the world, including to Australia, as part of The Bach Project.

The concert was therefore a marathon, four-hour affair – presented without an interval – and while the musicians might have been playing at different levels, the performances were all infused with a sense of joy and collaboration. There were many memorable moments to savour: Han Mengying’s oboe solo in the First Brandenburg Concerto, for instance, or Evelyn Petcher Brandes’ violin in the Fourth, or the rich viola sound of the Sixth.

Between the Brandenburgs, the Silk Road performances were a chance for the participants to cut loose, with dancing, improvisation and theatrics providing a welcome change of texture and style – there were moments of jazz, flamenco and a hoe down, while a cellist from Kazakhstan, Tolkynuly Talgar, played the dombra, and YMCG 2020’s sole Australian participant, flautist Henry Liang, beguiled the audience with the haunting timbres of the Japanese Shō. Wild bass solos, strummed celli and percussive grooves abounded, the audience at times driven to cheer and clap along. But ultimately each performance, however varied, tied a discernible string back to the music of Bach, making for an effective complement to the Concertos.

Ma’s own performances were a pleasure – “I am the oldest YMCG participant,” he quipped – and there was an audible exhalation of delight from the audience as he unspooled the opening broken chords of Bach’s Cello Suite No 1. The unsung hero of the evening, however, was faculty harpsichordist Avi Stein, who performed in all six Brandenburgs – the formidable harpsichord cadenza of the Fifth might be considered a night’s work by itself – as well as in poignant, intimate duet with Ma.

For the Third Orchestral Suite – culminating in brassy triumphant in the Gigue – Ma re-joined the back desk of the cellos, a touching manifestation of the spirit of collegiality and community through music which he fostered throughout YMCG and this final concert.

by Angus McPherson on January 22, 2020