The Asian Youth Orchestra’s performance at the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall on Aug. 8 was lively and spirited but not quite up to the standards of the seven previous performances I’ve seen.
As in the past, the AYO — which this year is made up of 104 musicians between the ages of 15 and 25 from throughout Asia under the conductorship of Richard Pontzious — exhibited an abundance of energy, enthusiasm and excitement. However, these qualities seemed at times to dominate the performance at the expense of precision, subtlety and technique.
The evening opened with a vigorous rendition of Hector Berlioz’s “Overture to Benvenuto Cellini,” which was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1838. Following the lead of the guest conductor, the composer Bright Sheng, the AYO faithfully reflected the vibrancy of Berlioz’s overture from the opening bars through the slow, melodic passages and on to the dramatic finale. However, the pizzicato by the cellos and basses fell short on precision and discipline, detracting from the overall coherence of the piece. Nonetheless, the energy and drive of the composition came through loud and clear.
In fact, the word “loud” did seem to apply to all four of the evening’s pieces. This was in part expected because the compositions themselves called for vigorous playing, but it also seemed to be encouraged by the conductor. Sheng allowed the AYO’s youthful energy to burst forth at maximum volume, even when the performance could have benefited from a more subtle or nuanced reading.
The second and third pieces were the conductor’s own compositions, “Flute Moon” and “Red Silk Dance.” The former, based on the Chinese unicorn in traditional Chinese mythology, contained some beautiful lyrical passages with counterpoint provided by some dynamic percussion. The piece was also made memorable by a marvelous passage featuring the piccolo, representing the female unicorn, juxtaposed against the string orchestra, representing the male unicorn.
“Red Silk Dance” is an impressive but difficult composition inspired by music from the Silk Road culture, whose melodic configurations can be traced to the music of Tibet, Mongolia, Central Asia and Iran. The power and dynamism of the piece elicited strong performances from the AYO as well as Robert Taub, the piano soloist. The conducting, however, allowed the orchestra to overwhelm the soloist, to the detriment of the overall performance.
The popular orchestral showpiece “Pines of Rome” is a tone poem in which Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) celebrates the sights and sounds of his native Rome. The piece, with its melodic harmonies and electrifying atmospherics, allowed the AYO to play to its strengths. But here again, one might have asked for a bit more precision, subtlety and nuance as the AYO worked its way to the crescendo of the spectacular finale.
As in past years, the AYO once again gave a memorable performance symbolizing the vigor, dynamism, talent and cooperation of the youth of Asia. With a bit more attention paid to subtlety and technique, it is certain to be even more impressive next year.