Youth Music Culture Guangdong (YMCG), the annual festival celebrating young classical musicians in China, was back partially live this year after having gone all-virtual in 2021. The 2022 edition wrapped up with a stellar closing concert on 23 January at Xinghai Concert Hall in Guangzhou, featuring the 2022 YMCG Symphony Orchestra under conductor Jing Huan and joined in a live performance via video by YMCG’s artistic director Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist.
Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony
In keeping with the focus of the chamber music side of the festival, the concert opened with Beethoven. The Symphony No. 6 in F major “Pastoral”, Op. 68 is one of the most joyful of the great composer’s creations. With it he transports listeners neatly seated in an artificial concert hall into scenes of nature and the countryside.
The first movement expresses the joy of arrival in the wide open spaces. Taking a moderate tempo, Maestro Jing led the young musicians in a dynamic, cheerful reading of great clarity, revealing revealed the thematic and rhythmic subtleties in this ostensibly straightforward piece.
Beethoven programmed each movement to evoke a particular pastoral scene. The second movement narrows the focus to a scene by a brook, complete with flowing water and bird calls. The woodwinds shone in their diffused timbral identities as well as in their exposed moments as the orchestra painted the scene dynamically and in full color.
During the Scherzo, Jing led the orchestra through smooth shifts between the 3/4 country-dance sections and the Trios. It was easy to imagine the revelry Beethoven intended to depict here – indeed, to share in it. All the more dramatic was the sudden violent thunderstorm that follows without a break.
As a whole, this is one of the most confident performances by a youth orchestra that I’ve ever heard.
The thankful, post-storm shepherd’s song that forms the Finale sounded the most pastoral of all. A bit of dynamic imbalance in the contrapuntal sections submerged some detail at times, but the spirit never flagged, all the way through to an especially expressive performance in the warm, beautiful coda.
Dvořák and an Honored Guest from Afar
Yo-Yo Ma then appeared on a screen above the orchestra. Here, technology enabled – and the pandemic necessitated – a form of collaboration that would have stunned the composers of past centuries. Rounding out the concert and YMCG as a whole, Ma joined the orchestra remotely for the “Ode to the Moon” from Dvořák’s opera “The Water Nymph.” With the cellist visible playing on a large screen above the orchestra, the sublime little piece tolled sweetly, from the harp’s introduction through the hymnlike theme, developing melodic progressions, ethereal linkages, and sweetly grand rising arpeggio at the end.
The performance had none of the latency that plagued attempts at remote collaborations during the early part of the pandemic. Thus, aided by a good live mix, you could close your eyes and assume the soloist was on stage with the orchestra. The young musicians played most gracefully, as they had during the Beethoven symphony.
With this final concert, YMCG 2022 came to end having shown the youthful riches of China’s classical music culture. One of the festival’s aims is cross-cultural connection between China and the West. Numerous Chinese musicians have developed international careers performing the Western tradition’s great music. YMCG proves there are many more to come.