Ahead of its final concert for the year, conductor Leonard Weiss talks about where the orchestra has been and where it’s going.

How has the Canberra Youth Orchestra evolved over its 50-year history?

By their nature, every orchestra continues to evolve; players change, new conductors arrive and those working behind-the-scenes can change, so the musical language, culture and visual identity of an orchestra can continue to develop. As with any organisation, the legacy of CYO is embodied by its members and alumni, whose careers have brought many of them to leading professional orchestras in Australia, overseas and, of course, in Canberra!

I believe that youth orchestras exist in part as a training ground for up-and-coming professional players (as well as a great social outlet and development opportunity for passionate musicians who are looking toward other careers) and I am confident that philosophy hasn’t changed during the orchestra’s history. Yet each conductor brings their own background and set of aspirations for the orchestra, so I’m honoured to join the ranks of those who have furthered CYO’s history.

Leonard WeissCanberra Youth Orchestra conductor Leonard Weiss

What’s your own history with the CYO?

During my student years, I was fortunate to be invited to perform with CYO on a few occasions; on harp in Holst’s Planets, and on French horn for Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the premiere of Marian Budos’ Symphony No 2 in 2013. As with many musicians who are still in CYO, I learned a great deal about orchestral performance from CYO’s previous conductor, Rowan Harvey-Martin. I also remember sitting in the audience for their riveting performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring combined with the Sydney Youth Orchestra under their conductor Max McBride. (I later had the honour of assisting Max for his National Capital Orchestra concerts and learned a great deal – I’m still in awe of his poise when walking on stage!) 

I was honoured to be selected as CYO’s conductor in mid-2015, well and truly amongst my peers at the seemingly very young age of 22(!). I was fortune to inherit a terrific group of musicians and an exciting first programme including Weber’s Bassoon Concerto with Matthew Ventura (who is currently kicking goals at the Australian National Academy of Music and as principal bassoon of Australian Youth Orchestra) and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony No 3. From then on, it’s been all my own programming and we’ve been very fortunate to have been joined by many extraordinary soloists from Australia and abroad.

As a conductor, what do you see as CYO’s orchestral ‘character’ – how does it ‘conduct’ differently compared to other groups and ensembles you’ve led?

We’re a youth orchestra so there’s inherently a lot of energy, especially at every performance. This brings an incredible liveliness to our bigger repertoire in particular, but equally it can be a challenge, particularly on the rare occasion when we are over-eager for fast tempos. I have the wonderful opportunity to work with musicians who are always hungry for new repertoire and are diligent in approaching challenging parts, from iconic repertoire staples to much of the 20th-century repertoire we’ve performed this year (and to the 21st-century repertoire coming up next year – spoilers!). This means that when we’ve had a few concerts close together, the orchestra has well and truly risen to the opportunity. At the same time, we’re all still learning and some of our musicians are experiencing large orchestral performance for the first time, so there’s a culture that needs to be maintained – arrive early, learn how to tune up, don’t talk during rehearsals, etc. – while keeping a positive enjoyment.

What is the significance of CYO’s 50th anniversary year to you?

I must admit that it originally came as a surprise – after all, I’m just into my third year with the orchestra, so it’s only now that I really feel like I’m hitting my stride. My first priority was ensuring an incredible year for our musicians, hence the programme of milestone repertoire and our truly world-class soloists. Having an amazing programme also enhances our ability to engage with our alumni and our audiences; indeed this combination of repertoire and soloists is continuing to attract record four-figure audiences, and it is very rewarding performing to a full house. (You should see the buzz of 80 young musicians looking out into the crowd just before they walk on stage – you can’t beat it!) 

As with any milestone year, our 50th anniversary provides the opportunity to reflect on and engage with our past, linking those successes with an exciting contemporary programme. I like to ask myself the inverse question to yours below; how can our alumni celebrate CYO in our 50th year? It has been very rewarding to see the extent of our alumni network and hear individuals reach out to others (Facebook is amazing for this sort of massed communication). I’ve realised the tremendous impact that CYO has had in the lives and musical development of so many people!

Canberra Youth OrchestraCanberra Youth Orchestra and The Idea of North

How will CYO be featuring its alumni in the culminating concert of its anniversary year?

It’s important to honour our history and reflect on the many wonderful musicians who have walked these paths before us. I’m proud that several alumni are joining us on stage for this performance, mainly in our jazz repertoire which is not “standard orchestral repertoire” and will still be interesting for them, and that many more alumni will be present in the audience and at a separate orchestra-and-alumni-only function with James. 

What drew you towards James Morrison as a featured guest, and what do you think he’ll bring to this concert?

Without a doubt, James is one of the best Australian musicians in the world. (Much like The Idea of North, who performed with CYO in April, I find it important that he is a world-renowned Australian musician who is still highly active within Australia.) James brings the most incredible sound and quality to every performance, and although he’s obviously working hard (check out those top notes!) he always looks like he has such a great time. Plus, he is renowned for working with students and young musicians – so it has always seemed like a perfect match. I know that he will bring his world-renowned performance ability, but also trust that he’ll vibe off the energy of our performers – we are all very excited to share the stage with him.

(I must also admit to being a bit biased… Mum is a string player and Dad is a brass player, so I was raised with a very diverse musical palette and maintained instrumental lessons on harp and trumpet throughout my school years. To be able to share our performance with one of the greatest brass players of the generation will be a dream come true!)

The programme blends jazz standards with Gershwin and Copland. What do you see as the musical thread between these works, and how do you think they’ll come together on the same stage?

James’ repertoire was his pick of enjoyable pieces that would showcase the orchestra and also provide a broad selection of jazz styles to learn. And of course, most of these charts were written at the same time as Gershwin and Copland were at their peak. So although you can’t quite label Appalachian Spring as jazz, you can hear a similar harmonic language along with distinctly contemporary rhythmic sections – no doubt in response to the music which surrounded Copland at the time. Gershwin’s An American in Paris is a bit easier to tie in; much like Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story which we performed at the start of this year, you can hear the influence of jazz styles from Gershwin’s use of syncopation through to the inclusion of saxophones in the orchestra (even if some sections sound like they’re written in Paris, Las Vegas, rather than Paris, France). I find this to be a very cohesive programme as the repertoire tends to come from the same time and place, so put on your best American boots and prepare for an amazing evening!

What was the thinking behind linking these works to the celebratory theme of CYO’s 50th anniversary?

CYO’s repertoire this year has been a mix of exciting 20th-century music and other highlights from the repertoire – pieces that are captivating for audiences and immensely rewarding for the orchestra. We’re definitely continuing that trend in this concert; both the Gershwin and Copland are delightful, iconic pieces, full of stunning imagery for the audience – yet despite being very well-known for their quintessential American language, they’re not performed often in Australia. Likewise, our repertoire with James showcases a variety of jazz and Latin styles which present the opportunity for musical development of the orchestra and alumni. Everything in this programme offers new colours and a unique musical voice that differs from the “standard orchestral repertoire” and for the audience they’re all exquisite pieces to listen to. What a fantastic way to finish our 50th year!

When you think about where CYO has come from and where it’s going, what excites you about its future?

“More of the same” might seem like a hasty answer but it’s true; this year has been amazing and we have a wonderful musical culture, which I know will continue to support terrific performances over the coming years. Having built a strong connection with alumni this year, we’re already looking at ways to integrate this more strongly into our future programmes and on a more regular basis. Reflecting so extensively on CYO’s history provides the perfect scaffold to build our upcoming concert series, which I will have the pleasure of launching at our concert this weekend. Without giving away too much, we’re continuing to programme repertoire highlights alongside a fantastic line-up of soloists from Australia and abroad, as well as increasing our showcase of Australian repertoire which will include a major world premiere in 2018.

Of course, all youth orchestras serve a developmental purpose – I’m enjoying seeing and teaching up-and-coming younger musicians in Canberra, who I know will continue to make CYO shine in a few years’ time. After such a strong year, I am truly excited to be part of where CYO will go next!


Leonard Weiss conducts James Morrison and the Canberra Youth Orchestra at ANU’s Llewellyn Hall on November 11.

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