Asian Youth Orchestra HK Coliseum and Cultural Centre Concert Hall Reviewed: Aug 11, 12 and 13 Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Asian Youth Orchestra (AYO) extended its traditional two-programme appearance with a gargantuan third showing at the Coliseum on Friday, opening with principal conductor James Judd (below) playing it solid and safe with 100 former AYO members in Elgar's Enigma Variations. Richard Pontzious, the orchestra's founding conductor and artistic director, then marshalled the alumni, the current orchestra and a bevy of hopefuls for next year's ensemble in a party-time performance of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, involving 300 performers, dry ice and an explosion of confetti on the final chord. In the cavernous acoustics, the sights were more engaging than the sounds. At Wednesday's concert in the Cultural Centre, Pontzious directed an all Richard Strauss programme that had its moments in tutti passages but was flecked with split notes and diminished by textural imbalance. The macho sides of Don Juan and the suite from Der Rosenkavalier were well served, but the pieces' respective lush femininity and veiled sensuality were either culturally difficult to grasp or weren't suitably addressed. Cellist Alban Gerhardt was the soloist in Don Quixote; the part represents the knight of the title who is plainly unhinged, but Gerhardt's bland interpretation of the eccentric's whimsies hardly reflected this. His performance of Schumann's Cello Concerto the next night was more convincing: excellent speeds were struck with Judd thankfully observing Schumann's original, if controversial, tempo directions; getting such a large string section to accompany so discreetly was a triumph in itself. Mahler's Symphony No 5, however, was the eye-opener. The players found a maturity of sound throughout the ranks, both sectionally and as soloists, digging deep in response to Judd's superb direction that attracted only one question mark over the restless mood of the Adagietto. That apart, Judd continuously illuminated orchestration details and maintained momentum where many a professional outfit just ripples off.