A Happy Few hear well-balanced concert from Wellington Youth Orchestra

Verdi: Overture to La forza del destino; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G (piano: Asaph Verner), Rimsky Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol; Respighi: The Pines of Rome

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Gregory Squire, and Pelorus Trust Wellington Brass conducted by David Bremner

Wellington Town Hall

Monday 3 October, 7.30pm

Concerts by youth orchestras ought to be filled with young people who come both to support their friends and school and university mates, and to savour the sort of music that we all first came to love in our youth. For if all too many schools no longer feel the need to furnish the minds of their pupils with the furniture of civilization, the responsibility for doing so now has to rest with all the musical organizations that can make contributions.

This concert was enlivened with the collaboration of the Pelorus Trust Wellington Brass, which relieved the orchestra of playing the Verdi overture, and at the end joined in the last movement of The Pines of Rome which depicts the approach and arrival of a Roman army on the Appian Way, retuning victorious from battle in the east. It was conducted by NZSO principal trombone David Bremner who is the band’s musical director.

The remainder of the concert was under the clear baton of Gregory Squire, who sucessfully energised these talented young players. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol was among the earliest of my recordings – four sides of 78s no less – and the overture to The Force of Destiny wasn’t far behind. My discovery of the Respighi and Ravel pieces came later, in my early twenties.

So the overture, an old favourite of brass bands, probably from as far back as the late 19th century, revealed the Wellington band’s superlative qualities. The music’s features were strongly sculpted by powerful trumpet fanfares, rhythmic energy and beautifully shaded dynamics.

The band left the stage while the piano was moved to the front for the performance of the Ravel concerto. It should have come as a surprise that a teen-ager and a youth orchestra should tackle it, since it was considered a famously difficult work, Ravel himself, no mean pianist, declined to give its premiere and it was done by Marguerite Long.

The orchestral score is no less difficult than the piano part, so the occasional stumble, minor falling apart of rhythmic ensemble, some less than beautiful sounds such as the opening of the third movement were all eminently acceptable; more so given the uncompromising speed at which the first movement was taken. The piano is exposed, alone, for long minutes in the beautiful Adagio and while a degree of nervous tension in the pianist was transmitted through the music, the main impression was of remarkable focus and a sense of calm. When the orchestra did emerge we heard some fine clarinet, cor anglais and bassoon playing.

The last movement is fairly short and Gregory Squire took advantage of the situation by repeating it; by no means flawless, the orchestra did far more than start together and end together, the many prestissimo and virtuoso passages for both pianist and orchestra were delivered with huge gusto and a great sense of enjoyment.

Capriccio Espagnol followed the interval, an even more spectacular vehicle for almost all sections of the orchestra to show their talents and skills. In turn I was impressed by the musical acumen of cor anglais, horns, flute, the febrile solo violin a couple of times, the harp and finally an especially nice passage for cellos and basses. In all, it was the sort of performance, highly coloured and energy-filled, that would have won over any hall full of teen-agers who, unfortunately, were not there, and nor were their elders.

Finally, The Pines of Rome. My last live hearing, I think, was from the Wellington Orchestra under Marc Taddei. Once upon a time Respighi was a favourite object of scorn from the avant-garde who knew the kind of music that audiences ought to be forced to listen to – names like Rachmaninov and Respighi were not among them. Happily they have survived rather well and repeated hearings, even by orchestras of amateurs or students, do not pall.

Whether or not deliberate, it was a nice touch for Rimsky Korsakov’s pupil Respighi to follow, demonstrating how well the master’s orchestration lessons had been learned. The Pines opened at the gardens of the Villa Borghese, north of the Quirinale, with encouraging fanfares of brass, which seemed somehow in rather better heart now than at some earlier moments.

But it was the second movement, the strings painting the sombre scene at a catacomb that particularly caught my ear, with dark brass sustaining a fine atmosphere. The movement depicting the pines of the Janiculum Hill, the oasis of green across the river, just south of the Vatican, continued the quiet mood of the Catacomb, opening most effectively with clarinet and piano, a masterly exercise in landscape painting, though I don’t recall hearing bird calls which appear in one of my recordings.

The Pines of the Appian Way, the great Roman road to the south east of the city, invited a military scene, for the roads had a primary military purpose, and the crescendo of the slowly approaching army is brilliantly portrayed, by low strings and percussion, soon joined by the forces of Wellington Brass which had been arrayed, silent, behind the orchestra waiting for its moment of glory. The noise was predictably splendid, and the small audience did its very best to make like an overwhelmed full house.


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