Young musicians’ mid-winter warm-up with Mozart and Rachmaninov

Wellington Youth Orchestra Winter Concert

RACHMANINOV – Symphony No.3 in A MInor Op.44

MOZART – Requiem (arr. Maunder)

Amelia Ryman (soprano) / Alison Hodge (contralto)

Cameron Barclay (tenor) / Matthew Landreth (bass)

Wellington Youth Choir (Katie Macfarlane – Music Director)

Wellington Youth Orchestra

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Wellington Town Hall,

Sunday 12th August, 2012

Aside from the circumstance of this being the THIRD Mozart Requiem performance offered the Wellington concert-going public this year so far (after all, it’s only August!), I thought the program of this concert by its own lights adventurous and challenging. And, regarding the combination of Mozart and Rachmaninov, a well-known French saying – “Vive la différence” can easily put it in an acceptable context.

Looking at things more closely than mere concert listings, one then discovers that, unlike with the first Mozart Requiem performance of the year by the Bach Choir of Wellington, this latest performance did feature an orchestra, and not merely an organ accompaniment. And unlike both of the previous performances (the second one being by the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir and the Vector Wellington Orchestra), the recent one explored some different musical territories, using an edition prepared in 1986 by the scholar Richard Maunder, which largely dispensed with the attempts of Mozart’s pupil, Franz Süssmayr, to finish the work, uncompleted at the composer’s death.

Maunder’s version, completed in 1986, retains some of Süssmayr’s completions of Mozart’s sketches, but abandons what he feels are the non-Mozart parts, such as the Sanctus and Benedictus. Maunder does retain the Agnus Dei, feeling that the influence of Mozart did guide Süssmayr here more directly. But he recasts the work’s two final movements differently – Lux Aeterna and Cum Sanctis – drawing from material earlier in the Requiem. 

Like others before and since, Maunder considered Süssmayr’s work generally unworthy of Mozart’s, though many music-lovers down the years have had far more cause to thank than revile the unfortunate “johnny-on-the-spot”, given the sheer impossibility of his task. Poor Süssmayr wasn’t exactly a favourite of Mozart’s, either, the composer, in a letter to his wife Constanze, referring to his erstwhile pupil as a “blockhead”, and likening his native intelligence to that of “a duck in a thunderstorm” – but then Mozart was often almost pathologically unkind towards people he considered his inferiors.

From the singers’ point of view (as well as from that of this audience member), the dropping of both the Sanctus and Benedictus might well seem unfortunate, irrespective of considerations of greater “authenticity”. Still, both the on-going conjecture and the various attempts to render the work nearer to what the composer might have “wanted” have kept the music well away from any kind of museum mothballing. In essence, it’s very much a “living classic”, and likely to remain that way, considering that some of the work’s secrets can never be actually told – merely guessed at.

As regards the actual concert, I’ve run ahead of things, here, as the evening began with music from quite a different world. This was the Rachmaninov Third Symphony, a stern test, I would have thought, for a youth orchestra to tackle. Rachmaninov wrote this work late in his composing career, and filled its pages with contrasting and conflicting impulses and emotions. In places, the sounds and themes nostalgically evoke the Imperial Russia of the composer’s boyhood, of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, particularly the latter composer – Rachmaninov shared some of his older compatriot’s fondness for quasi-oriental themes and orchestral colorings. In other places the music snaps at the heels of contemporary trends, with enough rhythmic and timbral “bite” to suggest Bartok, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

There are the familiar Rachmaninov trademarks, among them the well-known plainchant “Dies Irae” theme, which pulsates like an electric current through much of the composer’s music (contributing not a little to its deep, prevailing melancholy, and undoubtedly influencing Stravinsky’s famous description of his compatriot as “six feet of Russian gloom”), the brilliance of the orchestration, and the heartfelt beauty of the themes, so candidly and unashamedly expressive. It seems incredible when listening to this work to imagine anybody writing of its effect – “a chewing-over of something that had little importance to start with….” which is what one New York critic wrote after the premiere in 1936. Another, a tad more sympathetically, wrote “Rachmaninov builds palaces with his music in which nobody wants to live any more…”.

Fortunately for those of us in the audience at this concert, conductor Hamish McKeich and his young players (their numbers judiciously augmented by a handful of NZSO members, probably some of the students’ tutors) seemed to pay no heed to such agenda-driven comments, and instead plunged into and appeared to revel in what the music had to offer – a whole-hearted, sharply-etched lyricism, expressed through a brilliant and wide-ranging orchestral palette. Both conductor and orchestra leader Arna Morton seemed to me inspirational by dint of gesture and physical involvement with the music, each readily able to delineate the work’s every mood and movement and show the rest of the players the way.

Arna Morton’s solo playing was nicely turned, as were some of the many wind solos throughout the work – the horn solo at the slow movement’s beginning actually sounded rather “Russian” with an engaging “fruitiness” of tone. Then first the flute and afterwards clarinet (from where I was sitting I couldn’t actually see the soloists) made a lovely job of the third movement’s solo lines leading to the whiplash conclusion of the symphony; while, of the other instruments, Dorothy Raphael’s timpani made something resplendent of the brief but impactful crescendo at the climax of the central movement’s scherzando section.

The richly lyrical moments were what this orchestra did best – the opening soulful “motto” theme, and the movement’s luscious tunes, the second movement’s richly and exotically-wrought archways, and the finale’s dying fall, the melodies and their inspiration spent. In these this orchestra gave its all, bringing a natural, youthful ardor to the shape and intensity of those yearning lines. And the  ceremonial episodes, such as the finale’s opening, had great exuberance, a similar sense of “playing-out” and letting things “sound”. Somewhat predictably, the players found the many treacherous “scherzando” passages in the work difficult, fraught with syncopations and difficult rhythmic dovetailings, as though the bar-lines were booby-trapped and waiting to pounce. To their credit, conductor and players kept going through the squalls, celebrating the triumphs and thrills along the way as readily as coping with the spills – at the end of the day the performance’s overall effect did enough of the work justice for conductor and orchestra to be pleased with its achievement.

Orchestrally, the Mozart was more uniformly impressive, perhaps even too much so in relation to the choir and soloists, whose relative backward placement seemed to put them at a dynamic disadvantage. Of the soloists, soprano Amelia Ryman shone brightly, her lines clear and silvery and always a delight. The others lacked her projection, and sometimes had to force their tone to be heard, stationed as they were just at the foot of the choir. It’s always seemed to me that composers intended soloists’ voices to stand out, rather than be given a “solo voice from the choir” kind of balance; and here for most of the time alto, tenor and bass needed all the help they could get, not necessarily an enthusiastic student orchestra anxious to demonstrate what they could do, to accompany them.

Throughout, both the general playing and detailing of individual instrumental lines from the orchestra was of a high standard – a sonorous trombone solo at “Tuba mirum”, majestic strings at “Rex Tremendae”, and secure brass and strings throughout the final “Cum Sanctis” fugue. The choir sang truly, beautifully and accurately, even if there were times when those voices didn’t manage to get across the weight of tone required to properly dominate the sound-picture, such as in the aforementioned fugue. To fill a Town Hall with sound, after all, takes some doing. I would have actually like the soloists closer, so that I could have more readily enjoyed Amelia Ryman’s singing, and got a better sense of the voices of the other three. For each of them, mellifluous moments of singing alternated with sequences where they seemed to struggle to be heard against the orchestra. Tenor Cameron Barclay made the most consistent impression, though his voice seemed not to have quite the same command and attack that was evident when he sang in the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, earlier in the year.

Still, very great credit is due to these young singers and players for what they achieved, and to their “guiding hand” on the night, conductor Hamish McKeich, who was able to bring the different elements together and preside over their fruitful interaction. The efforts he and others inspired made for an enjoyable and heartening evening’s concert.

















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