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Music-making with virtuosity, beauty and energy at Wellington Youth Orchestra’s last 2012 outing

By , 21/10/2012

Wellington Youth Orchestra – Final 2012 Concert

Music by Thomas Goss, Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms

Louis van der Mespel (double-bass)

Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Wellington Youth Orchestra

Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 21st October 2012

My second encounter of the year with a Wellington Youth Orchestra concert was in its way as pleasurable and invigorating as the first one  – and in fact I thought the orchestra played more confidently and assuredly this time round throughout the entire programme, in repertoire that posed a number of interesting and diverse challenges.

Hamish McKeich was again the conductor, and as was the case during the previous concert, demonstrated a feeling for a range of repertoire I’d not before associated him with. It seemed, on the face of things, a far cry from the fare I’d usually heard him direct, mostly with the contemporary music ensemble Stroma, to the worlds of both Rachmaninov and Berlioz (to name but two of the composers whose music the orchestra played), but he seemed just as at home with each of these respective worlds of sound and feeling as with any “modern” composer’s music.

Of course, present-day composition assumes an enormous stylistic and aesthetic range of expression, as the evening’s first concert item illustrated. This was Thomas Goss’s delightful Double Bass Concerto, written in 2004 and premiered the following year in Santa Rosa, California. It was played here brilliantly by Louis van der Mespel, his performance marking the young soloist’s success in winning the WYO Concerto competition earlier this year.

This work was intended by the composer as a kind of showpiece for the instrument, making use of its “natural” characteristics such as warmth, depth, resonance and available range of pitch and dynamics. In his program note Goss talks about the instrument’s “alternate view of virtuoso string playing” – and van der Mespel’s performance realized these unique characteristics with considerable aplomb.

I found the music had a kind of “English pastoral” feeling, predominantly lyrical and rhapsodic, a style assumed by the double-bass as well, with a few startling extensions to what one would expect from something like a viola or ‘cello! Particularly striking was the instrument’s high register under this young soloist’s fingers – his playing may have had the odd patch of edgy intonation, but such were few and far between.

Goss’s writing for the orchestra was lovely in places where one felt a kind of “outdoors” ambience, the wind-blown string phrases readily evoking open spaces, though ready when required to explore emotional responses to the same, whether reflective or passionate. Among other ingratiating moments were were sequences of dialogue between the soloist and, by turns, the respective leaders of the violin seconds and firsts.

The soloist was given a cadenza-like recitative towards the work’s end, splendidly expressive and wide-ranging, and especially notable for some beautifully-managed harmonics, contrasted with great growlings on the lower strings! A reflective mood dominated the work’s last pages, leaving a poetic, almost elegiac impression at the end. Splendid work from all concerned, and especially from the young soloist!

From double-bass to mezzo-soprano seemed a truly radical tonal focus-shift, but the rich and radiant beauty of singer Bianca Andrew’s opening phrases took us more-or-less immediately into Hector Berlioz’s world of turbo-charged sensibility, though hardly that, it must be said, inhabited by the same composer’s wonderfully hallucinatory “Symphonie Fantastique”.

Instead, with these songs Berlioz found a rather more finely-honed expression perfectly suited to the poetry of Theophile Gautier, the result being a sequence of settings at once sensuous, poetic and elegiac. We were fortunate to hear singing that was more than ready to respond to every inflection of the line and every colour suggested by the text, catching and holding the flavour of each setting so beautifully.

It seemed, too, the instrumentalists were inspired by Bianca Andrew’s radiance and focus throughout – though often not particularly glamorous in effect, the strings kept their intonations nicely in accord with their soloist, and the winds made some lovely accompanying melismas in places. Le spectre de la Rose was distinguished by a range of expression from the singer which conveyed all the bitter-sweet sense of fulfillment in death, raptly accompanied by conductor and players; and the contrasting dark passions of Absence here washed over us with telling force, the repeated cries of “Oh!” like searing sword-strokes to the heart, making the desolation at the end all the more hurtful to experience.

Though the text of the following Sur les lagunes spoke also of loss and desertion, the mood was somehow more radiant, more elevated, with eyes seemingly turned heavenward rather than downcast (“Above me the immensity of night spreads like a shroud”), the music’s grief almost transcendent in its upwardly-reaching outbursts, the highest notes countering the bitterness of those which transfixed the previous setting, Absence. Surely Bianca Andrew was born to sing this music, conveying such a heart-warming sense of release in the cycle’s final song L’Ile Inconnue (Berlioz’s fifth setting, Au Cimetière, was omitted) using her face as well as her tones to delightful effect, and conveying such a generosity of spirit with these heartfelt outpourings. Orchestra and conductor, too, seemed hardly able to contain their pleasure in realizing such beauties, earning the audience’s gratitude and appreciation at the end.

And then, after the interval, there was Brahms! – the Fourth Symphony, no less, a strong, dark, and in places melancholy work, relieved by a giant’s playground of a scherzo (in this and in other instances the most Brucknerian-sounding of all of Brahms’ music) and then capped off by a passacaglia whose heights and valleys, grandeurs and storms resemble those of a mountain range. Youthful energy and confidence kicked in beautifully at the start of the symphony, the occasional phrase snatched a little uneasily, but with most things nobly unfolding, as my notes attest – “conductor gets his strings to “ghost” their figurations nicely” – “big irruptions have plenty of energy, raw in places but spirited” – and “passionate strings – the strain on some of the high notes a sign of their sheer commitment”.

Despite some slightly awry ensemble as strings vied with winds to bring the movement’s coda together, the excitement was palpable, Hamish McKeich spurring his players on and concertmaster Arna Morton leading by vividly-projected example from the front of the strings as was her usual wont. Though the words ‘better to travel than to arrive” had some point in this context, there were apparent feelings of great satisfaction among the players in achieving their opening destination.

Though relatively dry-eyed and light-footed at the outset, the slow movement’s tender beauty was well-chartered, clarinets especially lovely – and I liked the work of the lower strings, violas and cellos who had the theme against the wind counterpoints later in the movement. Though not as “Brucknerian” as I’ve heard, the strings still put everything into their big chorale-like tune, a favorite sequence of mine within the movement, when it returns after a previous outing on the winds. What was Brahms thinking of when he wrote this music? – such regret, and (at the end) almost utter desolation, with only the final wind chord for solace.

The orchestra did its best to cheer the composer and us up afterwards with a rollicking performance of the scherzo, Hamish McKeich encouraging plenty of bucolic girth of texture from the strings and brass, and lovely swirlings from the winds – the music’s “schwung” came across in great waves of energy, contrasting beautifully with the trio’s noble horn tones and lovely string detailing.

As for the finale, with its monumental structures and huge vistas of contrast, the players faced the opening head-on, with full brass tones and sterling timpani work. Though the strings occasionally lacked pin-point attack through their syncopated figurations, they dug in splendidly elsewhere, unfailingly supported by conductor McKeich. The flute solo was gorgeous, and the dovetailing between winds and lower strings went particularly well. When the great mid-movement outburst came, the strings excelled themselves with steady ensemble and full, committed tones – the softer passages a bit further on posed more of an ensemble challenge, but the more stentorian bits were driven home with terrific conviction, the brasses punching out the cadences and the rest of the players making their instruments sing right to the very end. Through thrills and spills alike, it proved a very exciting and satisfying performance from orchestra and conductor.

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