Wellington Youth Orchestra trumps with Shostakovich


John Psathas: Tarantismo (Wellington Première)

Rachmaninov: Excerpts from Aleko

Shostakovich: Symphony no.5 (moderato, allegretto, largo, allegro non troppo)

Wellington Youth Orchestra, conducted by Hamish McKeich, with Paul Whelan (bass-baritone)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 11 May 2013

A recent work by John Psathas, Tarantismo demonstrated again his considerable skill in orchestral writing, and his inventiveness.  The programme notes explained that the title refers to tarantism, the extreme desire to dance, that used to be attributed to the bite of the tarantula, but is named after the sea port in southern Italy.  From this tradition comes the dance, tarantella, a rapid, whirling dance.

The piece opened with tubular bells; soon there were brass melodies, particularly on the trombones.  The writing became briefly somewhat Mendelssohnian.  A large orchestra was required; numbers of ‘friends and guest players’, whose names were not listed, joined to support some sections.  I noticed three additional horns, the principal double bass and the principal violist from the NZSO.  There may have been others, notably in the percussion.  I noted, too, two players from the Quandrivium quartet that I heard perform two nights before. There was gorgeous harp playing from Michelle Velvin – and indeed throughout the concert.

Undulating phrases helped the work to build and build in both volume and tempo to complete was a very successful work, with something worthwhile for each player to do.

The surprise guest was brought to the platform for the second work, and turned out to be bass-baritone Paul Whelan, who had been performing the previous night with the NZSO and the Orpheus Choir in Psathas’s Orpheus in Rarohenga.

The music from Rachmaninov’s opera Aleko was completely unfamiliar to me, but most enjoyable.  The Introduction started with woodwind and then there was a big symphonic sound.  Throughout, there were delightful little solos for woodwind, and the harp again made a most distinguished contribution.

The second excerpt was a Cavatina for the bass-baritone.  Paul Whelan almost shocked us with his big sepulchral Russian voice.  Parts of his excerpt were ominous and menacing, the voice used superbly to obtain these effects.  There were some Tchaikovskian turns of musical phrase near the end – perhaps reminiscent of Onegin, since the character in Aleko was described in the programme notes as ‘a world-weary young man from a wealthy background…’  The instant applause at the end was well-deserved.  This was great singing.

The Men’s Dance was rumbunctious, the double basses getting a good workout at the beginning.  Their playing was very fine, as was the brass playing, with some lovely long-held pianissimos, and much for the percussion to do.  McKeich’s conducting gestures looked clear and always meaningful.  The orchestra made a great sound, and always played as a cohesive unit.  The music was very involving.

The best was yet to come.  The playing of the Shostakovich symphony was simply splendid. This, perhaps his best-known symphony, is full of power.  I would be glad to hear a professional orchestra play this work as well as the Wellington Youth Orchestra did, despite a few intonation flaws in the strings soon after the opening phrases.  The strings nevertheless played superbly, rendering the bleak atmosphere through beautifully controlled dynamics and phrasing.  Refined oboe playing was just part of the magical woodwind to be heard throughout.  An unnamed pianist made a robust contribution.

Some Mahlerian phrases could be heard, but much of the music is more abrasive than Mahler, and much more percussion is employed, including impressive timpani playing from, I believe, another guest player.

The rather disturbing opening theme is repeated in many different guises in this first movement.  A violin solo, full of pathos was beautifully played by leader Arna Morton.

Again in the second movement, the double basses got the initial passages.  The jolly (or mocking?) section that followed was full of joie de vivre – apparently.  Solo violin was again an outstanding feature, then flute had its time in the sun, and many others, including the contra-bassoon.  The pizzicato string passages accompanying some of these were absolutely spot on.  The conductor had the measure of the work, and the orchestra conveyed that.

Notable in the third movement were the horns in top form (acknowledging that not all were regular WYO players).  The music moved from the jolly to the sombre here.  After a marvellous harp and flute duet, there followed ominous passages, in which the strings really dug into their instruments, to produce full, rich tone, exquisitely nuanced.  The dramatic contrasts and extremes were most exciting.

The finale started with bang, bang brass, especially the tuba, and timpani, as they played an exciting dance.  The movement ran a whole gamut of senses and emotions.  The period of quietude seemed almost shocking after what had gone before.  The tension mounted as the military, in the shape of brass and side-drum, called; the strings endlessly repeated one note in unison until the climax, and the end.

All the music was chosen well, to give a range of solo passages for many of the players, and passages allowing other sections of the orchestra to shine.  It is hard to think of a symphony that provides more opportunities for woodwind solos than this one does.

The audience, if not large, was very attentive, and a partial standing ovation greeted the concert’s conclusion.  I left the hall on a ‘high’.  All credit to Hamish McKeich and the players.  The future of symphonic music in this country seems secure in these hands.

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