Fine Choral Symphony from Wellington Youth Orchestra, but where’s the audience?

Beethoven: Symphony no. 9 in D minor, Op.125

Wellington Youth Orchestra, Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus, members of the Bach Choir, Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Bianca Andrew (mezzo), Derek Hill (tenor), Robert Tucker (bass), conducted by Hamish McKeich

Wellington Town Hall

Monday 29 July 2013, 7pm

The Wellington Youth Orchestra obviously works very hard, and is made up of extremely competent young musicians.  It is only two-and-a-half months since the last concert, which included a taxing Shostakovich Symphony.  Here they are again, playing Beethoven’s demanding final symphony, with choir and soloists; a considerable undertaking for a youth orchestra.

But where was the audience?  This major work has not been performed very recently in Wellington.  Perhaps people think ‘this is a kids’ orchestra – it won’t be very good’.  That is totally incorrect.  Where, though, was the advertising?  I was unaware of the concert until a few days before it happened.  I didn’t see any flyers handed out at other concerts (perhaps there were).  Here was a major choral concert, but the Wellington Regional Committee of the New Zealand Choral Federation was not notified of it, for their excellent listing emailed to choirs, giving details of forthcoming choral concerts.

Not only was the audience small; the orchestra and choir were both smaller than is usually employed for this work.  This did not matter in a less-than-half-full hall, and both lived up to expectations, on the whole.

Again, the orchestra had ‘friends and guest players’, whose names were not listed, joining to support some sections.  I noticed the NZSO’s principal double bass and others added to that section, the principal flute from the NZSO, plus a horn player, a cellist and a violist  There may have been others.

The concert began 10 minutes late – for a relatively early concert timing, this was an irritant.  However, I was soon disarmed by the playing: crisp rhythms and lively variety of dynamics were immediately apparent.  As I sat back and enjoyed the music, I thought what a great a symphony this would have been even without the choral finale.

These young musicians knew what they were doing, as the majestic first movement grew in stature – everything was given full weight.  This is not easy music, but there was no hesitancy and only a very occasional wrong note from this fine ensemble of 50-plus players.

The second movement was driven along forcefully by Hamish McKeich.  All parts were beautifully articulated in this highly dramatic scherzo.  The tempi of the movements were rather confusingly printed in the programme; suffice to say that they are 1 fast; 2  Scherzo: faster; 3 slow; 4 fast, with numerous slower bits interspersed.

The gorgeous slow introduction to the third movement, with its noble melody is followed by
variations upon it.  The playing was full of wonderful woodwind and horn ensembles.  Occasionally the pizzicato accompaniment on strings was not completely together nor loud enough, but that is a quibble; the playing was generally splendid and built up the tension marvellously well.

Beethoven’s motifs came through more than adequately – for example, the frequent pizzicato
passages for the cellos.

The final movement opened quite fast.  There was a big moment for cellos and double basses, and they performed it very well.  Then they were lucky enough to introduce the grand theme upon which the remainder of the movement is built.  The bassoon variation was played superbly.  When the violins finally got their chance, followed by the full orchestra, the music was declaimed with confidence and strength.

Beethoven’s words to introduce Ode to Joy by Friedrich Schiller were sung by Robert Tucker with plenty of power, and a rich vocal quality, although the lowest note was rather beyond his easy reach.  The other soloists were all exemplary, but their placement behind the orchestra meant a lack of volume and clarity at times.

The chorus of about 35 voices was, on the whole, impressive. However, the orchestra rather overwhelmed it at some climactic moments.  The men were strong in their passages sung without the women.  They are frequently asked to sing in a high tessitura, and those passages are spiked with chances for error, only one of which I was aware of the men falling into: shortening the word ‘muss’, thus making an unpleasant hissing noise where it was not wanted.

Tenor Derek Hill is quite slight of build, but he delivered the goods.  Bianca Andrew’s and Madeleine Pierard’s voices blended well, and were similar in timbre.

While I don’t expect the soloists to have ghastly grins on their faces, I would have thought that Ode to Joy might have evinced some appearance of happiness from the soloists, especially at the end; the women particularly looked very glum.  In some performances of the work, but not in this one, the soloists join with the chorus at the end, which seems a good idea – all the singers combining in the last great shouts of joy.

I haven’t listened to a performance of this masterwork for many years – instead, I’ve sung in it
numerous times.  This performance was uplifting – and I didn’t have to worry about whether I could reach the repeated top notes!


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