Admirable performances from Kapiti orchestra under Ken Young and hornist Ed Allen

Kapiti Concert Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young with Edward Allen (horn)

Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op 84
Fauré: Masques et bergamasques
Mozart: Horn Concerto in E flat, K 447
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin – Waltz and Polonaise
Saint-Saëns: Romance for horn and orchestra, Op 36
Brahms: Hungarian Dances Nos 1, 5, 6

Church of St Paul, Kapiti Road, Paraparaumu

Saturday 30 August, 3 pm

I don’t think I’ve heard the Kapiti Concert Orchestra play before, which does seem an extraordinary state of affairs. In fact, Middle C seems to have noticed the orchestra’s performance only once: my colleague Rosemary Collier reviewed their concert for Christchurch in March 2011.

This concert under conductor Ken Young revealed an ensemble that must be one of the most accomplished to arise in a community of only about 40,000, though it’s fair to observe that several players come from other parts of the Wellington metropolitan area.

The programme was a model of what is appropriate for an amateur orchestra. It began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which does not present any insuperable problems for such players. I can say that for it was one of the pieces that the orchestra, the predecessor of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, in which I played, tackled satisfactorily in the 1950s.

This dramatic overture began with a massively arresting sound, with basses delivering truly stentorian chords. The following steady tempo that pictures the hope of the Low Countries for relief from brutal Spanish rule under the leadership of Count Egmont. The playing was clean and purposeful; the tension that precedes the transformation that follows Egmont’s sacrificial execution was powerfully created and the coda, in spite of the odd flaw, quite inspiring.

Faure’s Masques et bergamasques was, as the programme note explained, a suite of eight pieces drawn mainly from earlier pieces, some of which had never been published. Given the charming character of most of the suite, it serves to remind us of how much music gets sidelined and goes unheard, for obscure reasons. The orchestral suite includes only four of the eight pieces: the Ouverture, a Menuet and Gavotte (all from an abandoned 1869 symphony) and Pastorale (the only new movement).

The unused pieces, Wikipedia notes, were Madrigal (Op. 35, 1884; for chorus and orchestra), Le plus doux chemin (Op. 87 No. 1, 1904; for tenor and orchestra), Clair de lune (Op. 46 No. 2, 1887; for tenor and orchestra), and a Pavane (Op. 50, 1887).

It’s interesting that in 1869, when this symphony was drafted, Fauré had no significant French symphony of conventional form as a model (Gounod perhaps, but Bizet’s was unknown, and Berlioz’s works hardly supplied a model for a composer of a more orthodox turn of mind). So we can think of Masques et bergamasques as containing at least something of his first attempt at a symphony; there’s also a later unpublished Symphony in D minor (1886). So it’s not typical, especially of his mature period.

The playing was perhaps rather more forthright than one is used to in Fauré, but if the notes are there, then who am I to comment on the way the conductor wants to hear them? In any case there was quite admirable playing from various quarters – violins, oboes and clarinets. But I felt the Minuet wasn’t much of a dance: rather plodding, and the Gavotte emphasized the peasant origins of that dance. With its confident touch of the romantic, the Pastorale felt French and reflecting more of the composer’s ethereal, disembodied personality.

The main course in the first half, in the whole concert in fact, was a good performance of Mozart’s third horn concerto (they’re all in E flat except the first which is in D).  Not only did we get a warm and immaculate performance from former NZSO principal horn Ed Allen, but the orchestra was clearly energized, even inspired, by the task they had taken on, under the conspicuous leadership of Ken Young. The string playing in the slow movement was particularly accomplished.

After the interval – it was a bit long considering there’s no café or much to do other than watch traffic on Kapiti Road – the orchestra played the two dances from Eugene Onegin; the waltz and the polonaise. Instead of a ballabile, flowing quality, the waltz took on a too staccato character, and here I felt the wind players showed excessive energy; timpani too, perhaps as a result of its placing towards the corner, produced a troublesome booming at times.  Something of the same fore-square quality also bothered me in the polonaise, though the marching character of this very formal dance may justify such an approach.

Ed Allen stayed for a second horn piece: one of Saint-Saëns’s pieces for instruments whose solo potential was overlooked. This was a Romance, in slow triple time with a contrasting middle section. Though not one of the composer’s more memorable inspirations, it offered another chance to
hear Allen’s superb playing.

The concert ended with three of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.  I think these, originally for piano, are pretty hard for an amateur orchestra to bring off for they need an instinctive feeling for flexible, varied rhythms and nicely judged dynamic nuances. While the notes may not be too hard to get, they are the sort of music, like Strauss waltzes, and ballet music, that we’ve heard played in relaxed style, effortlessly, idiomatically, flawlessly, by the very greatest orchestras.  It’s music that needs playing with utter simplicity, limpidity and perfection: our taste has been spoiled.

However, everyone came away marvelling at the excellence of the concert, and the fact that an orchestra of such comparative accomplishment has taken root in the Kapiti area. Only in the presence of such generally excellent playing would I have felt able to make the few critical remarks that have fallen inadvertently onto the keyboard.


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