Courageous Wellington Youth Orchestra tackles enterprising programme amid space difficulties

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Arna Morton (violin)

Twentieth Century Classics: Lilburn: Song of Islands; Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No 1, Op 35; Sibelius: Symphony No 7 in C, Op 105

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 5 October, 7pm

Though audiences at the tri-annual concerts by the Wellington Youth Orchestra are sometimes no bigger than the number of players, and this one was probably about that too, critics do not exaggerate when they remark that in most cases the performances are impressive and satisfy all but the most (unrealistically) demanding of listeners.

Again, if your interest is in hearing great if unfamiliar music pretty well played, as distinct from imagining serious deficiencies compared with our professional orchestras, why not come along? When did you last hear a performance of any orchestra work by Szymanowksi? A look through the 5-year archive of Middle C reviews reveals only the Concert Overture played by the NZSO in April 2010.

So we rely on our amateur and student orchestras to come up with performances of slightly out-of-the-way but quite important music like Barber’s Cello Concerto from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra or Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony from this orchestra last year.

On Saturday we heard Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto. It’s a very demanding work, exploring a sound world that might have suggestions of certain of his contemporaries, but is quite likely to lose listeners in its mystical sound-painting. The challenge for the violinist was as great, and in the treacherous acoustic, much of the dense and low-pitched sound verged on the chaotic.  The difficulties for both soloist and orchestra are so great that the impact can be cluttered, its real beauties almost impossible to perceive because of Szymanowksi’s scoring and musical imagination.

The opening from woodwinds and the solo violin’s sparkling, ethereal lines promised well enough as the violin sustained its long notes voluptuously. Arna Morton is certainly a gifted player and her navigating the fiendishly complex and rhythmically intricate decorative phrases had to be admired. What is demanded above all is a sound that is warm and opulent, but strangely, from what was evidently a fine violin (on loan from the New Zealand School of Music’s donation from Clare Galambos-Winter) the sound was a bit less than that and its tone, sometimes edgy and brittle, did not altogether capture the sensuality of Szymanowski’s music.

One of the shortcomings of a youthful orchestra can be its difficulty in sustaining pianissimo sounds, and providing a really sensitive underlay for a solo part that is rarely of blazing intensity, though still
demanding extraordinary virtuosity and finesse. The occasional outbursts from the orchestra left too little space for the intricacies of the violin part to emerge, apart from passages such as 8 or 10 minutes in where the violin has vigorous marcato down-bowings that match the orchestra’s exuberant mood.

One of the tell-tales marks of orchestral imbalance, the lack of clarity in orchestration which is not really all that thick, was my inability to hear either the celeste or the harp even though I was sitting on
the left side, not far from them: they were rather lost in orchestral turmoil.

It’s really a most beautiful concerto which demands subtlety and extremely careful balance between sections and between instruments. I rather feared that this admirable initiative, allowing an audience to hear a work that seems neglected in this country, was not quite the triumph it might have been.

The other works in the programme were more within the reach of the orchestra. Lilburn’s Song of Islands deserves to be better known, written while he was living very much in the world of Sibelius; in fact I know of no other composer whose music has so absorbed aspects of Sibelius’s sound world while imposing on it his own musical personality. Lilburn was 30 when he wrote this piece and he has made a
distinctly personal statement in it, creating sounds that might be hard to hear as picturing the Otago landscape but which do seem to suggest New Zealand in a quite confident and mature way. By and large, the orchestra, particularly the strings, produced very fine, near velvety sounds, while it was the woodwinds whose lines seemed to fare less well, not quite so well integrated.

The orchestra was strengthened in almost every section by professional guest players and though I could not see well who was playing the principal parts in the prominent and generally most accomplished wind passages, I imagine they were given mainly to the Youth Orchestra players themselves.  The guest players’ roles would have been in mentoring and in maintaining good ensemble and balance rather than seeking the limelight.

Sibelius himself was represented by his Seventh Symphony, not his easiest to bring off on account of its single-movement structure and the need to enliven rhythms amid big sweeps of broad melodic washes. If there were the usual problems of too loud brass and timpani, where a degree of modesty might have been expected, the strings were again conspicuous for their warmth and homogeneity, and woodwinds as they danced against timpani.  The orchestra’s playing was most effective in passages where stronger rhythms and bolder melodies arose.

The orchestra is faced with a conflict between playing in a space which is too small and reverberant and in the Town Hall where they have generally played in the past to good effect, but which is too big for the modest audience that usually comes.

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