Searing contribution from the WYO to “Recovering Forbidden Voices”

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No.8 in C MInor Op.65
BEETHOVEN – Two Romances for Violin and Orchestra Opp. 40 and 50

Malavika Gopal (violin)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Monday, 25th August, 2014

This concert was associated with a series of performances, presentations and discussions entitled “Recovering Forbidden Voices” –  programmes organised by Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music and the History and German Programmes of Victoria University of Wellington, and held over the previous few days (22nd-25th August) in the capital. The “Forbidden Voices” referred to music and composers who fell foul of the Nazis in Europe, resulting in many works, particularly by Jewish composers, being suppressed or banned over the period associated with the rise of Hitler to power in Germany.

The music of Shostakovich came under fire in his native Russia at the same time for different reasons – the composer had, during the 1930s, famously fallen foul of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” but had rehabilitated himself somewhat as a “people’s artist” with his Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, the latter work celebrating the siege of Leningrad and the heroism of the Russian people. What the composer privately thought of the war, its effects upon his homeland and the events surrounding the conflict was more realistically delineated in his Eighth Symphony.

The work wasn’t received with any great acclaim, reviews being tinged with disappointment and bewilderment at the music’s bleak, pessimistic tone – “significantly tougher and more astringent that either the Fifth or Seventh…..unlikely to prove popular…” commented a colleague of the composer. These were prophetic words, as in 1948 the infamous “Zhdanov decree” issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party attacked the composer and his work, accusing him of “formalist perversions”. As a result, the Eighth Symphony wasn’t performed again until 1956.

The Russian view of the symphony that has endured was expressed a number of years later later by the great pianist and associate of the composer, Sviatoslav Richter, who called it “the decisive  work in Shostakovich’s output”. While perhaps not as popular in the West as the aforementioned Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, the C Minor work’s greatness and incredible  depth of tragic expression has come to be acknowledged everywhere.

While the symphony’s performance readily associated the occasion with the “Recovering Forbidden Voices” theme, the concert’s first half presented a dramatic and perhaps a welcome contrast in anticipation to Shostakovich’s conflict-torn work. This was supplied by both of Beethoven’s Romances for violin and orchestra, performed by soloist Malavika Gopal, currently a player with the NZSO, and back home in Wellington after a period of study and performing experience overseas (including a stint with the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra).  However, before the concert proper began we were properly welcomed by three speakers, firstly Professor Donald Maurice representing the School of Music, and then by the Mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade-Brown, and the Government Minister for the Arts, Chris Finlayson, all of whom talked about the “Forbidden Music” venture.

Once the music got under way, Malavika Gopal’s quality as a violinist was instantly apparent, the opening solo of the first of Beethoven’s Romances as sweet-toned as one could wish for, and the contrasting middle section properly gutsier and grainier, as befitted the music. Naturally all the attention seemed to be on her, except that if Hamish McKeich and the orchestra’s accompaniments had faltered in any way we would surely have noticed!

I have a slight preference for the less ritualistic, more rhapsodic No.2 of the pair of Romances, and Malavika Gopal didn’t disappoint with this one either, if anything sounding even sweeter-toned in the music’s freer, more soaring lines.Though reluctant to pass judgement to any great extent on her musicianship after such brief encounters with her playing, I would nevertheless be anxious to hear her tackle some more extended solo repertoire, which her return to take up a place with the NZSO “firsts” will hopefully enable her to do here in Wellington.

An interval decently distanced the two very different listening experiences for us, after which it was “all posts manned (sic)” for the Shostakovich. Though feeling hopeful as regarding the capabilities of these young players (thanks in part to my hearing a wonderful recent performance by the School of Music Orchestra of Vaughan Williams’ difficult “Pastoral” Symphony) I did have reservations regarding their abilities in sustaining Shostakovich’s vast and bleak vistas of pessimism and deep sorrow, punctuated by frighteningly intense outbursts of fear and anger. And I wondered how on earth this group of young players was going to be able to generate sufficient tones to fill the spaces of the Michael Fowler Centre. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.

Right from the beginning, the playing seemed galvanised by a kind of spirit akin to grim determination, Hamish McKeich getting the lower strings to dig furiously into the textures, and, together with the chilling entries of the winds and the brasses, catch the “edge” of the music. Each section of the orchestra seemed to “speak its name” and assert its character in full measure, the treble voices across the sound-spectrum by turns plaintive and shrill, the middle voices properly insistent, and the basses both brooding and massively weighty as required.

Though the upper strings occasionally had problems with their intonation when essaying those great contrapuntal passages, the players kept the intensities to the fore, keeping the argument strongly and inexorably ploughing forwards, the winds and brasses rising spectrally from growing disquiet mid-movement and brutalising both the themes and their interaction, with incredibly powerful onslaughts of sound, leaving the cor anglais and the clarinets to try and pick up the pieces. Despite the strings’ on-going struggle to hold those long mezzo-forte lines together, and the trumpet with its sudden declamatory phrase having a bad moment (probably after the player had delivered the passage  perfectly at rehearsal umpteen times!) the music’s purposeful strength was tenaciously held to the movement’s end.

What amazing, garish, full-on sonorities were hurled at us over the course of the two following scherzo-like movements! Such tremendous, playing-right-out work from the winds – and to such ghastly, ghoulish effect – in the first scherzo, Allegretto, piccolo, bassoon, clarinet, and then piccolo again, were all superb! Here, the strings occasionally had that nightmarish “wartime air-siren” aspect, which galvanised the brass and percussion into brutal sequences, harrowing ostinati torn by savage climaxes – however, Hamish McKeich took care to preserve the music’s shape with his players, maintaining a sense of ebb-and-flow, which held things in check, albeit temporarily, the contra-bassoon having a few droll soundings of its own, helping to ease the tensions.

All, it seemed, to little avail, as the savage, relentless viola ostinati which began the third movement allegro lashed out and flailed away at our sensibilities. My favourite part of the symphony (sensation-monger that I secretly am), I’ve always found the Russian recorded performances of this movement in particular streets ahead of those made in the West, with conductors like Kondrashin and Mravinsky requiring of their players such raw, unbridled attack and relentless, unequivocal savagery when addressing the music’s machine-like rhythms. I had been told by McKeich that he had studied the work with Valery Gergiev in Europe, and that he was fully aware of the special “Russian” performance characteristics, which for him informed the playing of that repertoire. In this movement, as with the rest of the symphony, his direction was as good as his word.

It actually sounded for much of the time as if a Russian orchestra was playing, so determined and up-front were the efforts of the players to give what their conductor was asking for – and for me it put some of the professionally-polished, but much-too-genteel efforts of some crack ensembles I’d heard on record in the shade. Full marks in particular to the trumpeter and side-drummer in the crude, ironic trio section – the strings couldn’t quite match the “bite” of the solo instruments here, but they made up for it when the opening returned. And the brass and percussion at the climax overwhelmed, as they ought to have done, the timpanist lashing out mercilessly, underlining the brutality of the composer’s nightmarish depiction.

So it was we were plunged into the great Passacaglia of the fourth movement, brass announcing the crack of doom and the string lines utterly despairing, the winds adding to the desolation with their helplessly-lost utterances, piccolo, bass clarinet and tongued flutes expressing the “fumbling in the despairing dark” referred to by one commentator – here it all sounded exactly like that, the impulses and gestures well-and-truly “gutted”.

Which is why the transition to the finale effected by the bassoon solo was such balm to the senses, even though the resolutions which followed remained properly haunted and bruised to the end. When questioned, the composer told a friend that the C Major transition to the concluding Allegretto had cost him “so much blood”, but that the end of the symphony was optimistic, despite the reiterate of moments of anxiety – though nothing further from the tub-thumping of the Fifth Symphony’s finale could be imagined than this work’s closing pages.

What these young musicians and their conductor gave us was a deeply-felt, incredibly-committed and stunningly-delivered emotional journey, thrills and spills all part of the human experience. It deserves to be remembered as a landmark performance by any standards, but certainly as a glowing achievement on the part of Hamish McKeich and the orchestra, and a cause for warm appreciation on the part of those fortunate enough to be present.



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