Wellington Youth Orchestra’s final, tumultuous concert for 2014

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:

BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.7
WAGNER – Overture “Die Meistersinger”
J.STRAUSS Jnr. – On the Beautiful Blue Danube

Wellington Youth Orchestra

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Tuesday 21st October 2014

Richard Wagner described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as “the Apotheosis of the Dance”, referring to the dominance of rhythm over melody throughout much of the symphony’s duration. Yes, the tunes are there, but, apart from some lyrical sequences in the work’s introduction, and throughout the trio of the third-movement Scherzo, the melodies are constantly dancing, stamping or galloping about!

If ever a work by Beethoven demonstrated the composer’s own euphoric description of his art – “I am the Bacchus who presses out this wine which makes men spiritually drunk!” – it’s this uninhibited riot of a Symphony – though not as epic as the Third or Ninth Symphonies, nor as heaven-storming as the Fifth, the Seventh Symphony gives an elemental display of god-like exuberance that leaves its listeners exhilarated and its performers spent through giving their all.

It had an enthusiastic contemporary reception, even though most of the acclaim that followed the very first concert in 1813 went to the composer’s gimmicky “Wellington’s Victory”, with which it shared the program. But once the novelty of the “battle piece” had worn off, the symphony began to assert its well-nigh irresistible appeal, with the second, Allegretto movement in particular capturing its listeners’ imaginations – this movement was in fact played alone for a time more often than was the complete work.

Beethoven’s efforts did not, however, find favour with some commentators, whose sensibilities were obviously affronted by such unseemly demonstrations of raw energy! Friedrich Wieck, father of Clara (Schumann), was present at some of the rehearsals and observed that the composer of such music must have been in a “drunken state” when writing the work. And Beethoven’s great contemporary, Carl Maria von Weber, thought that parts of the first movement alone qualified the composer as “fit for the madhouse”. Even a decade later, a London critic wrote of the work, “Often as we have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connection in its parts.”

Posterity has reversed these opinions, though a dissident echo was provided by the legendary conductor of more recent times, Sir Thomas Beecham (no great lover of Beethoven’s music, even though he recorded several of the symphonies) – after giving a typically riotous performance of the Seventh, Beecham drolly commented, “Well, what can you do with it? – it’s like a lot of yaks jumping about!”

Such criticisms and comments missed the point of the “excessive” nature of the work’s rhythmic character, one which Beethoven had touched on more generally with his “I am the Bacchus” comment, and which the work brought to a kind of apogée in terms of constant energy and momentum. And these qualities were at the heart of what Hamish McKeich and the Wellington Youth Orchestra players were able to achieve in their recent performance.

The players clearly felt the import of the symphony’s “introduction” here – no mere symphonic throat-clearing, or “getting the pitch of the hall”, but a statement of intent containing the seeds of what was to follow – thus the tensions were built up via the strings’ dovetailing of the scales, the lower echelons “digging in” with point and focus on each occasion, the winds and brass intensifying the harmonic ambiences, then nicely terracing the tensions, keeping us in a suspended state for what was to break forth. Something much more than Viennese “gemütlich” was obviously on the agenda.

The allegro was taken at an urgent clip – the flute led the way magnificently, well-supported by the strings, while the first big tutti was a riot of energy and colour, the brass a bit approximate in their note-pitching, but the impulses were right where they ought to have been. Early on, a feature of the playing (as it needed to be in this symphony) was the work of the orchestra’s timpanist, whose command of both propulsion and dynamics right throughout was, I thought, exemplary. But everybody hove to – the winds were sonorous, the brass exciting, even when fallible, and the strings kept the rhythms a-tingling.

The beginning of the development brought some anxious ensemble moments with those treacherous dotted rhythms, the winds further unnerving things by being temporarily awry with an entry. But they made amends by steadying the rhythm leading up to that wonderful, exhilarating reprise, together with the brass getting those shouted dotted interjections bang-on! By this time the interactive support between the sections was kicking in nicely, so much so that there was a wonderfully delighted squawk from a young child in the audience during one of the pauses before the coda!

What followed was like an encounter with the elements – the lower strings caught the “vortex” aspect of those incredible “churnings”, from which the rest of the orchestra, by a sheer act of will gradually pulled us upwards from and into the light – though the horns struggled a bit with their triumphant “whoopings” the rhythms had oceans of momentum, and caught the exhilaration at the movement’s end.

I thought the second movement arresting at the outset, the lower strings purposeful, the violins sharing theme and counter-theme, stoically supported by the winds, brass and timpani. The trio, too, was nicely focused, the theme by turns tender and expressive, with lovely clarinet work. A somewhat weedy start to the pp string fugato broke the spell momentarily – the strings seemed happier when playing with fuller tones. But apart from the surprise of the clarinets seeming not to enter with one of their phrases right at the end, the movement’s gravitas was strongly maintained.

Which was the last thing that sprang to mind with the explosive beginning of the scherzo! – instead, boisterous fun was the order of going, the music’s triplet rhythms a whirl, and the winds and strings managing their “giggles” at the end of each of the sections. By contrast the trio’s solemn lay rang out lyrically (winds) and then majestically (strings and brass), with the timpani again a tower of strength in conjunction with the latter.

I confess that I momentarily gaped at the hectic pace the conductor adopted following the finale’s two opening flourishes – this was a REAL allegro con brio and the young players certainly bent their backs to the task, whether exuberantly stamping the rhythms out or whirling through the figurations. Conductor and players kept the momentum going splendidly through the lighter passages, and made a great fist of things like the leaping string unison exchanges and the whooping brass calls – hair-raisingly exciting in places, as were the timpani’s splendidly focused and detailed energies.

And so it continued, through the powerful thrustings of the last big orchestral build-up before the coda, and into the furious vortex of scarily shifting, droning harmonies from winds and lower strings, leading up to what Sir Donald Tovey called the “Bacchic fury” of the work’s coda. Perhaps the winds might have lost their footing momentarily with their tricky angular entries and syncopated harmonic shifts amidst the maelstrom of sound and fury that the composer was building up, here – but somehow, it added to the effect of this elemental, inchoate material being imbued with energy and propulsion as to burst out with unparalleled power and splendour, everybody pulling together to bring off those final, whiplash chords in properly thrilling and conclusive fashion.

We needed an interval after that! – so, having enjoyed a breather, everybody was back for the second half’s intriguing mix of Wagner and Johann Strauss. FIrst up was Wagner’s Overture “Die Meistersinger”, an item I was looking forward to immensely, because I had played the cymbals in a performance during another life, many years ago!  Here, the brass rang out the first four notes gloriously, setting the scene for a carnival atmosphere of polyphonic largesse, the same players getting slightly ahead of the rest of the orchestra in one place in their eagerness to impress. Hamish McKeich favoured fairly brisk tempi, even through the transitions containing fragments of the opera’s more lyrical moments, which made for a breathless effect, as we were quickly plunged into the “entry-music” for the Mastersingers from Act Three, which, incidentally, went with proper pomp and ceremony.

I thought McKeich could have relaxed a little with the central section’s lyrical sequences – the playing wasn’t allowed to expand vocally, in the way that the tunes do in the opera itself, though perhaps the conductor wanted to keep the ensemble “tight”! However, the winds trotted in merrily during the “apprentices” section, managing a cheeky trill at the end of their sequence, as did the strings in places, the odd precarious-ensemble-moment smartly manoeuvered back into place within a few measures!

As for the famous “trio of themes” at the end – well it was a joy! The tuba sounded terrific, especially his concluding trill, while the brass gave warning of their “en masse” arrival in sonorous fashion, helped by the timpani the second time around. It all came across as properly festive, even if I felt the cymbal player was a little overawed by the occasion and didn’t “sound” his instruments as resplendently as they could have been.

After such rumbustiousness, the Johann Strauss piece was lovely! – it was really the waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”, but played in a way as to imitate a loosely-strung set of waltzes – I suspected it was also to enable the players to turn their pages comfortably!  A gorgeously-played horn at the beginning presided over magical ambiences, passed adroitly by some moments of hesitant ensemble, and, gathering in a solo ‘cello, led us into the dance. To my delight the players made a great fist of the Viennese “lilt”, obviously well-schooled by their conductor, the ensemble sounding in places for all the world like a well-drilled Viennese dance-band! Another surprise for me was the repeat of the opening “waltz-sequence”, which I’d never heard done before. Right up to the nostalgic coda, with its trumpet solo and trilling flute, the players caught the idiom of the piece with great style, readily communicating to us their pleasure of performance.

But there was more! – in fact the final item set the seal on the afternoon’s music-making brilliantly, via a tremendously exciting performance of the “Waltz King’s” well-known “Thunder and Lightning Polka”. It was put across with such panache, such energy and exuberance, with the percussion having the proverbial field day! At one point in the work’s middle section I wanted (once again!) the cymbal player to bash his instruments more vigorously, but it must be said the player made up for his reticence in the closing measures of the work. I would have loved to have taken part in such a performance myself – what a blast it seemed to be for all concerned!

Very great credit to the inspirational Hamish McKeich, and to his hard-working, talented instrumentalists. To my mind conductor and players can look back on some singular achievements this year, their successes auguring well for seasons yet to come. On their showings throughout 2014 it’s my opinion that they’re becoming an orchestral force to be reckoned with, a stimulating and valuable contributor to the capital’s enviable array of orchestral concerts.



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