Wellington Chamber Orchestra – a wonderful concert and a promising conducting debut

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

BEETHOVEN – Overture “The Creatures of Prometheus”
BRUCH – Kol Nidrei with Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
VIVALDI – Concerto for 2 ‘cellos
with Ken Ichinose and Andrew Joyce (‘cellos)
MENDELSSOHN – Symphony No.3 in A Minor “Scottish”

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
conducted by Andrew Joyce

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

Sunday, 7th December, 2014

This was a programme whose contents promised delight at every turn – although one listener’s favorite can be another’s aversion, there are surely pieces which have such a wide range of appeal, that even the most hardened, narrowed-down listener would find it difficult to resist their blandishments. Such was this happy assemblage – in fact I haven’t been able to find a single person who attended and DIDN’T say “What a programme!”.

Having scored with the raw materials, the Wellington Chamber Orchestra furthered its cause by engaging none other than Andrew Joyce, principal ‘cellist of the NZSO, to conduct. As this was (so he afterwards told me) Joyce’s actual public debut as a conductor, the prospect of hearing him direct the orchestra was one fuelled entirely by expectation built upon people’s awareness of his stature as a soloist, chamber player and NZSO section principal.

While orchestral players (or pianists, not to mention singers) do not necessarily great conductors make, most notable exponents of the baton have had some experience “in the ranks” as it were. As well, the “born not made” adage is trotted out fairly regularly whenever the conductor’s art comes under scrutiny of discussion. Because of the conductor’s persuasive function, there certainly has to be some kind of force of personality, however expressed, intertwined with the musical skills, one which carries (sometimes recalcitrant) orchestral players along, and achieves the necessary unanimity.

By the end of the concert’s first half, I was wanting to hail Andrew Joyce as a “natural” in the job, based on the results of the splendid orchestral playing and the focused, characterful interpretations. Because amateur orchestras play together far less often than do professional ones, there’s a Janus-faced frisson of excitement and tension surrounding every public performance – on the one side, the thrill of bringing wonderful music to life, and on the other, the precariousness of technically keeping “on the rails” both individually and as part of the ensemble.

Throughout much of this concert these excitements and tensions brought out the musicians’ best. At the very beginning we enjoyed the conductor’s  sharply-etched focus, a snappy, attention-grabbing opening to the Beethoven “Prometheus” Overture, followed by a lovely, warm cantabile from the winds, the tones and textures beautifully filled out by the strings and the horns golden-sounding. The allegro which followed used nicely-pointed rhythms rather than just speed to get the music’s character across, with everything given a real sense of shape and form. Again, the winds distinguished themselves in the perky second subject, the whole orchestra gathering up the various threads and driving the music through the composer’s varied treatment of his material with real élan.

Having impressed with his conducting, Joyce then turned to his ‘cello for the next item, Max Bruch’s adorable Kol Nidrei, whose full title includes the description Adagio on 2 Hebrew Melodies for ‘Cello and Orchestra with Harp. As ‘cellists normally sit directly facing the audience, I wondered how the performance would fare, as Joyce would ostensibly be directing the orchestra as well as delivering the not inconsiderable solo part, all with his back to most of the players! From where I was sitting I couldn’t see the concertmaster giving any “cues” to the band, as often happens in these circumstances. Still, whatever alchemic means was used to direct the musicians’ playing certainly worked, as, a touch of dodgy wind-tuning apart, the orchestra was able to deliver a well-nigh impeccable accompaniment to Joyce’s performance of this beautiful work, throughout.

It was touching to read in the programme notes of Joyce’s grandfather’s association with this piece, the latter a keen amateur ‘cellist himself, whose desire to take up music as a career was thwarted by the onset of World War II and his conscripted service as a soldier. At his grandfather’s funeral, sixteen years ago, Joyce played this piece in his memory, a circumstance that would naturally give any subsequent performance by him a special significance. Thus it was with the playing, here, though there was no excessive heart-on-sleeve emotion wrung from the music – everything seemed to flow naturally and inevitably, and with a real sense of ensemble (I need to mention the lovely harp-playing), the exchanges between the solo instrument and the orchestral strings drawing the threads of melody beautifully together.

In the past the orchestra’s enjoyed partnerships with an impressive array of soloists, and this concert was no exception – one of Joyce’s colleagues from the NZSO cello section, Ken Ichinose, joined his section-leader to play a Double-‘Cello Concerto by Antonio Vivaldi. As Ken Ichinose’s pedigree as a player includes experience with both the Philharmonia Orchestra of London and the renowned Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, it was luxury-casting with a vengeance for this music! What gave even more pleasure was Vivaldi’s writing for a “trio” of ‘cellists at various parts of the work, giving a third player almost as much of the spotlight as the “soloists” – the WCO’s principal ‘cellist Ian Lyons held his own throughout in fine style.

But what energies this music has! – Vivaldi’s motoric impulses gave every member of the ensemble a fine old workout in the outer movements’ tutti sections – the Largo movement by comparison was almost lullabic in its effect, augmented by a harp towards the end. As one would expect in this company, the exchanges between the two soloists were spectacular in places, with the third ‘cello an impressive back-up when needed, which was often. The work’s concluding tutti threw sparks in all directions, creating plenty of edge-of-seat excitement amongst the audience, which burst out as applause at the end most enthusiastically.

Our vistas were thrown open even further after the interval by Mendelssohn’s evocative “Scottish” Symphony – its “teething troubles” (it took Mendelsson ten years, on-and-off, to complete this work – though numbered as the Third, it was the last of his five full-scale symphonies to be completed) belie what seems like its ready fluency and energy of utterance – only the somewhat “tacked-on” coda to the final movement suggests that its composer might have had certain difficulties “placing” his material in a convincing and organic manner. Certainly the composer’s “Italian” Symphony (No.4) is a tauter, more obviously “focused” work, though the “Scottish” has its own expansive and treasurably unique epic character.

Conductor and players seemed to relish the symphony’s first movement with playing by turns freshly-wrought, finely-crafted and vigorous (and, to my surprise and pleasure, even giving us the repeat!) Those distinctive, plangent wind-tones at the symphony’s beginning sang with such flavour, getting a real “out-of-doors” feeling to the sounds; and the tricky opening of the allegro was negotiated without undue mishap by strings and winds alike, the later “martial” moments splendidly ringing out. With the repeat, one felt there was more confidence among the strings as they launched into the allegro once again, though every section – winds, brass, timpani – hove to with focused, on-the-spot playing.

For instance, the cellos did well with their beautiful development-recapitulation-transition melody, singing their descant-like line over the top as if their lives depended on the outcome. When it came to the storms of the coda, the strings, though sounding undernourished of tone, launched into things with everything they had, wind and brass shouting out their support and pushing the music on as energetically as they dared. As for the winding down of the coda, the winds did a lovely job bringing us quietly and surely to those final pizzicato chords, concluding what I thought was a sterling orchestral effort from all concerned.

Alas, the tricky scherzo took its toll – the opening solos, though fluently-phrased, had difficulty keeping up with the pace set by the conductor, and the strings came adrift with some of their entries. For a while the music’s pulse was confused until the winds, with their “Midsummer Night’s Dream”-like figurations managed to pull everything back together with the conductor’s guidance – the horns also did well with their distant calls at the end. A happier impression was made with the slow movement, the strings enjoying the lusciousness of the opening, and their “tune to die for” (rather like an extended version of the famous melody in “The Hebrides” Overture) – the playing was beautifully nuanced, throughout. The dark-browed interludes made a powerful impression each time, with climaxes wonderfully capped by the brasses.

But oh! – that tune! – Though not particularly suited to “symphonic” treatment, it must still be one of the world’s great ones. As well, I learned for the first time that when the cellos’ repeat it, they’re supported by a single horn, with the others harmonizing in places. Gorgeous, as here! And the clarinets in thirds (again there are parallels with the “Hebrides” work) held up well at the end, as did the rest of the winds.

The finale’s dotted rhythms were always going to be hard to keep buoyant, and so it proved, though the very opening produced a terrific snap! Brass and wind produced a great effect with their two-note snarls, though those rhythms tended to lumber rather than dance, throughout, as well as come adrift at times. Better was the coming-together of the two-note motifs of various kinds, both repeated-note and octave-leap calls, dying away to allow the clarinet and bassoon to mellifluously return us to the symphony’s opening mood, in preparation for the aforementioned coda.

One of the horn-players had told me he was looking forward to this moment in the work – and it certainly proved a real blast for the brass, here! Though blipping a little with their calls, they certainly let ‘er rip to great effect, joined by the winds and then by the strings – a grand apotheosis, which the performance certainly made the most of, to everybody’s delight.  So, a fine way for an orchestra to finish a year, and a wonderful public debut for Andrew Joyce as a conductor – we would welcome any opportunities to see and hear him do more, though we definitely don’t want to lose him as a ‘cellist!

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