Ambitious and satisfying concert from Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted Rachel Hyde with Helene Pohl (violin) and Rolf Gjelsten (cello)

Overture to Der Freischütz by Weber
Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, Op 102 by Brahms
Symphony No 3 in F, Op 90 by Brahms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 29 March, 2:30 pm

One could argue that the first concert in Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s 2015 season was devoted to the very centre of the classical music repertoire: the blending and conjunction of the classical and romantic eras.

Orchestral performances between the hard surfaces of the typical church are not easy to bring off; and over the years I have often commented on the delicate matter of positioning timpani and brass so that their impact is not too distressing. Conductor Rachel Hyde arrayed the orchestra forward in the church, placing timpani at the side near the chamber organ, and the brass out from the sanctuary which tends to amplify the sound.

Nevertheless, in the gallery, where I sat in the first half of the concert, the four horns, at that stage exhibiting a degree of unsteadiness, were loud. The typical opera orchestra which, even in Germany, might not be as polished as one might imagine, is modified by being in a pit so that rough patches are obscured. Here, the splendid overture to Der Freischütz had to survive full exposure. It was taken fairly slowly which probably improved accuracy but, on the other hand, offered more time to perceive weaknesses. Its dramatic character, and its supernatural touches did not suffer through the slow tempo, and the surprisingly long pause before the attack of the Coda gave it real impact.

A great idea to programme Brahms’s not very often played Double Concerto, giving Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten, first violin and cello in the New Zealand String Quartet, an opportunity to shine individually (they told me that they’d recently played the same piece with New Plymouth’s Civic Orchestra). I was still reeling from the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto by Janine Jansen the previous evening; yet the utterly different Brahms concerto in the hands of two gifted chamber musicians created a most satisfactory experience. Perfection in the orchestral playing was neither expected nor delivered, but the whole, especially in the second movement’s lyrical passages, was no disappointment.

Performances by amateur orchestras can be an excellent way for those without wide or deep musical experience to make discoveries, and all three works in this programme might well have been overlooked by the professional orchestras, which tend to deprecate the old pattern of overture – concerto – symphony that used to be the staple orchestral pattern. Its abandonment now means that the novice concert-goer never hears the scores of wonderful overtures, both opera and stand-alone, that the tyro of my generation came to love.

Finally, the symphony – neither the more played first or fourth of Brahms – but perhaps the most sanguine of the four, came off better than the earlier pieces on the programme. That may have been partly the result of my moving downstairs to the back seats where the sound is filtered somewhat, kinder to amateurs. The brass sounded in better control, the essential beauty of the lyrical second movement was captured, and the strings produced an almost Wagnerian silkiness (hints of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung), though tricky cross rhythms in the last movement sounded a bit awkward. The tempi were admirable, calm and unhurried, yet energetic where that was required.

I hope that this performance will have won a few more friends for Brahms, for it was a worthy achievement by a non-professional ensemble. In all, in spite of the reservations mentioned, inevitable for such an orchestra which inevitably spends more rehearsal time on certain works than on others, this was a satisfying concert.


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