Hamish McKeich’s final WYO concert a knockout

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:


Patrick Hayes (clarinet)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

BERNSTEIN – Overture “Candide”
ELGAR – “Nimrod” (Variation IX) from the Enigma Variations
HOLST – “Mars and “Jupiter” from The Planets
LILBURN – Overture “Aotearoa”
SHOSTAKOVICH – Festive Overture
SPOHR – Clarinet Concerto No.4 in E Minor

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill St., Wellington

Monday 19th October 2015

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and enlivening programme, and as it turned out a  most appropriate way for the Wellington Youth Orchestra to (a) conclude a successful playing-year, and (b) farewell conductor Hamish McKeich, who’s been the orchestra’s inspirational music director for the past four years. Having heard nothing about Hamish’s departure beforehand, I was surprised when the concert’s master of ceremonies, Peter Dykes made the announcement at the evening’s beginning – and the news was confirmed by orchestra manager Tom Gott at the concert’s end, in a speech thanking Hamish for the sterling work he’d put into the orchestra over the time he’s worked with the players.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, even though with McKeich at the helm I’d gotten accustomed to looking forward greatly to each concert given by the orchestra of late. However, what he’s achieved with these musicians will undoubtedly linger and be shared with other, newer players, and add to a kind of on-going “tradition” of quality, such as that represented by this concert – a kind of showcase of the work done over the duration, and one that didn’t disappoint. With the help of a handful of NZSO players among the orchestral ranks, the playing had plenty of brilliance, enthusiasm, and sensitivity and depth of feeling as required, and put across a sense of knowing how to best present each piece instead of relying merely on a “one size fits all” approach.

The programme’s title “Commemorative and Wartime Classics” applied to some but not directly all of the items that were performed – though there’s a fair degree of warfare and carnage in Volatire’s story “Candide”, set to music by Leonard Bernstein, it’s a deeply satirical work whose purpose is to ridicule rather than commemorate. And Louis Spohr’s mellifluous Fourth Clarinet Concerto, though written for  a prominent virtuoso of the instrument, Johann Hermstedt, to play at an 1829 Music Festival, could neither be said to be either commemorative or associated with great conflict of any kind.

Described as “the perfect concert-opener”, Bernstein’s bright, racy Overture certainly filled the bill, both as a spectacular curtain-raiser on what was to come, and a real test for the youthful orchestra’s collective mettle. What was wanted was no-holds-barred playing, and the musicians engagingly tumbled over themselves in their eagerness to get the sounds up, running and together – while keeping the rhythms snappy, the conductor gave his players enough time to get their fingers around the notes and make the figurations coherent, relying on rhythmic point more than sheer speed to invigorate the music.

Being a “virtuoso” piece designed to put professional groups through their paces, the music here inevitably had moments where there were roughnesses in performance. It was more a problem with rhythms not quite dovetailing between sections than with notes being missed, as with the first appearance of the “Oh Happy We” tune, which went at several speeds on different instruments before the players got things together. Still, the music’s essential ingredients (a bubbly, raunchy, almost burlesque kind of feeling) were strongly in evidence, and McKeich and his players brought off both the excitement of the coda’s accelerando and the whiplash ending with great panache.

Next up was the concerto, one of no less than four written for the instrument by Louis Spohr, for his friend the virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt. The work’s dark, mysterious expression points directly towards the Romantic Movement that was to take hold of, and sweep through the nineteenth century. Though born fourteen years after Beethoven, Spohr wrote music which occupied a similarly pivotal position between classicism and romanticism, and his music was, for a time, just as highly regarded as Beethoven’s (like a number of his contemporaries, Spohr didn’t understand Beethoven’s late works, regarding them as “esthetic aberrations” and blaming the older composer’s deafness for their “faults”!).

Clarinettist Patrick Hayes, the winner of the Wellington Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition, showed us almost straightaway the skill of his playing and the extent of his musicianship, with beautifully withdrawn tones and lovely velvety runs throughout his opening utterances. As well, he dovetailed his lines beautifully with those of the orchestra’s at appropriate moments,  while making his instrument “speak out” when called upon to do so. He seemed more inclined to bring out the music’s mystery and depth of feeling rather than its brilliance and “show” – though not everything was note-perfect, he conveyed sufficient aplomb with the display aspect so as to make the more withdrawn moments “tell” at the appropriate times.

The slow movement of the work, a Larghetto, resembled a kind of poised, long-breathed dance with sinuous lines woven by the soloist over gently-pulsating accompaniments, a lovely contrast to the livelier Spanish rhythms of the finale, both soloist and orchestra relishing the rhythmic swirl of the triplet passages, and the sultry Preciosa-like jog-trot figurations accompanying the second theme. There was, too, ample display opportunities for the soloist, spectacular, firecracker-like ascents both with and without trills, and rapid, roller-coaster-ride figurations written for the player to proclaim his or her instrumental flair and command. In short, throughout the work we were treated to a real musician’s playing.

MC Peter Dykes raised a laugh when he described the Shostakovich Festival Overture which followed as, from an orchestral player’s point of view “a piece that teaches one the art of bluff”. I was reminded of a story I once heard about a wind player who was asked how he managed the more difficult parts of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” ballet music, to which he replied, “You just waggle your fingers and hope for the best!”. To be honest, there didn’t seem very much “bluffing” on the part of these players when Shostakovich’s work started, so full-on was the orchestral sound in all departments! – having been suitably galvanized with the opening fanfares, we were plunged into a regular conflagration of instrumental excitement, with swirling winds and stuttering brass leading up to overwhelming percussive climaxes.

As well there was splendid solo work in places from the winds, the clarinet especially heroic, along with some lovely lyrical exchanges between lower and upper strings, singing out atop the driving rhythms! But conductor and players didn’t let up for the return of the opening fanfares and throughout the excitement of the coda that followed – a rip-roaring conclusion that left us all limp with excitement!

Douglas Lilburn’s 100th birth-anniversary year was acknowledged here with a bright and breezy performance of the “Aotearoa” Overture, from the outset lovely open-air playing which captured the spacious ambiences of the music, and the epic nature of the landscapes therein. I particularly enjoyed the string-playing in this performance – every chance these players got to sing full-throatedly they took, with rich and resonant results, leaving the winds to describe the movements of air and water and the brass and percussion to fashion the mountainscapes. Though the rather cramped acoustic of the Cathedral didn’t really allow the music to expand as it should at the end, the resonances still told splendidly, and brought the composer’s vision excitingly to life for our pleasure.

No greater contrast could have been wrought than was made next with Elgar’s famously elegiac “Nimrod” from the “Engima” Variations. Inspired by a mutual love of Beethoven’s slow movements on the part of the composer and his publisher and friend, August Jaeger, Elgar’s music raptly and intensely builds from near silence at its beginning to a magnificent outpouring of nobility. Difficult for any orchestra to sustain over long periods, this feeling was given to us in spadefuls by these young players, Hamish McKeich beautifully “terracing” the music’s course, and the players holding their lines tenaciously and full-throatedly, building towards the climax, then rapidly withdrawing and returning the sounds to whisperings – a terrific performance!

Finally came two movements from a work frequently associated, by dint of both subject-matter and time of composition, with war, Holst’s Symphonic Suite, “The Planets”. Most appropriately, we heard “Mars, the Bringer of War”, and its diametrically opposed “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”, the latter making a suitably riotous and good-humoured conclusion to the concert. What an impression the opening of “Mars” made on us all, with those dry, skeletal sounds of the players bouncing the wood of their bows on the instruments’ strings, an eerie, death-rattling kind of utterance accompanying the sense of rising panic, terror and alarm throughout the rest of the orchestra. At the other end of the sound-spectrum, the hammer-blows at the piece’s end were brutal and final in their impact – an extraordinary effect.

Thank goodness for Jupiter and the “laughter holding both its sides” aspect, which took us from tragedy to comedy, Holst’s extraordinary orchestral writing readily evoking a life-enhancing sense of well-being and elation, rebuilding confidences that that been shaken to their core by the onslaught of Mars at the opening. And what an extraordinary outpouring of pride and nobility of the spirit with the central trio’s “big tune”, here perhaps just a shade glutinous at its beginning, but gathering momentum and strength with every stride towards the powerfully-stated climax.

But just as impressive were the transitions from jollity to nobility and back again, in each case the winds playing a major part with tricky, syncopated figurations, firstly “shushing” the merriment, and then re-igniting the exuberance with a will, the brass and percussion in the latter case fetching up all the tethered energies and unleashing them once more. The loping stride of the laughing tune got a bit out of sync the second time round, due to the vagaries of the accelerando, but conductor McKeich quickly called the different voices to heel and steadied the course to the end – and what a wondrously vertiginous “swirling” aspect the players got before those last crashing hammer-blow chords put an end to the music! – as I said at this review’s beginning, thoroughly enjoyable!

So, salutations to Hamish McKeich and to his band of stalwart musicicans! – next year things will undoubtedly be different, but one feels certain that what has been achieved by conductor and players over the last few years won’t be easily forgotten.

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