Vibrant and wholehearted – Wellington Youth Orchestra and ‘cellist Matthias Balzat

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:

BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.1 in C Op.21
TCHAIKOVSKY – Pezzo Capriccioso for ‘cello and orchestra Op.62
ELGAR – Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma” Op.36

Matthias Balzat (‘cello)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
Andrew Joyce (conductor)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill St., Wellington

Tuesday 10th May, 2016

A joy, right from the beginning, this concert, which featured bright-eyed and bushy-tailed orchestral playing from a talented ensemble of young musicians, squaring up to a couple of well-known classics and an engaging cello-and-orchestra concert rarity.

Under Andrew Joyce’s on-the-spot direction, the music in every instance took off, the Beethoven with bright-eyed and chirpy accents, the Tchaikovsky piece with bold, impassioned wing-beats, and the Elgar with gentle, early-morning ruminations developing into gestures with warmth and strength. In the case of each piece the music’s character was quickly established and consistently maintained, the players responding to their conductor’s clearly articulated beat and guidance regarding dynamics, accents and timing.

I thought the Beethoven Symphony was an inspired choice for these players, a work by a young composer eager to make his mark upon the world, and ready to challenge conventions and established rules right at the outset. Here we got strong, almost confrontational chording from the winds at the beginning – a kind of “are you listening?” statement, designed to break into idle concert chit-chat and grab people’s attention. I liked the big-bonedness of that opening, making the following allegro all the more disarming with its light touch and cheeky aspect, and contrasting with the insouciance of the winds’ delivery of the “second subject” (what dry old terms these are!).

We got the repeat as well, to my great delight, though Joyce and his players didn’t give the “surprise” chord at the beginning of the development too much emphasis, keeping it nonchalant and droll – a kind of “Well, what did you expect?” sort of statement. The recap. came across strongly and with textures beautifully blended, with some athletic counterpoints bouncing off the strings’ bows with great élan in places, nicely rounded off by festive touches from the brass.

A poised, and patiently built-up slow movement was beautifully weighted by conductor and players, with lovely colours from the winds in the development, and great ensemble work – then at the recapitulation the ‘cellos distinguished themselves with a beautifully-shaped counter-melody. At times the high string passage-work lost its sweetness, but such lapses were only momentary. The Menuetto (really, a scherzo!) skipped along energetically, with only a lack of synchronization between lower and upper strings troubling the occasional extended phrase. The winds again made a lovely contrast in the trio, though the strings struggled with the unanimity of some of their awkwardly syncopated replies.

The finale’s droll cat-and-mouse phrases created great expectation straight after the opening chord, with the violins then running away merrily at the allegro, a little TOO smartly in places ! However, in the development section things locked together well, with the dovetailing of the rushing, see-sawing passages nicely managed. No repeat this time, but the strings were obviously relishing the cut-and-thrust of their exchanges, and the all-together orchestral banter of the coda, with everything brought together for the final, triumphant chords. Overall, I thought it a most satisfying performance.

Tchaikovksy’s soulful, long-breathed world of heartfelt expression seemed a long way from Beethoven’s, at the outset of the second work on the programme, the Pezzo Capriccioso for ‘cello and orchestra. The passionately-sounded ‘cello line was addressed with great feeling and beautifully-modulated tones from soloist Matthias Balzat, whose performance overall was, to put it mildly, both brilliant and commanding. Throughout the piece’s lively middle section, the soloist’s bow danced upon the strings and the left hand literally flew over the instrument’s fingerboard, striking the notes rapidly and truly, and making a spectacular impression.

Matthias Balzat is already a veteran of a number of instrumental competitions, at which he’s achieved a great deal of success – a first prize in the 2014 National Concerto Competition, and a second prize in the 2015 Gisborne International Competition. He’s currently studying with James Tennant at Waikato University, and is obviously a young musician who’s worth watching out for.

After the interval we settled down to enjoy Elgar’s affectionately-wrought set of musical tributes to the people he felt closest to as a man and as a composer. The work is a straightforwardly conceived set of variations on a theme, the title “Enigma” being bestowed by the composer without explanation, as if there’s a hidden theme or a kind of link between the variations that has never been explained. The different variations are more individual allusions to certain shared experiences with the composer, rather than “character portraits” as such.

At the beginning the theme itself was beautifully shaped, tenderly and lyrically delivered, with a sonorous lower-string counterpoint brought out most soulfully towards the end. The first variation (CAE), depicting Elgar’s wife Alice, featured beautifully floated interchanges between strings and winds, with noble brass at the conclusion, a complete contrast to the repetitive figurations of a pianist friend (H.D.S-P.), steadily and mechanically completed. There was pleasure, too, at the wind-playing in R.B.T., clarinets and bassoons having great fun bringing wide-ranging tones and registers into play.

Andrew Joyce kept the driving rhythm of the following variation (W.M.B.) absolutely steady following its exciting attacca beginning, a completely different kettle of fish to the romantic charm of R.P.A., the strings rich and sonorous, the winds chatty and charming, if not quite always together. Ysobel allowed the solo viola a moment of glory, which was beautifully played, while the following Troyte highlighted the timpanist’s rhythmic skills just as tellingly in a wildly swirling episode – and how well and excitingly the strings “pinged” their entries in this piece, throwing the snarling brasses into splendid relief!

Some beautiful wind playing – charming conversation and gentle laughter – during W.N. gave us some relief from these previous storms and stress, before the music took us to the centrepiece of the variations, the much-loved Nimrod. Here, the composer recalled discussions with a friend on the beauty of Beethoven’s slow movements, the players respond to their conductor’s encouragements with patient, long-breathed playing, and together building towards something majestic and visionary. Afterwards, Dorabella brought out sensibilities back to earth with finely-judged wisps of exchange between winds and strings and another graceful viola solo.

Anything but graceful and finely drawn was G.R.S., the initials belonging to the owner of a bulldog whose favourite pastime of diving into the river to fetch a stick thrown by his master, was here set to music by Elgar. As in the earlier “Troyte” the string-playing pinged and crackled with precision under the conductor’s guidance.

String-playing of a vastly different sort was inspired by the immediately following B.G.N., a ‘cello solo, played here with fine intonation and warm tones, and then repeated by the entire ‘cello section, whose fine, ringing upper notes did the players (and very likely their conductor) great credit!

The especially enigmatic thirteenth variation, with its three asterisks in place of a name or initials, famously contains a quotation from Mendelssohn’s Overture “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” – after a winsome theme is tossed about by strings and winds, there’s a drum roll, a clarinet quoting the overture’s theme, and the lower instruments presenting the throbbing of ship’s engines. It all came together here with excellent focus on the detail and plenty of heft given the music’s pulsating power and implacable movement.

And so to the composer’s self-portrait, E.D.U., being Alice Elgar’s abbreviated name for her husband – Joyce and his players hit their stride at a fast clip, galloping towards the first big orchestral climax with gusto, one which came with tremendous impact. Everything, including the reprise of Alice’s music in her variation, was kept moving – and if there was more ferment than finesse throughout the last few pages, the excitement and sense of the music’s arrival was overwhelming in its power and splendour. I felt that, at this point, those aspects of the performance were given priority here, and rightly so.

It all made, I thought, for a splendid concert-going experience, thanks to the repertoire, and the totally committed performances – certainly one that anybody who enjoyed skilled, vibrant and whole-hearted music-making would have similarly enjoyed.

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