“Orchestras Unite” – a brilliant success for youthful Wellington musicians

Wellington Youth Orchestra and
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Orchestra


Lavinnia Rae (‘cello)
Kenneth Young (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra and
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

MUSORGSKY (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov) – Night on a Bare Mountain
SHOSTAKOVICH – ‘Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat Op.107
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Symphony No.2 – A London Symphony

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Wednesday 3rd August 2016

These days I count myself proudly, if also a little ruefully, among the grey-headed majority who attend classical concerts – of course, these are the people whose loyal and continued support of our various concert series and occasional special events helps to ensure their continuance. Nevertheless it was a refreshing change to find myself sitting in an auditorium for a classical concert with what seemed like hundreds of heads of different shapes and sizes sporting youthful hues and colours of all kinds – egad, it was actually a youthful audience!

Did I say a classical concert? With such a preponderance of young people in attendance, the programme would surely have gone for a kind of “instant appeal” impact – plenty of “wow!” factor, of the kind that would make such an audience want to come back for more, yes? Let’s have a look! – er, what’s this? – Shostakovich? The First ‘Cello Concerto? – Good grief! And Vaughan Williams’ “London” Symphony? Crikey! – That’s a bit of a haul! What’s that?  Musorgsky? – Night on a Bare Mountain? Well, yes, that’ll go down well, but what about the rest?

I could go on, most tiresomely, in a similar vein, expressing further open-mouthed stupefaction at the makeup of the orchestra and the youthfulness of the soloist in the concerto, none of which has any great relevance to the business in hand, that of reviewing a splendidly-performed concert.  More seriously, what needs far more urgently to be emphasised and approved most enthusiastically is the gesture of the Wellington City Council with support from the NZSO in enabling Wednesday night’s concert at the Michael Fowler Centre to be a FREE event for the public! In my book that’s the kind of support so badly needed by the arts at present, in this case giving young people a golden opportunity to experience some wonderful music-making at first hand and at no cost!

Which is where the “Orchestras Unite!” concept worked so brilliantly in every way. Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams and all, the exercise provided one of the best possible “advertisements” for classical music and music-making that I’ve even witnessed. Under the watchful eye and inspired direction of conductor Kenneth Young, the Wellington Youth Orchestra and the New Zealand School of Music Orchestra came together, plus a number of tutor-players from both the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington, together forming a co-operative ensemble of almost 100 musicians whose amalgamation was itself a positive endorsement of music-making in the capital. With such forces it became more than possible to perform works such as the Vaughan Williams “London” Symphony, the numbers generating the requisite weight of tone which helped the piece really work.

Another motivating energiser in the scheme of things was the presence of ‘cellist Lavinnia Rae, whose performance of the first of Shostakovich’s two ‘Cello Concertos was eagerly anticipated. An NZSO National Youth Orchestra player, and leader of the Wellington Youth Orchestra ‘cello section for the last three years, she had already won numerous awards and scholarships during her studies, and is currently working under the tutorship of Inbal Megiddo at the New Zealand School of Music. Again, having a soloist of Rae’s calibre willing to tackle one of the repertoire’s 20th Century classics contributed inestimably to the programme’s lustre.

In thanking the various people and organisations that had helped get the show “on the road” conductor Ken Young himself made reference to the excitement of having so many players to work with, particularly in relation to the Vaughan Williams symphony. He cited the work as a particularly apt challenge for youthful orchestras as there was, as he put it, “plenty for everybody to do”. He didn’t keep us waiting long, as we had already heard from NZSM boss Euan Murdoch and Orchestra Wellington Music Director Marc Taddei adding their endorsements of the occasion, so after the talk had been dispensed with we were quickly and magically transported to that realm of infernal carousing immortalised world-wide by Russian composer Modest Musorgsky.

As most people will already know, Musorgsky was one of a group of composers (who came to be known as “the Mighty Handful”) who wanted to forge a distinctly “Russian” style of composition free from the somewhat more conservative, German-influenced style espoused by the establishment. Much of Musorgsky’s music was, however, considered somewhat harsh and clumsily written, even by his associates, one of whom, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, took it upon himself, after Musorgsky’s tragic early death, to “improve” and make what he thought would be more acceptable versions to the public of some of his colleague’s well-meaning but outlandish-sounding efforts. These “corrections” of Rimsky’s included an entire opera by Musorgsky (Boris Godunov) and the piece played in the concert this evening, St. John’s Night on a Bald Mountain. The programme note really ought to have read “RE-orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov” as there does exist a fascinating “original” of the piece by Musorgsky, somewhat differently constructed to Rimsky’s, and with a far more abrupt and sardonic ending.

Still, the more familiar revised version which we heard tonight continues to pack plenty of punch in places, and the players seemed to literally throw themselves at the piece’s dramatic and theatrical contrasts as if their lives depended on the outcome. It was all tremendously exciting, and expertly-played – the very opening triplet figure on the violins depicting the arrival of the infernal spirits from out of the air in all directions had a focus and a stinging quality that made the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up in gruesome delight and anticipation!

With weighty percussion providing plenty of bangs and crashes, the brass chiming in with portentous fanfares, and the winds creating a suitably “eerie” atmosphere, the music built up through its various episodes to a suitably orgiastic ferment, at which point somebody sitting towards the back of the orchestra dropped something on the floor with a clatter, to add to the general sense of chaos and abandonment! To the rescue came the orchestral bells signalling the first indications of morning light and the gradual dispersement of the spirits into the air from whence they came. Here, the strings and winds drifted and oscillated beautifully, supporting beautiful solos from firstly the clarinet and then the flute. It was all presented most beautifully and serenely, even though the ending wasn’t Musorgsky at all, the whole of the final morning-bell-tolling sequence being that man Rimsky-Korsakov’s invention!

Lavinnia Rae’s entrance and deportment gave an initial impression of a David (the ‘cellist) pitted against something of a Goliath (the orchestra), which the music’s opening measures seemed to confirm – the ‘cello, repeating a variant of the composer’s own DSCH motif, seemed to be trying to lighten the mood, while the orchestra seemed to want to keep the soloist firmly in check. Lavinnia Rae spun her line most resolutely throughout, perhaps wanting a touch more girth with some of her more assertive figurations, but keeping her music buoyant at all times. She interacted magnificently with the solo horn, leaving the winds wailing as the music trotted away with the soloist, and leaving them to manage only a brief, petulant outburst before the movement came to a sudden end.

The slow movement was one of Shostakovich’s angst-ridden affairs, with the solo horn adding to the strings’ anguish, the mood warmed by the ‘cello’s entry – apart from a brief intonation lapse, some gorgeous playing, here, from the soloist, matched a few moments later by the strings’ chilly beauty. So many moments-per-minute in this music! – we were able to experience at first hand why the soloist in her programme note nominated this as the music from the work she felt the most emotionally connected to….the solo horn posed its question and the soloist mused on the answer amidst haunting harmonics-coloured exchanges with the celeste, the music absolutely rapt and beautiful.

The remarkable cadenza-like third movement also held us in thrall with Lavinnia Rae’s playing, a heartfelt outpouring which gradually articulated more and more freely and urgently, quoting the opening four-note theme amid the agitations, and then suddenly striding out and beckoning the orchestra to follow – keystone cops chasings, headstrong waltz-rhythms, and giant-like rhythmic angularities led to a full reconciliation with the DSCH theme, which, pushed enthusiastically along by the ‘cello’s repeated notes, blared out triumphantly on the winds at the end. What a work and what a performance!

All this, and Vaughan Williams’ “London” Symphony to follow after the interval! – as with the Musorgsky work, one felt a satisfying “weight” of tone register as the “London” began and unfolded, the fruit of having such a numbers of players, and of the composer’s scoring emphasising the potential for depth and richness of sonority. Ken Young and his players caught the music’s “living stillness” at the work’s outset, and the sense of something hanging in the early morning air about to be awakened. The Big Ben chime gradually roused the music from its slumber, leading from a crescendo to a harsh, strident outburst which seemed, on the face of things, unduly forceful and discordant a note to strike by way of introducing a great and much-beloved city – still, as other parts of the work were to demonstrate, the composer was definitely not about to regard the “flower of all cities” through rose-tinted spectacles in this work!

In the past I’ve often regarded Ken Young as a particularly no-nonsense interpreter of whatever music he conducts, sometimes to a fault in music where I’ve felt the need for a touch more spaciousness and breadth in the playing. Here, by contrast, there was time and space aplenty – and the playing of the young musicians blossomed, I thought, as a result! Every phrase, every figuration had room to sing and unfold as it should, while every surge and diminuendo of tone had the freedom to mix spontaneity with obviously well-rehearsed gestures, making for what sounded like a particularly rich and deeply-felt interpretation. The final crescendo leading up to the movement’s end was simply terrific in impact.

The slow movement was another vivid evocation, with conductor and players allowing the music all the time and space in the world to paint and colour the music’s hues and round and shape their lines and contourings, all the time giving rise to such intensities of feeling – the composer’s description “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon” begs the question of the music’s deeper intent – things like the superbly-played trumpet solo, and the instrumental detailings accompanying the gently-jingling carriage harness sounds were, I thought, preludial to something deeply melancholic about the work as a whole – my notes read at this point, “such passionate climaxes!”, ones which seem to suggest as much tragedy as any other kind of feeling as the bottom emotional line. This was reflected in places, too, by sensitive instrumental detailing as tellingly as red-blooded climaxes – a beautiful viola solo, for example, at the movement’s end was as richly-wrought a gesture as any in the work.

Having praised the interpretation’s spaciousness I must admit to feeling, in places in the scherzo, that the music could have done with a bit more ginger in its step – a hypercritical thing to say, perhaps, in view of my enjoyment of the whole. The players certainly caught the music’s “gait” – and the short, canonical “church-bell-like” section for strings came across with great verve and “schwung”. However, I did feel the brief Trio section hung fire ever-so-slightly at its beginning, even if the more flowing tempo suited the strings’ warmth when they took up the tune just before the return to the scherzo proper. Still, one was prepared to forgive Ken Young almost everything after experiencing the visionary power of what he and the musicians were able to do with the eerie, throbbing pulsations at the movement’s end – another instance of the composer hinting at a darker side of things beneath the surface gaiety.

That “darker side of things” was certainly given full rein at various places in the work’s final movement, not least of all right at the beginning! An almost Mahlerian cry of despair flashes across the face of the orchestra, not once, but twice, before the music settles down grimly to what some commentators have called the “March of the Unemployed”, though the composer was rather less specific when characterising the music’s inspiration. Here, Ken Young and his musicians seemed to emphasise the music’s purposeful and positive energy, with playing that unleashed the magnificence of the composer’s orchestral writing, grand and ceremonial.

After this the musicians galvanised the allegro section, awakening tremendous energies marked by surging strings, roaring winds and flailing percussion, energies which  embedded themselves in the textures of the “march” theme’s return, and literally conflagrated the music – what baleful, menacing, utterly overwhelming playing! One was left wondering how a city’s image could possibly survive such savage treatment!

The answer came with the work’s epilogue, which in its turn brought out some of the evening’s most heartfelt and moving playing from the two orchestras. Vaughan Williams characterised the symphony’s ending by quoting a passage from a novel by H.G.Wells in which the writer describes in allegorical terms the passing of things as we know them via a voyage down a river – “the river passes, London passes, England passes…..” Here, it was all so moving, so heartbreaking and yet so filled with wonderment and magic – the playing caught the music’s timelessness and inevitability, its beauty and its tragedy – the somewhat Wagnerian two-note cry which began the finale was sounded once again on muted trumpets, signifying much the same kind of dissolution (albeit in a less incendiary manner) as the minor-key version of the Rheingold motif from Götterdämmerung.

Very great work from all concerned, and to those people, for all of it much gratitude and appreciation.

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