Wellington Youth Orchestra and Simon Brew – playing for keeps

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
ROSSINI – Overture “William Tell”
BRUCH – Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.26
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.6 in B Minor “Pathetique”

Shweta Iyer (violin)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
Simon Brew (conductor)

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

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

From the first solo ‘cello note of the Wellington Youth Orchestra’s performance of the “William Tell” Overture, I was spellbound – I’d never heard that opening ascending phrase speak more eloquently and poetically. Naturally, I couldn’t straight-away rustle about in my seat turning my programme’s pages to discover who the ‘cellist was – which was good, because my attention wasn’t then diverted from the playing of the other individual ‘cellists, who seemed all to have a turn at part of the melody as well (Rossini actually scored the opening for five solo ‘cellos accompanied by double basses). Though not perhaps QUITE as beautifully inflected and intoned as the leader’s, each player contributed to an overall lovely effect, the solo lines seeming to “personalise” the music more than is usually the case, and draw the listener into its sound-world most effectively.

When the music got louder, I was able to unobtrusively refer to the orchestra personnel page and discover that the ‘cellist in question was in fact Lavinnia Rae, whom I’d already heard this year playing a solo concerto (she had, in fact won the orchestral section of the NZSM/WCO Concerto Competition earlier this year with her playing of the same concerto, Shostakovich No.1) and simply hadn’t recognised her on this occasion. But her playing instantly proclaimed her skill and depth as an interpreter, and seemed to galvanise the whole ‘cello section to give of its best.

The orchestra under conductor Simon Brew then went on to give a splendid rendition of what followed – focused, stinging raindrops at the beginning of the storm, which featured fiery brass and tumultuous timpani (sounding at the climax more like the Wagner of “Die Walküre” than Rossini!), beautiful cor anglais and flute solos throughout the pastoral sequence, and scalp-prickling calls from the brass at the beginning of the final march.

One hears this music so often, it’s almost taken for granted that any performance will launch crisply and tightly into those dancing and galloping rhythms without any trouble, when it must actually be something of a nightmare for the players to achieve unanimity with those three-note figures, especially at the start. The ensemble did take a few bars to “find” one another individually and sectionally, but Simon Brew brought things together with a clear and decisive beat, allowing plenty of noise at cardinal points (the composer was nicknamed “Monsieur Vacarmini” (Mr. Uproar) by critics of the time) and bringing out details such as the piccolo flourishes during the coda – the wind-playing in general was another of this performance’s notable features. Brew spared his strings by cutting the molto perpetuo-like middle section of this sequence, and instead concentrating on its fervent, warlike aspects, giving brass and percussion their head to great effect.

Next came Max Bruch’s G Minor Violin Concerto, for many people, THE romantic violin concerto par excellence. It provided the opportunity for us to hear another winner from this year’s NZSM/WCO Concerto Competition, Shweta Iyer, who took the Secondary School prize. For a capable soloist the concerto is a gift, affording ample opportunities for both virtuoso display and poetic expression; and Shweta Iyer brought plenty of youthful exuberance and darkly passionate feeling to the first movement’s more vigorous passages, while by contrast finding plenty of lyrical sweetness in the central adagio’s singing melodies. One or two early intonation divergencies apart, Iyer’s playing felt and sounded secure and totally involved, every note invested with warmth and feeling.

Though full-blooded enough in places, much of the playing from both soloist and orchestra had an attractive pliable quality, as if the musicians were listening to what they themselves were doing and trying their best to make certain it was all fitting together. Iyer’s nimble fingerwork at the conclusion of her first-movement cadenza did seem to catch conductor and orchestra out momentarily, but this was the exception rather than the rule. I thought the Adagio in particular had everybody, soloist ,orchestra and conductor, in vibrant accord, exemplified by moments such as the beautiful counterpointed sequence between the solo violin and the orchestral horn, and the give-and-take intensities of the build-up towards the movement’s central climax. Perhaps the brass could have “capped off” the great moment even more resplendently, but in general, the music’s ebb and flow of feeling was put across with energy and sensitivity.

Playing as if their lives depended on the outcome, orchestra and soloist dug into into the finale’s opening measures, the energetic principal theme ringing out resplendently from both Shweta Iyer’s violin and the orchestral strings. Then came the second, more fully-throated theme – was there ever another concerto so endowed with romantic melody as this one? – first the orchestra, then the soloist gave this tune all the “juice” one could want, contrasting with the trenchant figurations of the “working-out” which followed, and the winding-up of energies for the coda’s exciting accelerando, brought off with great flair by all concerned. Very great credit to Shweta Iyer, for some brilliant, adventurous and heartfelt playing of one of the ‘great” concertos.

An even greater challenge faced the orchestra after the interval – this was Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, known as the “Pathetique”, and regarded by the composer himself after some initial misgivings, as his finest work. Most unusually for its time, the final movement is an adagio, marked “lamentoso”, so as to underline the music’s sombre nature – and many a concert-hall performance of the symphony has occasioned an irruption of audience appreciation after its brilliant third-movement orchestral splendours have thudded to a halt, only for the enthusiasm to be quelled by the final movement’s bleak opening strains!

The opening sequences of this symphony, while sobering to listen to, are always a delight to observe “live”, as the lower strings interact with the woodwind long before the violins get their first chances. The syncopated string entries caused the players some difficulties at first, but by the time the brass made their startling shouts of reply the strings had things under control, the players then managing the lovely ascending passage leading to the “second subject” with great aplomb, from ‘cellos to violas and then to the violins, the latter preparing to tug the heartstrings with one of the world’s great melodies.

The winds made a lovely sound throughout their see-sawing passages which followed – detailed and clearly-pointed playing which sharpened the music’s intensities, and “lifted” the violins’ reiteration of the “big tune” to an even greater pitch – but while the clarinet solo which followed held us in thrall, the bassoon, whose hands had been splendid at the symphony’s beginning, unfortunately dropped the ball with the line open, and the concentration momentarily faltered. Those tricky syncopated string entries after the music’s great thunderclap were thus at sea for a while, until the brass came to the rescue with the percussion in tow, roaring out those basic rhythms and getting the ensemble back together.

Splendidly solid support from timpanist Hannah Neman helped further support the strings with their portentous “Fate” theme, capped off magnificently by the brass, upper and lower, the music churning piteously in its despairing throes, and collapsing under its own weight of emotion. From out of the gloom came the strings with their “famous tune” once again, Simon Brew judiciously directing their course through the gloom, their tones focused like a shaft of light surveying the wreckage from the storm. Some superb clarinet playing followed, ably supported by the other winds, and so we were at the coda, the string pizzicati fitful and uncertain at first, and the brass with a frog in someone’s throat – but things came together for those last few heart-easing descents.

The 5/4 second movement, apart from a couple of disjointed rhythmic dovetailings among the strings in places, was beautifully realised, the ‘cellos at the beginning full-toned and heartfelt, the winds plangent in reply, and the upper strings catching that lovely “Italianate” sound during the following sequences, before building the intensities slowly and surely just before the trio. I thought Simon Brew’s marshalling of his forces nicely brought out the trio’s contrasting sombre, somewhat obsessive character, and encouraged the players at the end to make the most of the descending motif’s gentle poignancy.

Next was the March, launched at a sensible tempo, giving the players elbow-room in which to phrase their lines, though I thought the strings could have been encouraged to “dig into” and point these same rhythms rather more jauntily. The winds demonstrated a touch more elan in this respect, though the excitement was still effectively built up, with strings and winds exchanging splendidly “skyrocketed” fusillades of sound leading to the march-tune’s first full-blooded statement. Conductor Brew kept the tempo steady, encouraging strings and winds to swirl their figurations with ever-increasing abandonment and brass and percussion to thunder in support – the deathly silence which followed the last hammered chords spoke volumes!

The strings’ opening phrase then tore open the silence and set the final movement on its course, straightaway laying bare the anguish and sufferings of the music’s creator. Their sorrowing gesture was amplified by the wailing wind counterpoints, and even included a grim-toned solo bassoon, almost like Death waiting in the wings for its moment. Though the horns didn’t sound entirely comfortable at first with their syncopated accompaniments, the strings rallied around a sudden impulsive glimmer of hope in a new episode which was build up by Brew and his players to a magnificent, if short-lived show of defiance – fantastic intensities, which then spun out of control and collapsed, the sounds mercilessly delineating the tragedy.

I thought the playing here little short of cathartic in its effect, as were the strings’ desperate Wagner-like gestures of rebuttal, a kind of “Volga overflowing its banks” and overwhelming the sufferer’s world with torrents of despair – we could do nothing except let the emotion wash over and submerge our sensibilities in a “sea of troubles”, ponder on the inevitabilites of fate amid dark tocsin resoundings, and listen to the weeping voices recede into the darkness.

It was a number of things – the immediate, no-holds-barred proximity of the players and conductor, the intensity and full-throatedness of the playing, and the give-and-take between Simon Brew and his orchestral forces – which combined to produce such a heartfelt and, at the end “wrung-out” result. Thrills and spills alike, every note of it was extremely satisfying to listen to and be caught up in and made part of – much appreciation to all concerned!

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