Wellington Youth Orchestra in winning performances, especially Brahms No 1

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Carter

Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture
Carl Stamitz: Viola Concerto in D (soloist Grant Baker)
Brahms: Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68

St Andrew’s on the Terrace

Tuesday 23 May. 7:30 pm

Looking back over Middle C’s reviews of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, one sees a couple of repeated themes. One that through them we sometimes hear unfamiliar but great and enjoyable music, and that the citizens of Wellington turn up in such sparse numbers that one wonders what can justify boasts of our being the cultural capital.

This evening’s concert ticked both those notions.

It began with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture: another of those pieces that used to be familiar on the old 2YC programme – their Early Evening Concerts at 5pm and Dinner Music at 6pm which provided an excellent music education system (not the peripheral, miscellaneous, often inauthentic stuff we now get), complementing a then sensible diet of good music in once-a-week music classes at college. But it didn’t become my favourite Rimsky, though I’ve come to enjoy it very much since then; at that stage the rhythms and the heavy brass didn’t appeal. When I was young my favourite Rimsky music would have been the Capriccio espagnol (I’ve still got my two-disc set of 78s).

Incidentally, given as I am to looking at earlier performances, it was last played by the NZSO in 2006, and before that in 1986 and 1958 (Nikolai Malko). Not exactly  a pop number, so it was a brave choice and it offered quite a challenge in the hard (for a full orchestra) acoustic and as the first piece in the programme.

I promised myself not to mention the slightly out-spoken trombones in that space, so I will desist; but the horns, both here and in the Brahms, were admirable – their timbre seemed comfortable in the space and they, at least the two given most exposure, avoided the usual horn pitfalls. Trumpets too contributed comfortably to the sound picture.

It’s not an easy work to re-create, given the highly coloured and quite virtuosic demands from pretty-well all parts of the orchestra, not only the heavy demands of the brass. (Just listen to any top professional performance). Thus this performance, in spite of its shortcomings, was a highly commendable undertaking.

Stamitz viola concerto
Utterly different was the next piece, a viola concerto by Carl Stamitz. He was one of two musician sons of Johann Stamitz who is regarded as the founder of the Mannheim school (for much of the 18th century Mannheim was the seat of the Electoral Palatinate court which supported one of the finest orchestras in Europe). It influenced Mozart during his visit in 1777. One of its major innovations was the introduction of the clarinet as an orchestral instrument, and in this concerto, two clarinets and two horns were the only winds. It’s great to hear examples of composers such as Stamitz family who not long ago, would have been just names in a music history book.

There was a long orchestral introduction before the viola’s entry. Violist Grant Baker, who is a second year student at Victoria University’s School of Music (tutored by Gillian Ansell) both looked and sounded comfortable in the role, laying out the themes coherently and musically and handling passage-work in easy rapport with the orchestral strings, particularly when he was accompanied by a concertino group (of section leaders), as in a concerto grosso. His tone was full and warm, rhythms alive and interesting, and though the cadenzas in the first two movements presented nothing terrifying, they demonstrated how well his playing integrated itself into the flow of the music. I particularly enjoyed the calm and thoughtful playing of the Andante movement. The viola had a conspicuously solo role in the last movement too, often with minimal accompaniment; there were several opportunities in its theme and variations shape, particularly in the fast second (or third?) variation. In all, a fine demonstration of musicianship.

Brahms No 1
Though I awaited the playing of Brahms first symphony with certain misgivings, why should I have done? In the past they’ve played big Tchaikovskys, Rachmaninovs, Beethovens, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, Ravel, as well as Brahms’s fourth – and even that other Rimsky – the Capriccio espagnol.

It’s a tutti opening and as the portentous throb of the timpani took charge of things I reflected that in less astute hands timpani might have been a difficult bed-fellow. Horns were distinct and assured above the dense strings and woodwinds that fell into a state of congenial accord. One felt at once the weight of responsibility that the composer felt in launching his first symphony onto a Viennese audience steeped in the great works of Mozart and Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn.

I soon relaxed as the impact of this imposing introduction took command.

The spirit of the main body – Allegro – of the first movement finally assured me that the orchestra was being guided by someone who orchestral life had been spent, fruitfully, just a little outside the orchestra’s core, in the brass, where a more dispassionate view of performances and perhaps a better understanding of the conductor’s game is possible than from the back of the second violins.

The woodwinds which had an entirely different role in Rimsky-Korsakov, here took their turns briefly and amiably: flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet alternating with horns. Unlike some listeners (or critics), visual imagery rarely arises as I listen to music, nor do I seek it: Brahms’s music is intensely emotional of course, but not sentimental, maudlin or saccharine. And this orchestra simply grasped its huge integrity, grandeur, and its powerful musical inventiveness.

Each movement had its distinct musical character: the second, with its lovely oboe solos, picked up by the clarinet, and then the dotted crotchets from violas under the poignant melody from first violins, was followed by a beautiful but disturbing clarinet passage. And soon concertmaster Grace Stainthorpe has a short, almost passionate sustained solo turn.

The third movement is no formulaic scherzo, even though it becomes animated at times. At this stage many symphonies lose something of their hold on the emotions as the idea is to lighten the burden on listeners who might tire of music that’s just profoundly beautiful. Not Brahms. There was no doubt about the players’ enjoyment of this delightful movement. They just got it right.

The special energy and delight is reserved for the last movement. But even here Brahms insists that our mood is not trivialised, beginning Adagio and pausing to ensure there’s full attention as the curious tentativeness prepares the way through an Andante section for the real experience, with its gorgeous, horn-led, grand and unforgettable theme. More lovely solos, from flute, trombones, horns, later the solo oboe. And though my ears didn’t especially pick it out, there was a striking example of a contrabassoon (a 1940s, American model I’m told) that towered above Paul Ewbank, looking more like a factory chimney than a musical instrument; it’s certainly in Brahms’s score and would have lent the texture some delicious, extra sonority.

The music slowly builds in excitement, working through several more related themes, lessening intensity several times before the end. Of course it was no flawless performance, but the sense of delight that reached its pinnacle in the last movement, made me very pleased my attention was drawn to the concert just in time to clear my diary of a dozen other important commitments. Mark Carter achieved splendid results through his obviously happy relationship with this young bunch of talented musicians.


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