Exuberant and popular performances by Wellington Youth Orchestra

Wellington Youth Orchestra
Conducted by Andrew Joyce with Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

Glinka: Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37
Dvořák: Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95 (‘New World’)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street

Monday 31 July, 7:30 pm

Concerts from the Wellington Youth Orchestra used to be held in the Town Hall, which was the right space in terms of acoustics and the orchestral tradition. But the sometimes rather small audiences did look rather … small; comparable to the size of the orchestra – around 60. On Monday there were many more that that facing the orchestra.

Either St Andrew’s or the Catholic Basilica offer a more intimate space in which a 150 or so don’t look too bad, but the acoustic is often rather uncomfortable in its response to timpani and brass.

But that was a small price to pay when the orchestra delivered such a dynamic performance of Glinka’s famous overture. It’s a piece that taxes any orchestra, is as fine a composition as most of the music of the period. I have often wondered about the standards of music in Russia when the opera was written – the 1840s, when the names of no other Russian composers are familiar and we don’t really know much about orchestral or operatic standards, apart from the fact that a lot of western European musicians and composers visited and worked in Russia, from the late 18th century.

There was impressive accuracy, at the speed that is normally heard; strings clean and brass under good control apart from the occasional unruly fanfares.

Ludwig Treviranus spoke briefly and genially before the beginning of Beethoven’s third concerto: no condescension, pitched at the right level for a non-specialist audience. After the longish introduction, that gave time enough to appreciate excellent preparation, with all the spirit and gusto that comes from a youthful orchestra, the piano arrived with a feeling of ease and confidence, handling the ornaments fluently and idiomatically. Rapport between orchestra and pianist was a delight even though, at one point, in dialogue between piano and orchestra I felt that Treviranus was tempted by more speed.  The cadenza was a model of restraint and individuality, with more attention to the music itself than to his own impressive virtuosity; its closing bars were particularly sensitive.

In the slow movement, both pianist and orchestra displayed all the maturity and insight of a real professional ensemble, even at moments where the rhythms risk losing togetherness. A lovely flute solo caught my ear, played with a pure, vibratoless tone that sounded so polished. Given that the Largo contained no music that didn’t fit the space, this was probably the high point for me, but the spirited Finale often vied for that place. In spite of moments where timpani might well have been less exuberant, this was a totally admirable performance, strings so buoyant and winds well balanced and polished. A triumphant collaboration between pianist, conductor and orchestra.

The New World symphony was a more formidable challenge, but it was not till the later stages, in the Scherzo and Finale, that there were many signs of the players’ essential youthfulness and natural lack of professional experience (and perhaps not quite enough rehearsal time?). The opening pages were scrupulous and beautifully paced; conductor Joyce ensured breathing space between phrases, putting the audience at ease before that Allegro really takes off. And certainly in the less rowdy ensembles the brass choir was excellent, in easy sympathy with the rest of the orchestra.

The famous Largo might be easy enough in terms of hitting the right notes, but its familiarity demands far more in emotional subtlety, yet avoiding sentimentality, an ever-present danger, so it might be odd to say I found the long cor anglais solo, carefully played, but not quite soulful enough. Otherwise, strings and winds were in beautiful accord.

The third and fourth movements revealed occasional blemishes; in the Scherzo some trills on strings, and woodwind decorations, and at the opening of the fourth movement, such a massively imposing declamation had the weight and energy but not perfect finesse.

However, the broad shapes and contrasting sections that conceal, excitingly, the way the work will end (for those who come to it for the first time) were generated as much through youthful energy and exuberance as through mature familiarity and intellectual understanding.

No matter how often one has heard the work, it remains fresh and surprising, especially when played by a young orchestra of talented and reasonably skilled players, such as are to be found in this orchestra, and in the hands of a conductor able to communicate his own enthusiasm as effectively as Andrew Joyce has done here.


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