Magical Mendelssohn and tempestuous Tchaikovsky from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

MENDELSSOHN – Overture “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Op.21
Violin Concerto in E Minor Op.64
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.4 in F Minor Op.36

James Jin (violin)
Andrew Atkins (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

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

Sunday 2nd July, 2017

First impressions are, as they say, important, although they can sometimes be misleading. If one took the opening few minutes of the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s Sunday concert, featuring Felix Mendelssohn’s adorable Overture “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and peremptorily judged the concert’s music-making by the short-winded and unatmospheric opening chords, and the somewhat unseemly scramble of upper string lines attempting and failing to co-ordinate their rhythmic patternings right throughout this sequence which followed, one would then be completely confounded by the real and heart-warming quality of the remainder of what we heard that afternoon.

It was as if the fairies of Shakespeare’s (and Mendelssohn’s) wood had somehow gotten themselves into all sorts of momentary bother at the outset before Oberon, their King, imperiously called for order with the first big unison chord, one which was delivered with tremendous authority (and probably some relief!). Conductor Andrew Atkins would have had none of such a ragged beginning at rehearsal, of course, but as this was a “real” performance he kept things going and, to his and the players’ credit, pulled the errant woodsprites and their out-of-synch connivings back into line!

With the return of these same elfin scamperings at various places throughout the Overture, things greatly improved and confidence was gradually restored – and, happily, there was as well more to enthuse about regarding other aspects of the performance. All of the orchestral sections pulled their weight admirably – the winds, especially the clarinet, contributed some strong individual work as well as some secure ensemble, as did the horns after some opening-note hesitancy with their descending, dovetailed calls. I loved the contribution of the tuba there, particularly redolent and imposing at the bottom of the scale. The brasses in general, though a bit hit-and-miss with some of their atmospheric calls in the work’s middle section, gave things plenty of wonderful “grunt” in tutti, especially leading up to the famous braying ass’s “hee-haws”!

Something I thought worked well was moving the timpani to a place centre-back, instead of the usual place to one side – in this venue it seemed to work wonders for the tones of the individual notes, the sounds made by the player far more clear and focused than I can recall in previous concerts.

The strings sounded rich and warm and suitably romantic in their “singing” of their lyrical lines, though I regretted the conductor’s refusal to allow the players to”indulge” in that glorious descending-scale melody at the end, just before the final wind chords (I once heard Yehudi Menuhin in rehearsal at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London do exactly the same thing with that theme at the end, stopping the orchestra at that point, and insisting that the players observe the “a tempo”, which I thought “unmagicked” the music, making it suddenly sound a bit routine and dull!).

So, having gotten things properly back on the rails, conductor and orchestra then joined forces with Auckland-based soloist James Jin for a performance of a perennial favourite, Mendelssohn’s E Minor Violin Concerto. Here, the orchestral playing was, I thought, beautifully-paced by the conductor at a steady tempo, and proving the perfect foil for the silvery tones of the soloist. At times one might have thought his playing, for all its sweetness and dexterity insufficiently commanding of tone and lacking in proper physical heft, but when it came to some of the opening movement’s big flourishes, James Jin “took over” the notes in properly commanding fashion, though without ever “barnstorming” or appearing to hector the music.

I thought the first movement beautifully shaped by both soloist and conductor, and deftly played by the ensemble. The winds survived a glitch at the beginning of the second subject group (and made amends with the passage’s repetition after the cadenza), and the strings generated real “schwung” in the tutti just beforehand, digging into the notes and keeping the rhythms buoyant under their conductor’s direction, right up to the single held bassoon note (beautifully sustained) that without a break transported the music most marvellously into what Robert Schumann might have called the”other realms”of the slow movement.

Here we heard a subtly-nuanced singing line from the soloist and steadfast support from the strings, their voicing of the poignant second subject episode evoking all the feeling one could wish under Atkins’ direction. Despite a slight rhythmic stumble with his accompanying figurations at one point Jin kept his poise, replying in kind to the orchestra’s lyricism before adroitly responding to the finale’s “call to arms” from the brass with a couple of impish flourishes. Quite suddenly the ambience sparked and crackled as Jin’s violin danced into the allegro molto vivace a half-step ahead of the ensemble, who made valiant attempts to catch up with his fleet-fingered progress, occasionally getting within heel-snapping distance, with thrills and spills aplenty – all tremendously exciting!

It didn’t really matter that the winds came to grief during the brief exchange with the soloist near the music’s end, with only the flute maintaining its poise – the players then rallied and danced their way to the end amid coruscations of excitement, violinist and orchestra taken up with the music’s spirit to engaging and invigorating effect – most enjoyable!

Having recently heard these same musicians bend their backs to the task of making a splendid job of Elgar’s great A-flat Symphony, I was looking forward enormously to hearing how the ensemble would take to the equally formidable task of realising Tchaikovsky’s mighty Fourth Symphony, in particular the wave-upon wave intensities of the work’s opening movement. So it’s with very great pleasure that I’m able to report that these musicians threw themselves unflinchingly into the fray and gave a most exciting and memorable performance of the work.

Any fears I might have had regarding the players’ ability to “find” the notes at cardinal points were put to rest by the opening fanfares, delivered firstly by the horns and lower brass with sonorous weight and energy, and then by the trumpets, gleaming with brilliance and excitement! Then, added to this was the melancholic gravitas of both winds and strings as the allegro proper got going, conductor Andrew Atkins giving the players enough elbow-space to find their notes and make something of their phrases without losing momentum or tension.

In fact, throughout the first movement each climax-point was so unerringly built, so strongly-focused and shaped, that I was able to “feel” the full force of the composer’s singular genius as a symphonist, with every section of the orchestra playing its part – the wind solos introducing the second subject group of themes, the strings, timpani and winds building the excitement with the same material, and the brasses literally playing for keeps, with the horns in particularly sonorous form. All the while there was patience and steadiness from the podium, Atkins allowing the music’s natural momentum to gather both weight and tension, so that the “fate” theme heard at the work’s opening seemed a natural outcome of the process at various flashpoints along the way.

The slow movement was nicely launched by the oboist, heartfelt and melancholic in effect despite one or two hesitant moments, and then with strings and winds carrying the mood over to the gorgeous second theme, here given rich and generous treatment typical of the performance as a whole. A nicely-played Borodin-like sequence from winds and horns, led to the somewhat droll second subject, one from which only a genius like Tchaikovsky could create something so intense and radiant in feeling. Again the conductor’s patient direction gave the players the space they needed to catch and fill out the “dying fall” atmosphere, as the opening theme returned, piquantly decorated by the winds with first the clarinet, and then the bassoon especially lovely – and how beautifully the horns, clarinet and bassoon wound things down at the end!

The scherzo provided another instance of steady, unrushed direction paying dividends, the string pizzicati lines “finding” their places and tumbling playfully over one another, as the composer intended. The oboe melody was characterfully pesante here, with the other winds, including a gloriously shrill piccolo, chiming in, and then squawking all the more energetically as the brass marched in, quick-step-style! Towards the movement’s end they all congregated again, with strings and winds exchanging words, and the brass quick-stepping into the fray only to find, quite suddenly, that everybody was friends again!

A glorious welter of sounds ushered in the finale, which continued with great surges of upward-thrusting and downward-tumbling energies from all quarters, providing the greatest possible contrast with the delicacies of the first winds-and-triangle sequences – though had I been the conductor I would have encouraged the player to sound the triangle a bit more assertively. Snarling brasses and crashing cymbals built up the excitement, the performance catching the music’s see-sawing emotions, with the motto theme’s eventual return calling a halt to the exuberant revelries, before the music’s unquenchable human spirit reasserted itself and roared out a kind of joyous final defiance. All of this came across with plenty of well-directed energy and focus, with these musicians giving Tchaikovsky’s music the amplitude it needed to make a resounding impression. Thrills and spills included, it was, I thought, a most successful concert, then, for both orchestra and conductor.

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