‘Thank God it’s Friday’
Virtuoso Strings Orchestra, Anthony Atkins, conductor
Music for strings by Handel, Bach, Piazzola and others
Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul
Friday, 11 August 2017, 7.30pm
I did not intend to review this concert. I intended to hear how these young people from the Sistema-style programme in Porirua East were getting on, and to support them. I took no notes. However, such was the excellence of their performance, I could not resist writing about it.
Along with others, I was truly surprised at the skill in playing the instruments that I witnessed. Intonation, dynamics, tone were all of a high order, considering that these were mostly school-age players, some quite young.
None of this could happen without the selfless work of Craig Utting and Elizabeth Sneyd and their Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust, that provides free instruments and lessons to 130 students in low-decile schools in Porirua. From this larger group comes the Virtuoso Strings Orchestra – recently returned from performing a concert in Takapuna. Much of the music is arranged by Craig Utting.
Not only did Utting and Sneyd presumably do most of the organisation as well as the tuition, but they both played in the ensemble, Utting swapping from viola to piano as required. Five of their children also featured, playing various stringed instruments, and one doubling as a soprano soloist.
From the “Hornpipe” movement of Handel’s Water Music to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, the programme passed through varied territory in this one-and-a-quarter hour concert. The players immediately made an impact, under Atkins’s direction, with the liveliness of their playing. Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” (from Carnival of the Animals) followed the Handel, and revealed that these instrumentalists could play sensitively also, the cello solo being beautifully performed by Benjamin Sneyd-Utting.
Gerardo Rodriguez was a twentieth century Uruguayan composer (not to be confused with the famous Joaquín Rodrigo), whose most famous piece was La Cunparsita, a tango played by Virtuoso Strongs Orchestra in rousing style. Once again, a contrast, to the well-known “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by J.S. Bach. This calm, melodious piece received sympathetic treatment, the gradation of dynamics being particularly notable.
Back to the tango, this time by Piazzola – Libertango. The audience loved this. James Horner was a composer of film music, who died in 2015. The orchestra played his “Ludlows” theme from the film Legends of the Fall. While on the subject, they followed with Legend by contemporary American composer David O’Fallon. Google informs me that this has been played by numbers of orchestras made up of young people.
It was followed by Concerto in B minor (first movement) by Oskar Rieding, written in the early twentieth century. There was no obvious soloist that I could see, so I assume that the solo part was shared around, in an arrangement especially made for these players.
Pachelbel’s well-known “Canon” followed; next was a Hungarian Traditional Invitation to the Dance, which introduced another style, and gave the players a good work-out. Mascagni’s familiar “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana was given a beautiful performance, bringing out not only the melody, but also the melancholy.
Then we received a treat: Kitty Sneyd-Utting sang the vocal part in Bachianas Brasileiras no.5 by Villa-Lobos, to the very competent accompaniment by the orchestra. This was a superb performance for a teenager: her voice was absolutely true, her tone suited to this style of singing. Her intonation and projection were faultless; the music was a delight to hear.
Bach’s lovely “Air” followed, and then three singers performed along with the orchestra Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as the last item.
The pieces were all well chosen for being not too long – although those with soloists were longer than the others – for their variety of style, mood, tempo, rhythm and dynamics, all of which were well observed by the players. The programme, the arrangers and the conductor all combined with the players to show off this excellent young orchestra. May they go on to achieve even more, and inspire others to join their craft!