Wellington Youth Orchestra goes for broke with Beethoven

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:

MOZART – Overture “The Magic Flute” K.620
ELGAR – Serenade for Strings in E Minor Op.20
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.5 in C Minor Op. 67

Wellington Youth Orchestra
Andrew Joyce (conductor)

Sacred Heart Cathedral,
Hill St., Wellington

Monday 14th May, 2018

This was, I thought, a well-nigh-perfect concert in terms of length and proportion – as well, it nicely varied the “standard” overture/concerto/symphonic work formula for classical orchestral concerts, one which doesn’t really cater for a particular kind of repertoire, which, as a result, is often overlooked. Elgar’s adorable String Serenade Op. 20 is a prime example of a piece of music that doesn’t easily fit in unless those in charge “dare to be different” in their programming. The result  here was enchanting – and how many other serenades, incidental music suites, symphonic poems and sinfoniettas would similarly enliven concert programmes, one would think, if given the chance!

One couldn’t really cavil at the opting for an overture to begin the proceedings – and though I seem to recall having heard Mozart’s Overture to “The Magic Flute” played in concert a number of times  over the past couple of seasons, I fortunately never actually tire of the music, even though there must be goodness knows how many other pieces which could theoretically kick-start an evening’s music-making just as excitingly and perhaps more enterprisingly. That said, the opening sounds were splendidly-wrought, with those three ceremonial chords at the beginning having a particularly rich and sonorous quality, their upward progression suggesting palpable “lift-off” thanks to the playing’s thrust and full-throated tones. Andrew Joyce’s direction kept the players focused surely on the music’s on-going “shaping up” to a point of release, which came with the allegro – here, the tempo was firm rather than frenetic, with the players given room to enunciate and phrase each entry, so that the notes generated strength and plenty of cumulative excitement. The winds added piquancy and poise, leading up to the return of the brass chords, dignified and somehow more ritualistic than at the opening.

The strings stole in again immediately afterwards, their intent more serious-sounding, and their purpose tested by brass-and -timpani irruptions, with the winds seeking to counter the troubles with rounded, liquid phrases. I thought the give-and-take between the orchestra’s different sections beautifully contoured, keeping the symbiosis of parts and the sense of growing excitement in check up to the point where a crescendo allowed the brass and timpani to raise their voices and  expend their energies in exhilarating fashion. I thought the conductor could have allowed his trombones to roar a little more exuberantly at the end, but the playing still managed to capture a wild fairy-tale-like climax of scene-setting excitement and rumbustion.

So deliciously removed from such festive splendour were the first few phrases of Elgar’s E Minor Serenade, one of the composer’s most beautiful and heartfelt creations. This performance didn’t at first wear its heart on its sleeve, but suggested forward-thinking purpose right from the beginning, instead – here was the confident stride of the countryman, setting the music on its inexorable course, though not without the occasional gathering-in of momentum and allowing of the music to “float” so very effectively and lyrically over a series of exchanges of dynamics in the ensemble. Those  between solo violin and the rest of the strings were particularly affecting, as if in contemplation of either the beauties of a local landform or natural phenomenon, or some other tender thought, before the instruments returned to the music’s original purpose. Joyce shaped these contrasts of expression with the players most sensitively, bringing out a surge of untrammelled feeling via a final flourish, before contemplation again took hold of the music at the movement’s end.

How beautifully the players caressed the slow movement’s repeated upward-reaching opening phrase – not with absolute unanimity, but still with sufficient beauty of tone to capture the composer’s impulsive flight of feeling.  And how tremulously the ensemble then breathed the first phrases of a melody whose repeated sequencing borrowed from this same upward-reaching opening idea – a masterstroke of organic creation! The third and final ascent of the tune’s hushed contourings produced a real frisson of breath-catching beauty, one which gave added poignancy to the minor-key recitatives that followed, and to the more full-blooded return of the same sequenced ascents, the full-bodied tones of the playing imparting a great warmth of spirit to the composer’s outpourings.

The finale’s warm, resonant open-string gestures at its beginning suggested something free and wind-borne, encouraging playing whose repeated upward thrusts had an infectious exuberance – the lower strings dug particularly trenchantly into their notes, creating resonances all round, and a rich sense of well-being. Something of the striding manner of the first movement then returned, heralded by the opening figure. Joyce and his players caught both its stoic, valedictory aspect and a barely-disguised regretful feeling of having to let go of a treasured moment of happiness – I thought it all a lovely, sensitive performance.

After the interval came Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a mountain-like work that every orchestra occasionally climbs as a matter of course, a kind of self-defining act – but a work which also happens to convey like no other piece of music the indomitable human spirit, a creative act of affirmation and defiance at one and the same time. Though modern professional orchestras can now probably play the music accurately almost in their sleep, the music’s greatness easily exposes any such lack of real commitment to its message – Beethoven’s own maxim, ‘“The idea counts more than its execution”, unequivocally tells all interpreters of this work what their priorities in performance ought to be!

Andrew Joyce and his players stayed not upon the order of their going, but tore into the music, giving us directly urgent opening declamations free from any rhetoric, and purposeful trajectories, the repeat of the opening dealing with “first-time round” thrills and spills to even more thrilling, more sharply-focused effect. Beethoven’s string writing here, and throughout the first part of the development here simply leapt off the page at all times, inspiring the winds to exchange phrases in kind, and goading the horns into urgency when announcing the oncoming recapitulation. Not every note was cleanly reached, but in the urgency of the music’s cut and thrust no one cared, everybody, audience included, taken up with what was about to happen next! The oboist enjoyed his sonorous lyrical moment, but the respite was short-lived, as the conductor drove his bright-eyed and determinedly resolute players onwards to the  driving, stamping measures of the last few pages, the lower strings a tower of strength as the dance seemed to turn into a kind of demonstration, winds, strings and timpani punching home their phrases with gusto.

The slow movement’s opening phrases almost danced their way into the argument, the tempi sprightly and the interchange between strings and winds a joy, before an orchestral irruption burst out and awakened the brass, who brought forth stentorian utterances of splendour. The many exchanges throughout the movement continued even-handedly, sections “holding their own” right up to the movement’s coda, here jaunty and detailed, the conductor keeping things moving until the strings and winds brought a kind of Apollonian glow to the music, though the brass kept us in touch with sterner realities with their brief first-movement “reminder” at the end.

Drama and portent dominated the scherzo movement’s ominous-sounding opening, the horns here bursting out impulsively with the rhythmic “motto”, and the strings matching them in intent – and then, what tremendous playing there was by the lower strings in particular, in the fugue-like trio! – muscularity and precision! The famous “Great Goblin” (E.M.Forster) sequence then walked “quietly over the universe from end to end” – and suddenly we were held in the throes of the throbbing transition to the work’s finale, tapping drumbeats and sotto voce strings seemingly caught in the throes of making a decision to act, which the whole orchestra did with a vengeance, preparing the way for the finale’s first grand statement.

As with the first movement of the work Joyce encouraged the players to bring out the music’s urgency and dynamic force, which they did, assuming a “take no prisoners” attitude, which whirled us through the different sequences, again making light of the “thrills and spills” aspect while drawing the strands of the whole together in an exhilarating, “driven” way. Ultimately the performance’s fervour carried the day, and brought the work to a suitably festive conclusion. What a privilege, I confess to feeling, to have made that journey under the auspices of so many talented young musicians! All credit to Andrew Joyce, whose performance stewardship of the orchestra over these vast spans of music never flagged and resulted in a memorable and colourful concert.