The best drawn from Wellington Youth Orchestra in taxing programme under Donald Armstrong

Wellington Youth Orchestra (WYO)
Guest conductor – Donald Armstrong

Dukas: Fanfare to precede La Péri
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48
Weill: Little Threepenny Music (Kleine Dreigroschenmusik)
Enescu: Rhapsody No. 1 in A major

St Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 28 July 2019, 7 pm

The Wellington Youth Orchestra is the only full-size symphony orchestra for young players in Wellington. The ages of the members range from 25 to 13. They all have to go through a rigorous audition to join. The orchestra has an important place in the Wellington musical scene, not only for the varied and interesting programmes it offers, but because it is a stepping stone for young people who aspire to be professional musicians. A number of its alumni now study overseas or are members of professional orchestras. These include Gemma New, who is now carving out a successful career as a conductor in Canada and the US. In an interview she talked about the sheer pleasure of being part of an orchestra and its sound produced through the cooperation of a large team. This pleasure radiated from more than 60 young musicians who participated in this concert. The programme was designed for orchestral training as much as for its musical interest.

The concert opened with a Fanfare to precede Dukas’ ballet La Péri. Dukas is now mainly remembered for his Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but in his time he was a greatly respected teacher and composer. He was extremely critical of his own music and destroyed most of his works, which almost included La Péri. The ballet is now largely forgotten, but its magnificent fanfare which was originally used as the opener for the ballet is still enjoyed. It was played by the full brass section. Getting an ensemble of brass players to play with the subtlety and clarity that is demanded in an orchestra is a challenge to which these players responded ably. It was a grand piece that made the various brass instrumentalists listen to each other and make their sounds blend.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was the string section’s opportunity to shine. The gorgeous rich string sound reverberated in the friendly acoustics of the church. The title and the structure of this work paid homage to Mozart and 18th century divertimento music, but Tchaikovsky renders these in his own Russian late 19th century idiom. The work is in the traditional four movements, ‘ I Pezzo in forma di Sonatina’, ‘Waltzer’, ‘Élégie’, and ‘Finale’. The first movement is a beautiful rich chorale scored for the whole orchestra with the cellos playing lots of fast notes underneath a slower moving passage in the upper strings. The cellos came through with an opulent sound, while the upper strings played the melody with a rich silky tone. The second movement, the Waltz, takes the place of the 18th century minuet. It is the best known part of the work, often played on its own. The third movement is lyrical, elegiac, with a hint of Tchaikovsky’s other worldly fairy tale like music. The final movement goes from a subdued opening based on a Russian theme to a vibrant section of Russian dance sequence. The orchestra played with clear precision and confidence, undaunted by the difficult filigree passages of this substantial symphonic work.

The brass and the strings having had their turn to shine, it was the turn of the winds and percussion to display their skills in Kurt Weill’s Little Threepenny Music. The cultural gulf between the Berlin of the 1920s and Wellington of 2019 is huge, but the group of eight woodwind, four brass, piano, banjo and guitar, and percussion managed to capture the cynical, decadent feel of the popular themes from the Threepenny Opera, all tinged with parody. It is a difficult work with all the players exposed in solo parts. Credit to the whole team for tackling this seemingly light but technically difficult piece. It is very enjoyable music.

The whole orchestra came together for the final work, Enescu’s Rhapsody No. 1. This is an early work, based on popular dance tunes and songs of the time. It uses Romanian dance rhythms that get faster and faster until they get to a quite dizzying speed. It is ebullient, and outgoing, with none of the barbaric quality of the music of his contemporary, Bartók, who also explored the music of Romania. A clarinet, introduces the theme song that is gradually taken up by the whole orchestra. It is exuberant music and the large orchestra in full flight playing these wild gypsy rhythms was a joy to behold.

For an encore the orchestra played Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance from his ballet Gayane. It is a rumbustious, energetic piece, very appropriate for this concert by young musicians to end on.

Donald Armstrong is in appearance modest, self-effacing, but as Associate Concert Master of the NZSO, and vastly experienced conductor of various ensembles, he knew how to get the best from his players. He allowed them to play with confidence, gave them space, air, and freedom to express themselves. He let them play with a bold sound, yet still playing with discipline.

The Wellington Youth Orchestra is a great asset to the city. Such a concert augurs well for the city’s musical future.

The next concert of the WYO is on Sunday, 5 October.

The programme will include Saint-Saëns, Bruch and Glazunov.