A programme of brilliantly scored Romantic era music from Wellington Youth Orchestra

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Carter

Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre, Op 40
Weber: Clarinet Concerto No 2 in E flat, Op 74 (clarinet: Ben van Leuven)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol, Op 34
Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 4 October, 3 pm

The listing in Middle C’s Coming Events had misread details about this concert; the conductor was identified as Miguel Harth-Bedoya. In fact, he had conducted a rehearsal of the orchestra  a few weeks before.

But there would be no need to attribute the splendid performances on Sunday directed by Mark Carter to anyone but Mark Carter. To begin, it was a colourful programme of music that would have excited any young players (and plenty of old ones, speaking for myself) to which they responded vigorously.

The only one of the four works in the programme likely to have been played recently might have been the Mussorgsky; though the Weber clarinet concerto may be somewhat unfamiliar, both the Saint-Saëns and the Rimsky-Korsakov would surely have been known. I’m not at all sure however, being aware of the declining condition of the Concert Programme and the domination of young people by pops. All four works on the programme deserve to be played by major orchestras to today’s audiences.

Danse macabre 
Both were familiar to any 2YC listener when I was young; the symphonic poem, Danse macabre, though it was not always in its authentic orchestral version (1874); nor is it today. It was an excellent choice for the Youth Orchestra since it’s full of gripping melody and convincing mood music. Here there was no introductory harp but a bold solo violin (Lukas Baker), a nice flute solo (Samantha Sweeney), proceeding with macabre triple time that portrayed the spirit of the Victor Hugo poem so well. The brass might have been a bit overly exuberant, but the whole worked as an excellent, overture-length piece.

Weber Clarinet concerto 
Weber’s second clarinet concerto is one of his not-much-played works. These days Weber is represented mainly by excerpts from Der Freischütz and The Invitation to the Dance (though it’s Berlioz’s orchestration that’s mostly heard). Weber was a friend of notable clarinettist, Heinrich Baermann, and he wrote two concertos, a concertino and a clarinet quintet for him. Among Weber’s other music that should be familiar are two symphonies, two piano concertos and a Konzertstück in F minor (which I have recordings of), a lot of other attractive orchestral and chamber music and several operas other than Freischütz that made Weber an important inspiration for Wagner twenty years later.

The second clarinet concerto is colourful and attractive, and there were successful instrumental episodes before Benedict van Leuven’s delightful clarinet part entered, with a number of challenging leaps from top to bottom of its range. Though there are nice passages for bassoons, oboe, horns as well as the strings, it was the clarinet that led the way with confidence and distinction. It was the second movement however, A Romanze, Andante con moto, where the clarinet demonstrated not merely his dexterity, but also in the pensive episodes, his feeling for the warm, emotional and subtle colours of Weber’s orchestration.

The last movement, Alla Polacca, revived the joyousness of the first movement, with its bars-full of virtuosic semi-quavers, with amusing chirpy phrases that all too soon brought it to the end.

Capriccio Espagnol 
Another once familiar symphonic poem was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol (my early love of is evidenced by a set of 78 rpm shellac discs by the Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Malcolm Sargent, bought in the mid 1950s!). The opening was rowdy with dominant timpani, that offered little room for discretion, but plenty of opportunities for displays of orchestral skill. Rimsky was one of the most celebrated orchestrators (his Principles of Orchestration is, along with Berlioz’s Grand Treatise on Instrumentation, among the classic texts on the subject), offering many opportunities for individual talent and prowess to be admired: a flute solo, oboes, the five horns and three trombones, as well as general orchestral colour.

Pictures at an Exhibition
Finally, yet another masterpiece of orchestration – Ravel’s translation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He wrote it for piano (an overwhelmingly challenging composition it is), and as with several of Mussorgsky’s other works, it was subjected to editing and ‘refinement’ by his friends, particularly Rimsky-Korsakov.

It wasn’t long after Mussorgsky’s early death in 1881 that orchestrations of Pictures began to appear. There have been several orchestral versions, some taking liberties with the music and omitting certain sections. Ravel’s, in 1922, has become universally admired.

The orchestration is wonderfully rich and though not all of the instruments that Ravel called for were employed (harps were missing for example), there were tubular bells, celeste, alto saxophone and (I think) glockenspiel and euphonium. And the lively, high spirited way Mark Carter guided the orchestra was distinguished by its clarity and ebullience.

The performance of such exuberant, noisy orchestration in St Andrew’s has in the past been rather overwhelming, especially from brass and percussion. However, the fact that I was sitting near the back of the gallery may have helped the balance between the more discreet and the noisier instruments. In any case, orchestral balance was successfully managed throughout, and both players and audience (there was virtually a full house) would have had a great time.


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