Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s Mendelssohn and Shostakovich make for stimulating contrast

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MENDELSSOHN – Violin Concerto in E Minor Op.64
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5 in D Minor Op.47

Hayden Nickel (violin)
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 17th April, 2021

It says a lot about Wellington’s musical life that groups such as the Wellington Chamber Orchestra – an orchestra made up of about 70 players, all proficient amateur musicians, young, and not-so-young – can thrive and enrich the city’s music, with four interesting and varied concerts during this 2021 season.

This concert began with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of the most popular works in the repertoire, and understandably so – a loveable work , full of delightful melodies, yet unpretentious.

The music is not about showing off the artist’s virtuosity – there are no bravura passages to distract from the sheer beauty of the melodies. There is no high drama, like the opening drum beats of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, or the opening operatic tuttis pf the Mozart concertos that anticipate the drama to follow. There is just one orchestral chord and the soloist is right into a beautifully-sustained melody. The orchestra echoes the soloist as if to imply that “we are with you – we are a team supporting each other”. There are filigree passages  requiring agile finger-work from the soloist, but these don’t distract from the music’s flow.

The slow movement is one extended song, presented through the interplay of soloist and orchestra, and a challenging double-stopped passage where the soloist seems to accompany himself. The last movement starts with a few dark E Minor chords, then moves into E major and becomes exuberant, a joyful, sun-filled spring!

The simplicity of this work presents special challenges for the soloist – although there are technically difficult passages, nothing distracts from the piece’s essential beauty. Hayden Nickel, a young Samoan violinist who is studying at Victoria University, has been involved with various music programmes around New Zealand, including Arohanui Strings and Virtuoso Strings. His was an impressive performance, playing with a beautiful, and in places, powerful tone, and was a complete master of the music, playing with the freedom that allowed him to impose his own vision upon this great concerto.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 5  was an ambitious work for an amateur orchestra to programme. It is to the great credit of the group and the conductor Rachel Hyde, that they gave a thoroughly moving performance. The work made great demands on the various soloists, particularly the wind and brass players, and they are to be commended for doing justice to their parts for 45 minutes of intense concentration!

The Symphony starts with a slow, descending melancholic theme, which heralds the ambiguity of the work throughout. Ominous brass chords, dark and disturbing, interrupt the second theme, with the raucous music that follows merely adding to the sense of unease . This turns into a furious march dominated by the side-drum. Where does this march lead to? And does the ethereal flute solo at the end suggest some sort of Arcadia?

The second movement is also a march, but like fairground music, for clowns or a carousel. A sense of cynicism prevails, an “enjoy it while you can” kind of fun.  Conversely, the third movement Largo begins with an exquisitely beautiful passage, but as the music progresses, tensions develop and suggest a sense of agony. A vigorous triumphal March begins the last movement, with echoes of popular songs, but is there a suggestion that this sense of something triumphal is not to be taken seriously?

This symphony was written in 1937 after Shostakovich had already withdrawn his Fourth Symphony, fearing “official disapproval” . He was already in deep trouble because Stalin and his cultural tzars had taken exception to his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and he couldn’t afford to fall foul of party orthodoxy.  In the event, the new Symphony, the Fifth, was an unqualified success, being received with a forty-minute ovation (it was probably this reception which saved the composer’s life!).

The symphony was subtitled by its composer “The creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism” – even if Shostakovich’s biographer, Solomon Volkov claimed that the composer had said “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth (Symphony). The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…you have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.”


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