Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
Music by Barber, Britten, Gershwin and Vaughan Williams
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Overture “The Wasps” (1909)
BARBER – Violin Concerto, Op.14
BRITTEN – Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20
GERSHWIN – An American in Paris (1928)
Lucas Baker (violin)
Mark Carter (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
St. James’ Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt
Saturday, 15th May, 2021
The idea of “music that makes one’s mouth water” is, of course, an entirely personal matter, there being literally hundreds of pieces and combinations of pieces which would produce such a response amongst music-lovers – but for me, the Wellington Youth Orchestra’s presentation at Woburn’s St.James’ Church on Saturday hit the spot from the moment I opened the printed programme just before the concert began. I’d seen the “Transatlantic” publicity blurb, with its highlighting of the Barber Violin Concerto, performed by Lucas Baker, but only the names of the composers whose music was to be played alongside this work – so I was all the more delighted at the prospect of hearing the other three pieces, all particular favourites, in the one concert!
Another pleasant surprise was rediscovering the positive aspects of the venue’s acoustic regarding the orchestral sound, one which I’d commented on in a previous review as actually being somewhat “too lively” – here, the different orchestral textures of the opening piece, Vaughan Williams’ attention-grabbing orchestral frolic The Wasps Overture, rang out most divertingly, from the raucous whirrings which opened the piece to the plethora of instrumental strands delivering the concluding “combined” themes of the work at its climax. The generous reverberation gave added weight and tone to parts of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and enhanced various touches of glamour and sophistication to Gershwin’s adventurous An American in Paris. We certainly felt as if we were inhabiting the “same space” as the band, and enjoying a lot more besides just the notes!
Any concert that begins with VW’s “Wasps” Overture immediately “commands” its audience’s attention – and so it proved here, with the great orchestral “buzzings” goaded to a frenzy by various percussive punctuations. Mark Carter set a jolly dancing tempo for the allegro which allowed the combination of rhythmic verve and soaring melody to “swing” in entirely complementary ways, leaning nicely into the “big tune” which was taken up gloriously by the strings, the winds giving poignant support as the music’s colours rang the changes. The jauntiness of rhythm got by Carter from the players at the return of the “wasps” was positively infectious, leading to the brass’s exciting clarion calls and irruptions of percussion which pounced on their opportunities to join in the welter of sound! – I liked the lovely legato of the trumpet’s reiteration of the soaring theme, beneath which the strings energetically danced the allegro, the ensemble splendidly robust, conductor and players capping the piece’s ending off with an exhilarating sense of arrival.
What could have contrasted more to this than the opening of the Barber Violin Concerto? – a lovely, lyrical outpouring from soloist and orchestra alike began the work with great tenderness and ardour hand-in-hand, the winds contrasting this heart-on-sleeve manner with a dancing, descending motif that reappeared throughout the movement. The evolving orchestral textures by turns took us through sequences where full-bloodedly melody gave way to sequences of wistfulness and playful impulse which were suddenly became irruptions clouding the soundscape. Lucas Baker’s playing seemed, chameleon-like, to flower with the music – more confident, I thought, with the bigger gesturings than with some of the more filigree figurations, his vigorous attack steadfastedly carried the music through the dancing sequence towards those massive orchestral gesturings which seemed suddenly to collapse under their own weight! Baker and his oboe soloist colleague together brought us reassurance by turning once again to the composer’s comforting descending dance theme, one which floated upwards to finish the movement.
A beautiful oboe solo began the slow movement, superbly delivered here, the strings , clarinet and horn taking the melody onto the soloist, whose first focused musings were “charged” by orchestral agitations led by the brass. Though Baker seemed less sure of himself in the heavier, more angular sequences, his confidence returned for the more romantic horn-accompanied passages – and the rarefied solo sequence just before the impassioned entry of the strings was simply lovely, as was the recitative passage immediately following the orchestra’s taking on of the full-blooded gesturings, Baker delivering the open-hearted beauty of the writing to the rapt ending with great commitment.
A timpani figure began the finale, over which the soloist began a molto-perpetuo rhythm, with the orchestra contributing flecks of colour, a wonderfully rollicking journey brought off here with great aplomb. Baker’s control was splendid throughout, his energies carrying everything along with his instrument as the orchestral presence grew through a crescendo to a hammered climax, the strings taking over the rhythm, the soloist wrestling it back for a few measures, and the orchestra seizing control once again. At the work’s end, soloist and orchestra went for broke hammer and tongs, mixing concerted shouts with helter-skelter solo figurations, and unequivocal concluding chords.
The church’s ample acoustic helped make the beginning of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem something of a sonic event, highlighting the committed efforts of the players, the irruptions thunderous and oppressive, engendering a sense of deep hurt, sorrow and anger, the instruments speaking for human voices and giving tongue to feelings. From the utmost depths the sounds gradually ascended, the strings followed by the brass and winds, the textures increasingly strident and agitated. With the heavy percussion adding its weight the full orchestral force was superbly brought into play, through to a shell-shocked aftermath – the sudden irruptive fragments of energy then re-ignited brilliantly spreading inexorably through the orchestra, tongued notes from the winds, stinging col legno strings and mocking chatter from brasses. The saxophone lamented, the trumpets sneered, the percussion flecked off shrapnel-shards of notes, while the rhythms built to brutal unisons at the climax, after which the exhausted textures fragmented into silence – how heart-warming, then, was the ensuing dialogue sung here between winds and horns, with the strings turning the textures into upward-thrusting columns of light, augmented by the whole orchestra! The aftermaths were so very moving, with the brass solemnly sounding a warning phrase for the future before the final hope-filled roulade from the strings dissolved into the quietly stoic wind chords at the end. Such great work from the orchestra, conductor and instrumental soloists!
The concert concluded on a rather less burdened note with George Gershwin’s exuberant An American in Paris, a world that seemed far removed from the previous work’s troubles! I’d thought the Britten piece showed off the orchestra’s qualities splendidly, but this differently-focused, more extroverted Gershwinreally opened up the band’s corporate and individual capabilities, even if the first Parisian taxi whose horn we heard had a first-note hiccup! – but no problems thereafter! That first orchestral paragraph really “set the scene” here, with the tunes roaring through, a prominent one being “My Mum gave me a nickel”, a vivid contrast with some of the piece’s mood-changes, as the traveller wandered from place to place, the loneliness (a gorgeous violin solo) as palpable as the hustle and bustle.
Throughout, I thought Gershwin’s score was made a living entity by these players, as with the cool bluesiness of the famous trumpet solo, and the insouciant swagger of the accompanying rhythmic trajectories, the style caught to perfection, its extrovert manner beautifully tempered in places by the playing’s tenderness and sensitivity (the strings’ delivery of the bluesy tune, for instance), and the ebb and flow between the two modes beautifully controlled by Mark Carter. Gershwin’s scoring of this work throughout indicated here that both of the eminent French musicians he approached for lessons were right to recognise there was little either of them could teach him, and that his own home-grown “idioms” were the important things to further nurture and develop, the second, jauntier trumpet tune, for instance, again played here with incredible panache – and I loved the “drenched” string/wind sound the players brought to the swinging theme that followed soon after, immediately precluding the music’s “breaking up” and reforming with a vigorous rendition of the original bluesy trumpet theme.
Suddenly we were swinging along with the opening music, taxicab horns and all, and heading for a great peroration – a final bluesy turn of phrase, a crashing chord, and we in the audience were left applauding and shouting our approval! Heroes all, these players, with some star turns, all of which were properly acknowledged – very great honour to all at the realisation of such a splendid concert!