Wellington Youth Orchestra and Andrew Joyce take on quintessential Beethoven and Dvořák

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
LEONORE – Music by Beethoven and Dvořák

BEETHOVEN – Overture No. 3 “Leonore” Op.72 No.1c
DVORAK – Symphony No. 6 in D Major Op.60

Andrew Joyce (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

St.James’ Anglican Church, Lower Hutt

Saturday 31st July 2021

Today’s concert given by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in Lower Hutt’s Anglican Church of St James seemed to me a fascinating instance of a certain event’s “atmosphere” influencing one’s reaction to musical performance. I say this in comparing today’s concert with a not-so-long-ago occasion at the same venue and involving the same players, albeit with a different conductor – though I didn’t think the latter a significant factor in the difference between the two events.

Something about the “Transatlantic” concert in May obviously drew what seemed like an excitedly burgeoning churchful of people, all of whom seemed palpably determined to enjoy what they were about to hear – one could feel the anticipation bubbling away well before the start! To be fair, it was a fantastic programme, one whose delightful prospects would literally have jumped out in front of any potential or prospective audience member with a “Well, are you coming?” aspect of enticement before one knew where one was! Just where many of those same people were today I found it puzzling to comprehend, though a relatively unfamiliar Symphony by Dvorak, however much of a treasure waiting to be more widely appreciated, perhaps wasn’t on paper going to quicken the blood of the orchestra’s regular fans in quite the same way as did the May concert’s items.

That amalgam of audience presence and expectation is one of the reasons that a good “live concert” performance of any music invariably feels more exciting, more vital and connective than does a recording of the same, however expertly played.  Today’s concert, by dint of having a smallish, and largely “spread-out” audience simply didn’t for me have at the start the previous occasion’s electric charge, that trace of “something in the air” producing preliminary crackle and cumulative excitement. All (or nearly all) the notes were played, but the excitement that produces uplifting moments was, despite the players best efforts, more of a “sometimes thing” throughout, and invariably hard-won.

Still, there were many moments to enjoy, during the course of both of the concert’s items, the first of which gave the concert its title, the Overture  Leonore No.3 being the third of four attempts by Beethoven to write a satisfactory overture to his opera “Fidelio”– a beautifully-co-ordinated “whoof-like” quality about the Beethoven work’s opening chord, for instance, the heroine’s “Leonore” theme beautifully sounded by the winds before being contrasted briefly with the darkness and stillness of the dungeon imprisoning the hero, Florestan, and the flute seizing the moment and uplifting the mood to one of hope, paving the way for the first of many heroic flourishes that depicted good striving against evil, throughout the work’s course.

Conductor Andrew Joyce drew real exuberance from his players with the allegro’s theme burgeoning into a full-throated roar of intent, one reinforced by the horns’ sudden shaft of light and hope. I thought the upper strings in particular (who faced where I was sitting, almost directly opposite)  maintained this exuberance and purpose in their playing throughout, keeping the trajectories alive and “charged”, up to the moment when Joyce unleashed the terrific surgings of tone that heralded the famous off-stage trumpet call, played here to perfection – Joyce brought out the sounds’ freshness of new expectation, getting a great response from his flutist in her solo’s ever-increasing excitability, and with the strings’ fantastic explosion of spirit goading the rest of the players into action. Though I thought the brass sometimes seemed a shade too relaxed in their rhythmic responses to the beat, they rallied at the end, triumphally carrying the music to its conclusion.

The Dvořák Symphony also began well, its engaging, off-beat rhythm gurgling away on the winds, over which the strings got to “float” the movement’s principal theme, a lovely, free-as-air idea – if the same players had to then work hard at energising the music to prepare for the melody’s return on the full orchestra, it got to make its impact – Joyce gave us the repeat which allowed us to hear the opening all over again, bringing out even more the strength of the band’s  first violin section (the two front-desk players like veritable forces of nature in their determination to “sound” their lines).

The winds, too, showed their mettle at the development’s beginning, oboes taking the lead, echoed beautifully by the flutes and clarinets, an “echt-Czech” moment readily summonsing up “Bohemia’s Woods and Fields”, and continuing the pastoral feeling throughout the interactions. I thought the brass again strangely reticent in places here, as opposed to the excitingly “up-front” feeling the same players had  conveyed throughout the previous concert (which, incidentally, I PROMISE not to mention again!) – but the music’s gradual build-up of all forces (including splendidly-sounded timpani) awakened their instincts, and they delivered sonorously at the movement’s recapitulation!

The slow movement was captivating at the outset, the winds and strings beautifully floating the sounds over a gently undulating atmosphere – inexplicably, the horn failed to take up the strings’ melody, but the music’s pulse was steadfastedly maintained, and the exchanges continued, the clarinet contributing a beautiful solo and the horn then making amends with a similar appearance – and I thought the violas “sounded “ their turn with the recurring melody so tenderly and well! The movement’s brief but telling moment of minor-key darkness came and went like clouds obscuring the sunlight, with the strings (this time gratefully answered by the horn!) giving the melody full-throated treatment, allowing the emotion its head before the soft, crepuscular ending was wrought by the winds and sensitively-sounded timpani – the composer could be forgiven for allowing one last forceful reiteration of such an appealing tune before the end!

Nowhere in this work is Dvořák more “Bohemian” than with the Scherzo, whose main body is a Furiant, an exciting, quick-moving dance-form seeming to move between two-four and three-four rhythm. Joyce kept his players on their toes throughout, varying the dynamics in an ear-catching way, and delineating the trajectories firmly, even if again I thought the brasses not as quickly-reflexed as were the rest of the players, being left slightly behind the beat at the impetuous coda’s end. The more relaxed trio was an absolute delight, the winds so AIRILY pastoral-sounding, and the accompaniments at once playful and deliciously indolent.

Uncharacteristically, the strings’ ensemble came slightly adrift during the crescendoed section of the finale’s introduction, the conductor expertly bringing them all back together once the first big ”tutti” had shaken the rhythms down and sorted out the trajectories! Joyce kept the music going through the second subject, deliciously and dancingly played by the winds, the strings playing their hearts out, sometimes roughing up their intonations, the brass coming to their rescue with a stirring call to arms that brought the recapitulation, the music swirling, the winds doing famously, the strings now sounding a bit tired, but rallying with astounding rhythmic point and energy by way of introducing the work’s outrageous presto coda – what a blast! Though the ensemble couldn’t quite match the introduction’s fire and energy, the players summonsed up all their reserves and raced their way to the music’s end – as dogged as energetic, but achieving the discharge of the music’s spirit. We couldn’t really mirror the musicians’ sounds with our applause, but we did our best to convey our appreciation of such heartfelt efforts!





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