The Wellington Youth Orchestra
with Mark Carter (conductor)
and Peter Gjelsten (solo violin)
BEETHOVEN – Overture to “Egmont” (Op. 84)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Violin Concerto (Op. 35)
BIZET – Farandole from L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2
St. Andrews on the Terrace
Sunday, 10 October
Livestreamed and archived at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMCG9f1OeXk
Pre-concert interview with Peter Gjelsten on RNZ Concert’s Upbeat:
An atmosphere of excitement pervaded St. Andrews as the sold-out Alert Level 2 crowd sorted out its seating arrangements for this much-anticipated season-closing concert showcasing the winner of WYO’s 2021 Concerto Competition, Peter Gjelsten, in Tchaikovsky’s famous violin concerto. I carefully mulled my seating options — either up in the gallery with many of the cognoscenti, or downstairs in the front row within stabbing range of the principal cellist (Jack Moyer, who heroically overlooked my tactless proximity) — and opted for the latter, more exciting place close to the thick of the action. There were plenty of fireworks to look forward to, with three well-known and majestic pieces on the program.
First, however, some orchestra business was to be conducted: acknowledgements and encomia for Tom Gott, the outgoing chair of the Wellington Youth Orchestras Board, whose name has been given to a large silver cup which will henceforth be awarded annually to, and inscribed with the names of the Concerto Competition winners. Aside from being heartwarming, this raised anticipation for the concerto performance to come — but first, the orchestra (sans concerto winner) treated us to a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.
The stately, portentous opening chords of this overture are thrilling to hear live, and the orchestra sounded as if it was thrilled too, playing with conviction, confidence, and fire. The string players seemed unafraid to get athletic for the loud bits, and the woodwinds held their own in reply, making for a crisp, well-balanced sound. Shapely phrases and nicely observed dynamics emerged from under Mark Carter’s elegant, efficient conducting. It’s clear that he and these players are very comfortable with each other and communicate with ease.
With “Egmont” as entrée, the audience prepared for an equally delicious main course: the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I first heard this concerto 25 years ago, at the 1996 “Stars of the White Nights” festival in St. Petersburg. Tickets being cheap and my Russian host family somewhat unfriendly, I tried to go out to concerts every night without too much regard for what was on the programme — and thus it was that I happened to end up hearing the Tchaikovsky concerto on two consecutive nights, with two different orchestras and two different soloists. On first hearing, I was unmoved. The music seemed showy but not interesting, and the harmonics and interpolated high notes in the first movement sounded so crude and approximate that I was almost offended to be subjected to them. (I won’t say who I think the offending soloist was because I’m not 100% sure and can’t find the notebook where I wrote it down!) The next evening, I returned to the same hall and, after a few moments of déja vu, realized I was hearing the same piece as the night before, this time played by Gidon Kremer. It was electrifying! From this experience I learned that, while this concerto is indeed flashy and even macho in places, it falls flat as a pancake without careful attention to phrasing and, especially, intonation.
Fortunately these are particular strengths of Gjelsten’s, as we soon found out. In an interview the day before on RNZ Concert’s “Upbeat” programme, he had cited Augustin Hadelich’s recording of the concerto as a particular source of inspiration, and the influence was palpable both in his sweetness of tone and in his phrasing which brought out the character, and the lovely melodic material, of the solo line. Gjelsten also plays with a physical freedom and looseness that is lovely to watch. Throughout the first movement, he seemed to take its many and diverse technical demands in stride while also feeling totally at home in the music.
A particular pleasure of this concerto is the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, and in particular the moments where they join each other. Famously, the piece opens with a melody in the strings that never returns; pretty in its own right, it suggests that we might be in for some sort of pastoral scene, with the woodwinds suggesting a few clouds appearing in the strings’ sunny sky, but before the day takes on any settled character, along comes the solo violin like the Messenger in a Greek play and says something like “Hey, guys, let’s play THIS ONE,” starting up the first movement’s main theme. Immediately attentive to this charismatic newcomer, the orchestra falls in with his proposal and starts singing back-up, as it were. The same thing happens with the second theme, until after a few minutes of development (featuring some lovely bubbly solo runs for clarinet and flute; overall, the WYO’s woodwinds were excellent) everyone joins in triumphantly on a majestic tutti statement of the main theme, one of the most satisfying moments in any concerto. In fact it’s so satisfying they do it again a few minutes later (Tchaikovsky never being one to waste an effect he was pleased with, though he obviously had tunes to spare).
There follows the cadenza, not only technically devilish but also challenging to make music out of — as my 1996 experience attests. I loved Gjelsten’s rendition. The technicalities of it seemed to disappear — I never felt a gap between the player and his instrument, but rather a sense of complete ease, as though the music was coming directly out of the performer via the violin rather than being coaxed from the latter by the former. The fireworks here — including super-fast runs ending in super-high harmonics — are inevitably impressive but not inevitably pleasurable; Gjelsten’s playing was both, and led beautifully into one of my favourite moments of the entire concerto, the soloist’s culminating trill on a high A that magically transforms from a show-off move into a demure pedal note in the background as the flute comes in with a sweet-voiced restatement of the main theme. If it were a Disney movie there would be small birds flying around the players’ heads.
After this, things gradually pick up steam again (I have a mysterious scribble in my notes about a particular repeated motif reminding me of Philip Glass; I think this might have been around bar 293), collecting energy for the solo vs. tutti triple-f race to the finish. The audience REALLY wanted to applaud here, but most of us reluctantly restrained ourselves. It felt a bit like watching someone land a series of triple axles without cheering, but decorum must have its due I suppose.
Early listeners of this concerto felt that the second movement was the only one Tchaikovsky got right, in between the “unplayable” first movement (Auer) and the “brutal and wretched jollity” of the third (Hanslick). Hanslick presumably liked it because it didn’t sound “Russian” to him, though I can’t imagine why not; the opening chorale in the woodwinds especially is reminiscent of the nostalgic, sorrowful yet resolute music Tchaikovsky wrote to represent Rus’ under the Mongol yoke in his Moscow Cantata. One thing this movement IS very good for is giving the audience a moment to breathe and notice that behind the soloist there are other instruments in the orchestra; most notably the woodwinds, who did some lovely playing here. I particularly enjoyed the bassoon solos, but flute and clarinet also shone, emerging and re-merging in brief duets with one another or with the solo violin. We had a few minutes to savour their interplay and the orchestra’s and conductor’s beautiful dynamics before diving headfirst into the breathless “Allegro vivacissimo” third movement.
Here again one hears genuine dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, with the violin once again saying “Let’s play THIS one!” (or perhaps just “Let’s DANCE!”) to the orchestra, whose various sections play, clap (pizzicato strings; rhythmically bowing cellos), or sing (droning basses, various lyrical counterpoints in the woodwinds) along, adding their own spin on the material and suggesting different moods as it develops (though the violin’s irrepressible will to dance always re-emerges sooner or later). There are two official themes here but many distinct melodies; the woodwinds, who again did thoroughly delightful work here, get their own “verse” of the song, bringing a slower tempo and a lyrical melancholy before once again getting swept into the dance. The sinuous “inverse descants” by the clarinet and bassoon in the Quasi Andante section were especially lovely. And of course we finished on a satisfying loud fast bit — this orchestra sounds absolutely terrific on loud fast bits — and were finally allowed to clap. This took some time, as the audience had a lot of pent-up admiration to expend.
As it turned out, so did the orchestra, and they took their feelings out on the Farandole movement of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2. This piece is a regulation banger, and the orchestra played it accordingly, with the same verve and panache as the tutti sections of the previous works. It made for a suitable dessert after the Russian banquet cooked up by Tchaikovsky, and a nice way to reunite Peter Gjelsten (now sitting in the back row of the first violins) with the rest of the team. In fact, one of the most enjoyable things about the whole concert was feeling this sense of teamwork among the performers; in these days of international superstars one rarely gets to hear a concerto played by a violinist with his home orchestra, conducted by their own musical director. One felt this in the lightness of touch Mark Carter was able to bring to his conducting, in the soloist’s sense of ease, and in the generosity of the orchestra’s response to the soloist. Overall a very worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon and a magnificent first outing for the new Tom Gott Cup.