Wellington Youth Orchestra
Mark Carter, conductor
Emica Taylor (flute)
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Academic Festival Overture
CARL NIELSEN – Concerto for Flute and Orchestra
ALEXANDER BORODIN – Symphony No. 2 in B Minor
St Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Saturday, 1st October, 2022
A grey and damp Saturday afternoon in Wellington was the perfect environment from which to seek refuge in this concert of brilliant and invigorating works played by the WYO at the top of its game. While the centerpiece of the programme was necessarily the Nielsen Flute Concerto, showcasing the virtuosity of WYO 2022 Concerto Competition winner Emica Taylor, the works by Brahms and Borodin that flanked it were also a great pleasure to listen to. The concert opened with Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, a work your humble reviewer was forced to study for School Cert Music in a bygone century and therefore has not (or not deliberately) listened to since. This was an enjoyable reintroduction. As is well known, Brahms composed the piece by way of a thank you gift to the University of Breslau upon being awarded an honorary PhD, so that its title (Akademische Festouvertüre in German) refers directly to the joyful occasion of receiving the degree. However, it can also be understood as describing the contents of the score. While the “festive” nature of the overture is immediately apparent in the collection of student drinking songs it famously samples, its “academic” qualities emerge in Brahms’s use of counterpoint, and in the orchestration, which cannily exploits the individual colours of the instrumental forces employed. This means it is a piece of many moving parts, which can feel “bitty” as it moves from theme to theme and colour to colour. The WYO, however, played like a single organism under Mark Carter’s baton. I really enjoyed their feeling of unity as well as the beautifully articulated “highlights” given to various players and sections. In particular, I was impressed by the disciplined pizzicato in the cellos, and the thrilling fortes that succeeded the tiptoeing opening section. The orchestra also appeared to be enjoying itself, at least if the grins on the first-desk violinists as they rounded the corner into the triumphant finale on “Gaudeamus Igitur” were any indication. My seat did not afford a clear sightline to the woodwinds (alas! Purely because of my own poor planning), but did offer an excellent view of the two percussionists (both guest players, according to the programme), who also played with verve and evident elation. (The manic triangle riff at the end of the piece was a particular highlight.)
This appetizer having got the party well underway, it was now time for the main course: the Nielsen flute concerto. In a brief introduction, Music Director Mark Carter characterized this piece as “fiendishly difficult….a real test for the orchestra.” It was a test they seemed well prepared to pass, even before the soloist, Emica Taylor, made her appearance onstage with enviable poise and in a beautiful gown. Nielsen doesn’t mess around: after a furiously chromatic four-bar introduction – really more of a scene-setting – the solo flute enters in a cascade of limpid triplets, matching the athleticism of the orchestra but introducing a contrast to their vehemently zigzagging semiquavers. Taylor proved more than equal to the acrobatics required in her relentlessly hyperactive solo line, while the strings and woodwinds traded off duties in the accompaniment – one section providing a rhythmic underlay (I was particularly impressed with the disciplined pizzicato of the string players here) while the other offered lush countermelodies. A series of brief duets between the flute and the various woodwinds were beautifully played: in particular an extended dialogue between flute and clarinet, interrupted by enthusiastic strings and a surprise bass trombone, only to resume and infect the whole orchestra with a lyricism that continued to the end of the first movement.
The second movement was again introduced by vigorous strings only to give way almost immediately to a charming duet between flute and bassoon, gradually pulling in an accompaniment from the lower strings, then the remaining woodwinds. An ethereal adagio section followed, with a bit more canoodling between flute and bassoon, interrupted by agitated strings, ushering in a more playful interlude that in turn gave way to a lively march. A mood of building anticipation culminated in a duet of flute and timpani leading into a triumphant tutti finale. The entire performance felt committed, fluent, and professional.
It is safe to say that the audience was delighted with the concerto, and abuzz over Taylor’s virtuoso playing. This, therefore, was a good moment for an interlude, and the presentation of the Tom Gott cup – awarded annually to the winner of the WYO’s concerto contest, in this case, obviously, Emica Taylor.
The final piece on the programme was Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 in B minor, subtitled “The Bogatyrs” (something like “warrior-heroes” in Russian legend). The symphony has a complicated genesis story; Borodin (working simultaneously at his day job as an organic chemist) worked on it on and off for six years, with interruptions for the opera Prince Igor and the ill-fated opera-ballet Mlada (both also drawing heavily on the legends of mediaeval Rus’). He then proceeded to lose the full score and, having found copies of movements 2 and 3, had to (re-)orchestrate the other two movements while sick in bed.
One might be tempted to imagine that this contributed to the extremely pesante character of the first movement, in which a suitably “heroic,” ponderous theme is introduced by unison strings – the whole movement is dominated by unison or homophonic playing – and then compulsively repeated and returned to. Interruptions by the trumpets (with a brisker martial-sounding motif) and woodwinds (with more lyrical material) inexorably lead back to the heroic theme, often “enforced” so to speak by the low brass. The second movement, marked “Scherzo – molto vivo” was a (as expected) a merrier romp, featuring more terrific pizzicato, especially in the low strings, and lovely woodwind playing among other delights. Its syncopated second theme went with a swing – a chance to appreciate Mark Carter’s economical, elegant conducting and his seamless rapport with his players.
The third movement, claimed (by Borodin’s biographer Stasov) to represent the legendary Slavic bard Bayan singing and accompanying himself on the gusli, is easy to imagine as a kind of aural montage. It opens with a lyrical duet of clarinet and harp (presumably representing the voice of the bard and his instrument, respectively), followed by a gorgeous horn solo that seems to take us back to the “time immemorial” of heroic deeds – soon introduced in foreboding tones by orchestral forces reminiscent of the first movement: unison strings and low brass. The mood of agitation in the bottom half of the score is offset by cantabile playing in the woodwinds and horns – the winds and brass really shone in this movement! – which gradually takes over the whole orchestra, until we “fade out” back to the solo horn, harp and clarinet, a sort of musical “the end” which perversely leads straight into the Allegro fourth movement without a break. This movement had everything one might want in a finale – building excitement, catchy tunes, dynamic contrast, lots of tutti playing, and most of all plenty of action for the percussionists! I particularly enjoyed watching them gingerly pass the triangle back and forth in between managing their respective duties on cymbals, drums, and tambourine. Good fun. The syncopation and mixed metres showcased this orchestra’s strong grasp of rhythm and caused more than one toe to tap.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about this concert is that I frequently forgot to take notes, as the music drew me in. The WYO on a good day is really a terrific orchestra, and this was definitely a good day. Stellar playing all around and engaged, communicative conducting made for a really invigorating afternoon of music, and I look forward to the next one.