A GLORIOUSLY UNINHIBITED CONCERT EXPERIENCE
Wellington Youth Orchestra
Music by Verdi, Grieg and Tchaikovsky
VERDI – Overture “Nabucco”
GRIEG – 4 Norwegian Dances
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.5 in E Minor
Mark Carter (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington
Sunday, 30th April, 2023
St. Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace was positively burgeoning with people on this holiday afternoon, all bent on celebrating what was the final day of April. The auditorium was jam-packed full, and bristling with excitement and expectation as well as sporting what seemed like a forest of violin bows brandished by seated uniformed platoons of fresh-faced youngsters, affiliated with similarly attired groups sporting wooden and metal whistles, and backed up by others carrying gleaming brass bells with tubes attached or standing next to pairs and trios of sizeable rounded objects that straightaway invited banging and crashing together.
In fact the orchestra (which was what this assemblage was) seemed to take up at least half the auditorium’s floor-space, a prospect which seemed very likely to involve at some particular stage a right royal welter of assorted sound! One presumed that attendance at such a farrago would certainly not be for the faint-hearted!
Such was the bustling scene that any Sunday afternoon passer-by would have encountered. who might have looked into the church to see what was going on! Posters displayed on the street outside would have given people in the “know” more clues as to what was brewing within, and especially as the name “Tchaikovsky” dominated what seemed a tantalisingly lurid seascape image which most excitingly took up the whole of the display. And once tempted through the doors of St.Andrew’s the casual visitor would have then been irresistibly drawn into the ferment, with no possible chance of having second thoughts regarding the adventure, or of resisting the ready blandishments and associated excitements being primed for tumultuous action!
Of course, for me it was at first simply another concert to add to the cache of my own musical experiences – and with all the things I’d seen and heard since arriving at that oft-visited church on Wellington’s The Terrace, part of the by-now-familiar fabric of preparation for music-making. And yet, from the time I’d ascended the church steps and eased my way through the entrance portals and into the auditorium, I’d again caught that whiff of excitement in my nostrils that can still, even on the ultra-umpteenth concert occasion, stimulate one’s interest – and the hubbub of the things I’ve already described upon arriving certainly did it for me again this time round.
Although the name of Tchaikovsky dominated the bill of fare, no less interest was generated by the supporting items from the equally illustrious pens of Verdi and Grieg – each as well being striking examples of orchestra virtuosity and of sounds characteristic of its respective composer. I hadn’t actually heard Verdi’s “Nabucco” Overture for some time, never having seen the opera on the stage, though the music brought back many recollections of my youthful tourings as a beginner actor in a children’s theatre troupe, our play using a recording of the very same overture! – excellently vivid, impactful sounds which, thanks to the composer’s irrepressible native theatrical instincts, have stayed vividly in my memory.
So it was, from the first solemn utterances of the brass chorale that opened the work, an evocation of magic from trombones and tuba, the sounds beautifully-rounded and splendidly-finished – and the characteristic, theatrical Verdian outburst from the entire orchestra that followed, stunning in its impact and setting the theatrical tone for the rest of the work. I was impressed with the response of the players to their conductor Mark Carter’s insistence upon razor-sharp orchestral attack and beautifully graded dynamics, bringing out the composer’s native theatrical instincts, and preparing the way for our first taste of the famous melody “Va pensiero”, which was to bring the composer such lasting fame in its choral version from later in the opera. Time and again throughout the piece a particular orchestral detail in the playing from these youthful musicians made me prick my ears, such as the delightfully insouciant wind episode which lightened the wound-up tensions of the martial-sounding allegro, the nail-biting crescendo which then followed, and the “caution-thrown-to-the-winds” coda of the work, which left us all breathless with exhilaration at its conclusion.
Where Verdi’s music was innately theatrical and dramatic, Grieg’s was, by contrast, redolent with folkish charm and out-of-doors exhilaration, the Four Norwegian Dances positively exuding a bracing northern outlook – by turns each one bewitches and invigorates the senses with its specific evocation of time and place. Yet Grieg in his own music was never content to merely copy his country’s traditional melodies and rhythms, wanting to convey to a wider world these characteristics by echoing them in his own music. Though these Dances are all derived from Norwegian folk-tunes, he invested them with his very own harmonic brands (whose strains were to subsequently inspire Debussy, Ravel and Delius in their music) and similarly flavoured the native dance rhythms the composer so loved with the same piquancies and contrasts of mood and atmosphere. Written in 1881 first of all for piano four-hands by Grieg, the set of Dances has become more widely-known through their orchestral version, made in 1888 by the distinguished Czech violinist, Hans Sitt, and presumably used here.
Surprisingly, the players sounded to my ears at first slightly less comfortable with Grieg’s more bucolic measures than they had done with Verdi’s tight-as-a-drum rhythmic patterns, the opening of the first Dance seeming a shade “drunken” rather than spot-on with the rhythms, as if the dancers had helped themselves too freely to the Aquivit before the band struck up – but all seemed well by the time the music’s gorgeous trio section was reached, some beautiful oboe playing alternating with heart-on-sleeve string responses. And I had no reservations whatever with the Second Dance, utterly entranced as I was by the performance here of one of the world’s most charming melodies, again on the oboe (principal David Liu thoroughly deserving a mention!) and then just as beguilingly on the strings. I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which conductor Mark Carter put his foot down for the Trio section, but the fast and furious response by the players was brilliantly achieved! – making, of course, the reprise of the opening all the more “lump-in-throat” than before!
After which the Third Dance might well have made many people like myself get up and actually begin dancing, with the winds right on form and the strings and brasses even having a friendly rhythmic “tussle” at one point during their replies. In this Dance’s Trio, too, I could hear instances of Grieg’s chromatic harmonisings of the kind that Delius obviously admired and would “echo” in his own music. The Fourth Dance seemed, at the outset, as it was going to pre-date its more sophisticated cousin-to-be, the Fourth Symphonic Dance in the later Op.64 set of Dances – more portentous than any so far at the outset, and threatening to maintain the ominous mood throughout (with even Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s introduction briefly echoed) – but then, with a few enlivening gestures, the dance spirit was reactivated and the music “ready!-steadied” into life once more, though the accompaniments here were interestingly enough the “darkest” of any throughout the set. On this occasion, too, the Trio sounded especially melancholy, becoming a kind of miniature tone-poem of contrasting mood, with strings and brasses darkly accompanying first the oboe and then the flute, before further intensifying the melancholy mood (wonderfully black-browed brass and timpani here, almost Wagnerian in effect!) – then, suddenly, the dance broke in again, as before. This time, there was a gorgeous “We’ll see you again sometime” kind of coda, with flutes and horn making “farewell” exchanges, before the music suddenly erupted with energy and stormed to a brilliantly abrupt finish!
A short interval later and we were ready for the Tchaikovsky, his Fifth Symphony being the most classically-conceived of the composer’s three numbered later symphonies, though still imbued with plenty of characteristic late-romantic feeling – as this performance was to demonstrate with considerable elan. The orchestral masses having suitably regrouped, we were off, straightaway plunged into melancholy with superbly delivered clarinet phrases underpinned by dark-toned strings, intoning the work’s hauntingly sombre “motto theme”.
Conductor Mark Carter gave his players enough room to maintain a portentous march-tread for the Allegro con anima opening theme while keeping the music’s energies active in the rippling wind counterpoints to the theme, and to all of its various adaptations, such as the strings’ and then the winds’ beautiful rising variant, followed by the winds’ perky repeated fanfare call. The only difficulty for the strings came with the equally gorgeous but trickily syncopated second subject, whose rhythm pattern the players repeatedly anticipated, pushing it ahead of the accompaniments – however, the repeated fanfare figures on full orchestra fortunately restored order, with the horns and winds reliable in their turn.
Carter had obviously worked the players meticulously through the tricky rhythmic dovetailings of the development, so that the few strands that unravelled were easily pulled into place once more, the players achieving a fine cataclysmic ferment of interaction at the climax before the sounds gradually wound themselves back into the recapitulated allegro con anima, the winds doing the honours at first with distinction before the strings strode into the picture once again. The same problem of the strings’ syncopated melody recurred, but things were again righted by that same repeated fanfare figure of yore, which then led excitingly and defiantly to the movement’s coda – at the ferment’s zenith-point Carter gave his players extra elbow-room to hurl out the phrases expansively, before allowing the music to subside into a kind of brooding silence.
One of Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphonic slow movements followed, on its own terms a lyrical drama with a central episode leading to a magnificent motto-theme-led climax (that same motto theme makes an unscheduled return towards the movement’s end as well, which gives the drama extra “clout”) – but all the greater as a central part of an overall symphonic plan with each of its unifying strands fully activated. The scope of this review doesn’t permit a full description, but allows tribute to be paid to the conductor and players in this case who breathed life into every aspect of the structure – the darkly ample strings at the beginning, the magnificently-realised horn solo (played by principal Isabelle Faulkner) featuring the first of the themes that unify this movement, the oboe/horn duet that sounds the second and most-repeated theme, and the clarinet theme (played by Joseph Craggs, and backed up by Maya Elmes’ bassoon) that dominates the movement’s central episode until the motto theme’s reappearance blows it all out of the water. I felt in general that we got the best playing in the whole work from this movement, both with the soloists involved in the different themes and with the orchestra as a whole superbly committed towards expressing the different character of each of the sections.
Another concerted effort from the players was in the ballet-like Waltz movement which followed, one demanding particularly adroit instrumental counterpointing from both the different string sections and a number of soloists, particularly the winds, all of whom performed like heroes, including the flute principal, Keeson Perkins-Treacher, and, as well, the trumpet principal, Lewis Grey, whose notes I clearly and cleanly heard at salient points.
Having already remarked that I thought the Symphony’s second movement contained the work’s best playing on the part of the WYO, I must confess that I can’t anywhere in my notes find reference to any mishap, failing or inadequacy in the orchestra’s full-blooded tackling of the work’s finale. Beginning with the words – “Finale – attacca!” I proceeded to nail my critical colours to my private mast (my notebook), and generally wax lyrical! – viz. “Splendid at the outset – brass forthright and confident, and winds the same! – the climax to the Intro is worked up well! The brass subsequently sonorous and oracular in their pronouncements!” That, of course, was the slow introduction….
Then came the allegro vivace (alla breve) – “Strings and chattering winds and brass do excellently well through the allegro’s opening charge! Winds are lovely and sonorous….strings also keep the melody buoyant! Brass resound the Motto splendidly! Winds give us plenty of swirling detail – the stamping theme is magnificent, underpinned by the timpani! Brass calls really nail the essential tumult, Winds and strings lean into the “Russian Dance: episode – the music gradually becalms, conductor holding the players nicely in check until the explosion restarts the conflagration….”
So far, so good! – the reprise of part of the finale elicited a comment, “Again the orchestra handles it all well – as before, strings are fantastic! The brass and winds support the tumult! – the music rushes airborne towards the motto theme!”
Then came the Apotheosis – “Triumphal homecoming, great and heartwarming! Everybody playing their hearts out! What a coda! Mark is keeping it splendidly on the rails! Majestic right at the end!” And that was it! – a glorious and celebratory occasion! (I obviously knowed no more that afternoon!)
With those final in situ comments I rest my case! Well played, WYO!!