National Youth Orchestra’s summer concert a brilliant showcase for cellist Balzat in Elgar concerto

NZSO National Youth Orchestra conducted by Guy Noble with Matthias Balzat (cello)

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op 72b
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85
Dvořák: Symphony No 8 in G, Op 88

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 3 February, 7:30 pm

To start the year, neither Peter Mechen nor I was prepared to forego hearing the National Youth Orchestra and debated the question of authoring a review. We settled by both giving up something we each hated being deprived of – that is, the entire concert.

The compromise: I cover the first half and Peter, the second.

Much as one attempts to avoid repetitious expressions of amazement at the remarkable accomplishment and musicianship exhibited by the National Youth Orchestra, and talented young musicians generally, those qualities of talent and insight are drawn out by gifted mentors and conductors and cannot be ignored.

Though the MFC was at least half full, these concerts deserve full houses. Professed music lovers should never miss them; there, as well as hearing thoroughly rehearsed performances, they will often be exposed to great music that seems to get overlooked in regular concerts. Dvořák’s earlier symphonies are a case.

Leonore III
The first half of this concert was rather more familiar, for the Elgar cello concerto gets a fair amount of exposure, and Leonore 3 is probably the most played of Beethoven’s four overtures for his much revised opera Fidelio, and more than his several other great concert overtures.

Guy Noble is an Australian conductor who has a reputation for popularising and demystifying classical music, often working with young people, hosting educational programme and collaborating with musicians in the pop world. The effect of his easy manner on the players quickly became clear in the opening bars of the overture.

Leonore Overture No 3 was the overture for the first revision of Fidelio in 1806; it’s generally considered the most substantial of the four overtures, using material from the opera, including famously, the trumpet call announcing the arrival of the minister, Don Fernando in the nick of time, releasing the illegally imprisoned Florestan. It’s sometimes played in Act II of opera performances.

Just a musicological aside: there were other operatic interpretations of the actual event during the French Revolution. The programme note referred to two French settings: only one was French: Pierre Gaveaux (Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, 1798). Two later settings by Italian and German composers in 1804 just preceded Beethoven’s: L’amor coniugale by Donizetti’s famous teacher Simon Mayr, and Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora, ossia l’amour coniugale.

The opening, after the big call to attention, proceeded with the exquisite hushed first phrases on strings bearing a secretive message that set the tone for the whole performance – in turn restrained, suspenseful, heroic, joyous…, moving with an unusual secretiveness till the lovely rising triadic theme from principal flute Matthew Lee (and he shone again with the main theme later) signalled the beginning of the drama. The music rose confidently, dwelling not on the events in the opera’s first act but inspired mainly by Leonore’s bravery and her ultimate triumphant rescue of her husband. Its performance, marked by careful balance between strings and brass whose playing was particularly dynamic, though timpani was occasionally too strong. It certainly left one aroused, rather hoping that the entire opera would follow.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto
A few years ago I suffered Elgar cello concerto over-exposure, and Dvořák’s too, through regular attendance at the Christchurch cello competition inspired by late, lamented Alexander Ivashkin. The Adam International Cello Competition ran from 1995 to 2009 and its end was a result of the Christchurch earthquakes, perhaps one of the most lamentable losses due to the earthquakes.

This performance by Matthias Balzat, last year’s winner of the National Concerto Competition and a number of other important competitions,  awakened me again to its very special character, its deeply pensive musical inspiration, far from the character of Elgar’s earlier, ‘imperial’ symphonic works.

The cello, together with an orchestra that proved comparably sensitive to the unique spirit of the music, produced a totally arresting performance right from the cello’s other-worldly opening with merely hesitant gestures from other strings. The cello part’s handling by the 18-year-old Waikato University graduate (a James Tennant pupil) of the gorgeous main theme of the first movement Adagio set the tone for the heartfelt, melancholy music, which permeates the piece, especially the third movement – also Adagio.

Those two movements are filled with a profound meditative spirit which can be ascribed to its composition after his wife’s death, the First World War and presentiments of the end of Empire; cello and orchestra captured its spirit, exquisitely, in perfect unity.

In the brief but arresting second movement – Molto allegro – Balzat exhibited a fully-formed, virtuosic confidence, sustaining a feeling of trembling expectancy. He coped with all that ferocious demi-semi-quaverish tremolo with energy that would have won the admiration of Jacqueline du Pre. And the last ten minutes or so – Allegro – Moderato – largely rids the scene of the lingering grief, at least in the orchestra. The cello’s sometimes wild ride was subdued with spacious, beautifully phrased passages where some of the Adagio’s depth of emotion resurfaced.

Perhaps it’s taken some time for my appreciation of the concerto to recover from the Christchurch competition’s over-exposure: this performance by a very gifted young cellist and an orchestra under a conductor who emerged as rather more than merely a good front man and colourful advocate for classical music, accompanying in the most apt, sensitive and unobtrusive way, restored this great concerto’s place in my musical pantheon.

(Peter Mechen’s continuation, covering the Dvořák symphony, follows below….)

Dvorak – Symphony No.8 in G Major
A truly Bohemian symphonic musical experience – one of Dvorak’s masterpieces

by Peter Mechen

After the interval, conductor and orchestra returned to the platform to tackle one of the most adorable of romantic symphonies, Dvorak’s G Major Eighth Symphony. For many years concert-goers and record collectors knew the work as No.4 (a number of the composer’s earlier symphonies having not been published and numbered, as it were). Dvorak had previously made a breakthrough as a symphonist with his Sixth Symphony (the first one to be published), a work whose outer movements were unashamedly (and fascinatingly) modelled on Brahms’ Second Symphony. He followed that with the stern, and in places tragic tones of his Seventh Symphony (originally labelled No.2), which, though obviously a greater, more original work, is in a sense, the least “Czech” of all his symphonies, owing little to ethnic dance elements or melodic expression.

With the Eighth, the composer declared that he wanted to write something completely different, “with individual ideas written out in a new manner”. The result was a work which, more successfully than any other the composer had produced, spoke with a truly distinctive voice, expressing easily and naturally within a symphonic framework those ambiences and rhythms we most readily associate with Bohemian music. Apparently Brahms, who was one of Dvorak’s most avid supporters, was not impressed with the work, considering its ideas “attractive but fragmentary”, and lacking the symphonic focus required to give an impression of strength and true seriousness.

But Dvorak was by this time more than ready to be his own man as a symphonist, and where one finds, in the previous symphony, plenty of “strength and true seriousness”, here in the eighth there’s a joyous exuberance added to the symphonic argument which brings it all to life in a far more characteristic central European way. Everything flows in a thoroughly uncontrived manner, though still beautifully crafted and characterfully detailed. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, this is music which for me “age cannot wither….nor custom stale…..”

So it was with some initial concern that I listened to conductor Guy Noble’s direction of the work’s introductory bars with his young players, the melancholic opening phrases seeming to me pushed along and not allowed much chance to properly “voice” the turns of their phrases. Fortunately, things started to “flesh out” – the succeeding episodes were given more space for the players to build and shape their tones, the strings relishing their accompanying triplets beneath the winds’ soulful utterances, and gathering strength and momentum as they pushed upwards towards their climaxes, with everything excitingly capped by the brasses.

The detailings came thick and fast from this point onwards – a lovely flute phrase lead to a heart-warming partnership with the violas, one replicated by the violins and oboes, the horn barely able to contain its excitement as it summoned the rest of the orchestra to arms, leading to a thrilling and resplendent climax, in the wake of which sounded the dulcet tones of the cor anglais. The music’s volatility kept things moving, clarinets buoyed along by the lower strings’ rhythms, and thoroughly galvanized by the strings’ brilliant, gleaming ascent, answered by the brasses, and driven to an exciting ending, the timpanist splendidly on the ball with his rapid-fire detailings.

I thought the slow movement’s performance particularly successful, everything deeply considered and beautifully shaped, with the minor-key irruptions properly volatile and dramatic. And what a stunning contrast was afforded by the trio section’s dancing rhythms, the violin solo plaintively singing, and urging the rest of the strings on. Nothing was stinted, here, the strings fervent and fiery, the timpani strong and unremitting, and the solo trumpet gleaming at the snow-capped climax.
How confidently the players moved from episode to episode here, under their conductor’s beautifully-paced direction, with the horn and then the strings inviting groups of winds to forcefully having their say, and make something strong and virile of the exchanges.

But I particularly enjoyed the strings’ heart-on-sleeve manner with the dance-tune’s reintroduction, their tones saturated with warmth, and the horns chuckling with pleasure in their accompaniments. What a tremendous moment it therefore was when the music darkened unexpectedly once more, brass and timpani making their presence felt while the strings strove to keep the agitations within control, allowing the disturbances to pass and put themselves to rest.

The scherzo exuded grace and confidence, the instrumental detailings having enough thythmic elbow-room to sing and deliciously dance at the same time, not perhaps as indulgently as some performances I’ve heard, but still with beguiling effect. And in the trio, firstly the winds and then the strings flooded the textures with feeling and sentiment, the strings adding a touch of portamento, making for an ambience so very beautifully realized. The coda then properly galvanized our sensibilities, rousing us from our reveries in preparation for the work’s finale.

Trumpets splendidly called the opening, echoed by throbbing timpani and dark- browed winds, before the strings ambled in, the violins particularly bright and focused when counterpointing the lower strings, and then incisive and muscular when the allegro kicked-started – a lovely airy wind-and brass exchange contrasted nicely with the more “boots-and-all” sections – all very rustic and vigorous and exuberant.

I greatly enjoyed the “skin-and-hair” excitement of the middle-section, especially the shouting brass, with the trombones and tuba making telling contributions, and thought the quieter variation sequences worked the music’s contrasts to perfection – what lovely playing from the individual instruments here – flute, clarinet, oboe, horn, bassoon, all underpinned by strings so beguilingly. It made the final stamping, cheering payoff all the more effective, with the final brass clamourings tumultuous!

Obviously I find it difficult to contain my love and enthusiasm for this music when writing about its performance – but here, the players’ enthusiasm and the conductor’s steady and unflagging hand combined with the composer’s natural exuberance to give a truly joyous overall effect. I forgot to mention that I noticed ‘cellist Matthias Balzat (the soloist in the first-half concerto performance) sitting with the other cellos during the symphony’s performance, enjoying the music-making as much as any, and delighting those of us who noticed him there all the more.

I thought the music-making remarkable under the circumstances, continuing with the strong impression the first half of the concert made upon my reviewing colleague, Lindis Taylor. I hope people will find our sharing of this first Middle C orchestral review of the season to their taste, and look forward to it all coming together for you to read.