Admirable concert of well-chosen music from Wellington Youth Orchestra under Mark Carter

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Carter with Samantha McSweeney (flute).

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op 84
Copland: Appalachian Spring
Mozart: Andante in C for flute and orchestras, K 315/285e
Tchaikovsky: Suite from The Nutcracker
Riley Centre, Wellington High School

Sunday 14 October, 6 pm

The last musical occasion I was in the Riley Centre (alias, the school hall) at Wellington High School was, I think, for the splendid International Viola Congress in 2001, led by the indomitable Professor Donald Maurice (as was the most recent one in Wellington in 2016). My recollection of the acoustic then was confirmed on Sunday. The orchestra has tended to confine itself in recent, post-Town Hall years, to smaller and acoustically constricted places like St Andrew’s and the Sacred Heart Cathedral; this hall struck me as better suited to the character of the orchestra, in allowing all instruments to be heard clearly but not in an acoustic that was inclined to draw attention to inexperience.

The Egmont Overture is a fine piece for a youth orchestra: I can attest from personal experience, having played it in the predecessor of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, back in the 1950s. I have never grown tired of the dramatic character of the work that blooms into a triumphant Coda at the end. And I hope current orchestra members still derive the same emotional delight from it.

Here, conductor Mark Carter transmitted a strong sense of its heroism as well as its deeper humanity. Balance between strings and woodwinds was excellent, and the violin sections in particular sounded like thoroughly rehearsed professionals.

I don’t think I’ve heard Copland’s Appalachian Spring played by amateurs before and was delighted to realise how well is suits young players. There’s a lot that’s not too difficult technically, but a lot, on the other hand, that demands finesse and can reveal weaknesses in intonation and control of articulation and dynamics. The leisurely opening music is dominated by strings, flutes and soon clarinets, admirably finding the right open-air, springtime feeling (though Copland did not compose the ballet, for Martha Graham, with a specific scenario or even a title in mind: the title was suggested at the last minute when Martha suggested a line from a poem by Hart Crane).

The quiet opening exposed the players, rather to their benefit, and they showed reassuring pleasure in their charmingly animated playing. Later came a fine, attenuated trumpet on top of more general brass, and further opportunities to admire fairly important bassoons as well as the solo opportunities for trombones (the latter were all Youth Orchestra players – though several other sections, including the strings, were strengthened by a few guest players).

This longish piece, containing a great deal of slow, delicate music as well as much that’s sprightly and animated, can lose audience attention and patience in unskilled hands: not here.

Then came the Mozart Andante, written as an alternative slow movement for one of his flute concertos. It proved semi-familiar to me and was well worth hearing. It evolved, slowish and attractive, the solo part beautifully played by flutist Samantha McSweeney who is in her second year at Victoria University school of music.

The concert ended with the Nutcracker Suite; at least, most of the dances from the Suite. Here, there were charming episodes from flutes and other winds, including rather impressive horns (admittedly including a couple of guest players) excellent harp contributions and throughout, seamless, well integrated strings. Though there were, of course, minor blemishes, it was possible to listen to these all too familiar pieces with the same delight as from a professional orchestra.

I don’t believe citing individual players for praise is helpful for a band of young players however; generalities are more appropriate. Certainly, the polish and confidence, what seemed a real balletic flair, audible in Nutcracker, and elsewhere, was singularly impressive and evidence of both the overall level of musicianship and the result of first class direction by conductor Mark Carter.