East and West mingle at Wellington Youth Orchestra Concert

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Leonore Overture No.2 Op.72a / Symphony No. 7 in A Major Op. 92
MICHAEL VINTEN – Six Korean Love Poems (arr. Anne French)

Sarah Court  (mezzo-soprano)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
Michael Vinten (conductor)

St.James’ Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt

Sunday, 19th August, 2018

A most striking frontispiece on the programme cover (uncredited) for this enterprising concert seemed to alert us to the presence of something out-of-the-ordinary – an illustration something along the lines of those disconcerting front-and-profile images of one and the same person. It wasn’t exactly that, in this case, but the effect certainly caused a double-take on my part, which I presume was the idea! – here, a youthful portrait of Beethoven was set literally cheek-by jowl with a young woman’s image similarly iconic (if somewhat Westernised) in exotic effect.

All that it was signifying was the programme’s setting of a pair of “classic” orchestral pieces next to an almost brand-new New Zealand work, a premiere of sorts, in fact – more about this circumstance below. The venue wasn’t the orchestra’s usual performing-place, with Wellington’s still-recent spate of earthquake activity continuing to exert its toll by putting pressure on performing groups seeking appropriate spaces in which to do their thing, as various buildings normally used for this purpose get ear-marked for “strengthening”, a process which takes time and considerable expense.

Here, it was St.James’ Church in Woburn which served the purpose, a place in which I’d previously heard vocal ensemble music, but not an orchestra. I thought the sound lively (too much so, it seemed to me, in the case of the timpani), and with an audience present to soak up some of the reverberation, allowing plenty of detail to register. Best of all sound-wise was the set of songs, with the singer’s forward placement enabling her superb diction to give the words that inner life which concert situations so often blur or impede in an unhelpful acoustic. The orchestral detail, too, bloomed in those spaces, the sounds working beautifully with the singer to convey the composer’s desired effect.

First up, though, and very properly, was an overture (I invariably think, at a concert’s beginning, of Michael Flanders, of “At the Drop of a Hat” fame in partnership with Donald Swann, telling his audience that they always considered their opening song important, because, as he remarked, “it helps us to get the pitch of the hall”) – and so it was, here, with the very opening chord of Beethoven’s Leonore No.2 Overture (written for the composer’s one and only opera) generating a sound which, thanks to conductor Michael Vinten’s expert direction and the players’ sharpness of response, nicely “defined” the spaces, and set the ambient tone for what was to follow.

The winds had a lovely colour throughout the work’s opening, with supportive work by the horns creating a sense of expectancy, and leading to some strong and sure chording whose aftermath gave rise to the work’s principal melody, the radiance eventually breaking through the darkness – the strings managed their tricky syncopations throughout, while the winds brought forth a lovely “glow” with Leonore’s lover Florestan’s lyrical theme, the exchanges allowed time and elbow-space to phrase their figurations. The ‘cellos enjoyed their playing of the main allegro theme, counterpointed by the winds and leading up to the stormy sequences which preceded the famous trumpet fanfare – here played with breathtaking skill on both occasions by the orchestra’s principal player Vincent Brzozowski. More expert playing from the winds brought back the music’s lyricism and expectancy of light triumphing over darkness, the strings playing the notes with a kind of breathless caution at first before gaining in confidence and activating themselves and one another to cascade outwards in all directions, excitingly sounding the theme in a kind of gabble, and bringing forth the brasses in glorious C Major with an energised, victorious version of Florestan’s “Leonore” tune. Vinten got his players to work up a “real” presto-like tumult here, skin and hair flying and no prisoners taken, a truly joyous conclusion to a well-fought musical campaign.

I was curious enough originally at Michael Vinten’s choice of Korean texts for his song-cycle “Six Korean Love-Poems”, but things became “curiouser and curiouser” when I discovered that the English words from the poems were in fact “transliterations” by the New Zealand poet Anne French – the programme note elaborates further by saying, re the original texts, “Anne has taken their ideas and images and refashioned them, whilst retaining a flavour of the originals”. Any disquiet I might have had regarding such a practice was effectively quashed when remembering that Gustav Mahler’s purportedly translated Chinese texts in his song-cycle “Das Lied von der Erde” were similarly “adapted” by Hans Bethge from material which itself had been in places “expanded” by earlier European sinologists. In fact Mahler himself in places revised Bethge’s wording to fit his musical lines, further distancing his work from the original “letter”, even if retaining the “spirit”. Well, I reasoned, if it was good enough for Gustav Mahler……….

Vinten set French’s versions of these poems during 2015/16 for voice and piano, and they were premiered in Brisbane in 2016 by today’s singer, Sarah Court, and pianist Therese Milanovic. Today’s performance was thus the world premiere of the songs’ orchestral version, and the first time they had been performed in New Zealand in any form. I’m not sure whether the composer’s original intention was to eventually orchestrate them, or whether it became obvious over time that they cried out for orchestral colour and variation – but whatever the case, and, of course, not having heard the voice-and-piano version of the songs, I thought the realisations remarkably “at one” with the texts.

Anne French used verses by poets writing as early as 1560 (Hwang  Chin-i, a sixteenth-century gisaeng, or courtesan, famous for her beauty and intellect), and more recently, Kim So-wol (1903-1934, considered the “founder” of modern Korean poetry, despite his tragically short life) and Han Yong-Un (1879-1944, a Buddhist monk, reformer and poet). Each of the poems in the collection had a different kind of intensity of shade, texture, or colour of utterance, which I thought Vinten’s writing reflected in each case. Thus, the music of the first poem connected with the words’ evocations of natural phenomena, the leaves falling, the scent of flowers, the babble of a stream, all of which were heard in both figurations and their accompanying stillnesses, the vocal line mirroring the “natural dance” of these things. The second song seemed like a series of sighs, with long singing lines and warm, luscious textures, delineating a period of waiting for the arrival of a lover. By contrast, the third poem was a tightly-woven mind-game interaction, quixotic and angular in effect with exotic tinges coloured by percussion in places, and yielding at the end in accordance with the words “softened just a little by love”.

How different the evocations for the following “The sweet briar rose”, diaphanous textures and repeated patternings creating an ethereal effect over which the vocal line rhapsodised, while a flute solo joined in with an exquisite effect of tremulous wonderment – the voice soared, swayed, teased, enticed and reflected, before resigning to waiting, with a brief orchestral postlude for company. The fifth poem was a soliloquy on deprivation following the loved one’s departure, the opening agitated figures supporting the singer’s description of the “treading red and gold leaves under his feet”, almost like a running commentary, with strings and timpani pushing the music forwards. With a memory of a first meeting the music became rhapsodical, and then as the singer voiced a strategy “let my grief kindle my hope”, the sounds threw open the picture, suggesting distance and emptiness spanned by the vocal line’s confident tones. In stark contrast, the final song generated no such comfort or confidence, the piccolo and other winds evoking loneliness and abandonment, the vocal line angry – “Let that name be broken into pieces”, anguished – “Let that name be scattered on the air”, and despairing – “There is no answer to it yet”. The instrumental writing adroitly suggested full, rich textures yet remained curiously open, almost feeling cut adrift, as the sounds evoked that “great space between earth and sky” and generated brief moments of grandeur before dissolving, leaving behind the desolation of a solo violin and dark percussion sounds underpinned by low piano notes as the singer intoned “I call your name in sadness”. A brief frisson of energy accompanied the words “I shall be calling your name all my life”, before a final plaintive statement from the piccolo signalled the end of the piece.

An interval allowed time and space for what we’d heard to settle and take hold within, though the performance had from the outset already begun to carve a niche of enduring memory, thanks to Sarah Court’s rich and varied mezzo tones and her heartfelt rendering of the texts, augmented by an incredibly inventive panoply of orchestral sounds gotten from the players by the composer himself on the podium. I found myself marvelling at the human empathies of those words, poet Anne French triumphantly forging a link here with expressions of feeling one might consider on the face of things intractably rooted to far-removed worlds, mere curiosities from an alien culture – what came through, of course, was a shared and binding humanity, though I wouldn’t have been surprised had the “thought-police” of cultural appropriation gotten wind of the occasion and chimed in at some stage, PC spurs and medallions jangling!

Refreshed, we settled back to listen to what would be made of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the work famously styled by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance” (in contrast with the view of one of Beethoven’s contemporaries, Carl Maria von Weber, who remarked on hearing the work that its composer was ‘fit for the madhouse!”).  Michael Vinten seemed to take Wagner at his word regarding his approach to Beethoven’s music, which was athletic and sprightly rather than grand and monumental. The opening chord, though slightly fallible, had considerable “punch”, and though the scales were played tentatively at first, the strings got more of a “swing” as the music went along. Both winds and timpani kept the rhythms sprightly, the timpanist (whose work I always admire) playing a shade too emphatically for me occasionally in this context, though always exciting and reliable (a moment of concerted confusion apart, later in the movement). The allegro stumbled a bit at its outset, but was finally launched, Vinten driving the dotted rhythms at a great rate, the effect somewhat raucous, but also very “Beethoven”, vibrant and unbuttoned!

It was this energy of Beethoven’s writing that was consistently conveyed by the performance, and which I relished, despite the occasional hit-and-miss element with the notes. It’s always seemed to me more important for players in youth and amateur ensembles to be encouraged to “get the rhythms right”, and, past a certain point, let the notes take care of themselves – if the rhythms are strong and confident, then the music will sound right despite any mis-hits, but if the rhythms are untidy, then no amount of correctly-sounded notes are going to be of much use! With brisk speeds and strongly-wrought rhythmic direction,  Vinten seemed to me to be achieving plenty of coherent excitement with these players. There was the occasional mixup, most notably near the first movement’s end with the music emerging from the grinding bass vortices, and some voices coming in a measure too early; but in general, the dance and its irrepressible rhythms triumphed!

The symphony’s most renowned for its “slow” movement, and here, the processional-like figures received well-wrought and full-throated treatment from all concerned, the lower strings especially good at the outset, the cellos eloquent and soulful. The contrasting major sequences  sounded properly easeful, with nicely-articulated canonic work between winds and horn, and the great cascading return to the processional rhythm was impressively managed. The strings held their rhythmic patternings beautifully throughout the fugato, and integrated superbly with the rest of the orchestra at the grand, ceremonial refrain of the hymn-tune – a great moment!

What an orchestral difficulty the scherzo must be to launch! Untidy at the very beginning, the ensemble rallied itself, once again finding the rhythm’s “swing” and managing the whiplash szforzandi with great elan! Vinten kept the Trio moving, encouraging the players to plunge into the full tutti, boots and all – very exciting! – and afterwards, perhaps emboldened by what they’d just achieved, the reprise of the scherzo’s opening was much tidier.

Despite my “connecting” with Vinten’s way of keeping the ensemble rhythmically tight, I still wasn’t prepared for the “Vienna Philharmonic” speed with which the finale began, here! – though occasionally starved of tonal weight, the sounds leapt forwards with each accented downstroke, the players keeping things together as if their lives depended on the outcome! I occasionally thought more weight could have been applied to some phrases, such as the lower strings’ reply to the oft-repeated dotted figure hurled at them by the upper strings – but this was a small point compared with the energy generated by the whole. At the end we certainly felt as though we had been immersed in a kind of maelstrom, the conductor and players sharing with us an accompanying sense of satisfaction at re-emerging with exhaustion and invigoration triumphantly hand-in-hand!