Young New Zealand Musicians Prepare to take on the World.

New ZealandNew Zealand  Mendelssohn, R. Strauss, Alex Taylor, Poulenc; Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Hutchinson (oboe), Antun Poljanich (conductor); Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 23.7.2011 (PSe)

If only two-thirds of the orchestra turned up for a concert, you’d probably blame something like industrial action or transport problems. However, that wasn’t the case here – we knew about it in advance. The explanation, which illustrates a few “backroom” problems, might interest you.

In 2009, the Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra performed on Long Island, New York. A word in the right ears from a mightily impressed German music critic resulted in the AYSO becoming the first New Zealand ensemble to be invited to Berlin’s Young Euro Classic Festival. Moreover, attending this illustrious event (I baulk at the depressingly devalued “prestigious”!), on 10th August, will mark the climax of their very first European tour.

Founded in 1947, The AYSO isn’t really a “youth” orchestra, but a “young adults on the threshold of professional careers” orchestra. Taking accomplished instrumentalists in the age range 18 to 24 it makes them into accomplished orchestral musicians. Latterly, this training has increasingly involved practical, “real world” experience, through regular tours within New Zealand and occasional forays further afield.

However, the European tour’s logistics limited numbers to two-thirds of the full complement. This caused a problem. Membership isn’t free, so the AYSO must ensure that all  get their money’s worth, by focusing on repertoire that sidelines no-one. Now, they somehow had to square this with the need to prepare a tour’s worth of relatively unfamiliar “classically-proportioned” music, without overburdening those who also had university exams to contend with. Given the timing of the tour-cum-festival, the least disruptive solution was to devote July’s regular inland tour entirely to these preparations.

How will the AYSO compare with the best in the world? Well, superlative performances depend mainly on two things, don’t they? – top-notch players and a coach capable of coaxing immaculate ensemble. The AYSO has both, but in Antun Poljanich they have not so much a coach as a trump card, because he is also blessed with that almost mystical quality, the combination of profound interpretative insight and exceptional communicative capability that distinguishes truly great conductors…..

I know this because he himself told me so – not in words but through his conducting. Look at my review of October 2010’s AYSO concert. I must have heard a million Shostakovich Fifths, so such superlatives suggest something really special. I set this above their Sibelius Third (October 2009) but, as you can see here, it wasn’t by much. Point proven, I reckon – and so my money’s on the Kiwi flag flying high and proud over Berlin.

So, in a rather hefty nutshell, there you have it – and indeed there they were, even at only two-thirds strength comfortably filling the stage, and no less glorious to behold as they gave us a right royal opportunity to savour some of the wonders composers can work with relatively modest forces.

Mendelssohn’s Overture The Hebrides is indisputably a masterpiece, ingeniously encapsulating graphic impressions of his trip to Fingal’s Cave within a sonata form. It’s also a victim of its own popularity – I’d imagine that innumerable performances over many years would have wrung it dry of every last drop of detail. I’d be wrong!

Believe it or not, but, “simply” by cleaning off the Romantic “oils” that have accreted on Mendelssohn’s pearly “water-colour” textures, Antun clarified numerous neat nuances that had heretofore evaded my RADAR. Watered by the AYSO’s finely pointed phrasing, unhurried yet tingling with cumulative expectancy this venerable warhorse came up as fresh as a daisy. I could almost smell the sea-salt.

Some would-be wit once described the oboe as “an ill wind that nobody blows good”. By that dubious definition, Thomas Hutchinson is clearly a “nobody” – he’s even-toned, accurate, articulate and free of strain even “way up top”.  Many moons ago, in a programme note for Strauss’s Oboe Concerto, Arthur Butterworth castigated the composer for overlooking the soloist’s need for the occasional intake of breath. In practice, though, legions of oboists have tackled this challenging work and lived to tell the tale, namely that Strauss probably knew just what he was doing!

Yet, it still looks impossible! Thomas, drawing on reserves of air denied to mere mortals, not only poured forth Strauss’s seamless streams of notes, but also moulded them into meaningful phrases. He eloquently shaped a strikingly beautiful slow movement, and found in the finale of this essentially autumnal music something of the joys of spring.

In his new work, between, AYSO leader Alex Taylor, reinterpreting material from the Prelude and Allegro by Kiwi composer Anthony Watson (1933-73) attempted to fuse traditional diatonic melody with the saturated dissonances of latter-day atonality. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, it confirmed that tonality is the heart and soul of music.

Enthusiastically promoted by the AYSO, between kept receptive ears intrigued by a succession of vividly imaginative sonorities, and kept minds attentive by developing materials within a clear, coherent structure – effectively a slow movement whose central climax gradually picked up pace, acquiring jazzy inflections as it went, until it very nearly broke into a “hoe-down”.

Poulenc famously described himself as “Janus-Poulenc” – having two faces, the deeply religious and the daringly decadent. These mingle entrancingly in his gorgeous Gloria, whereas the Sinfonietta that ended this concert is all decadence – a half-hour of utterly undiluted hedonism, something of a mid-Twentieth Century Gaîté Parisienne. Then again, Poulenc’s compositional processes evidently owe more to Johann Strauss than Johannes Brahms, being musical “mosaics” where each “tile”, although deriving from its predecessor, is nevertheless a new idea. So, maybe he should have entitled it Divertissement?

He didn’t, of course – but never mind. Antun and the AYSO hurled themselves into its seductive sequence of sauce and sophistication with an infectious joi de vivre, as gratifying to see as it was to hear, not least because the players often smiled at the conductor! And well they might, for the expansively encouraging Antun reminded me of Barbirolli, in those wonderful Viennese Proms, waltzing on the podium. They missing nothing of the music’s sumptuousness, chirpy tunes, languorous melodies and sundry nudges and winks. All very naughty, but oh, so nice!

Paul Serotsky