New Zealand Elgar, Weber, Beethoven: Natalie Harris (clarinet), Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra,, Antun Poljanich (conductor), Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 16.10.2011 [PSe]
Sod’s Law is one of the politer terms we use to “explain” the nasty little tricks that Life likes to play on us. In the case under consideration, “us” means me and an orchestra. I kid you not! This is how it pans out. Between 28 July and12 August 2011, the Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra toured Slovenia and Germany, often playing to packed houses, and never less than warmly received. The AYSO’s final engagement was its debut atBerlin’s Young Euro Classic Festival, where they managed to make a favourable impression on evenBerlin’s notoriously curmudgeonly critics.
However, much as they’d have liked to field their resplendent full complement, Sod’s Law, lightly disguised as mundane logistics, forced them to make do with more modest, classically-proportioned forces.
They returned, to both home and full strength, and started preparing, for their 2011 season’s final inland concert tour, a tasty offering featuring Barber’s School for Scandal Overture, Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s mesmerising Scheherazade.
Now, for one thing, I’ve been head-over-heels in love with this magical symphonic suite for over 50 years, and for another we know that the AYSO’s players are the cream of NZ’s young adult musicians, and for yet another we know what a superb orchestra they make under the masterly direction of Antun Poljanich (O.K., so we also know that Whangarei doesn’t have a venue even remotely sympathetic to the sound of music, but that’s another story). Consequently, in anticipation of their visit to Whangarei, I for one had long been doing a fair imitation of a cat on a hot tin roof.
Almost as soon as rehearsals started, Sod’s Law stepped in and forced them to substitute Weber’s Oberon Overture for the relatively rare, and hence rather more intriguing, Barber offering. However, this was but a minor mischief because, at something approaching the eleventh hour, Sod’s Law stuck in the knife and twisted it, good and proper. By callously causing some higher authority (which shall remain nameless) to dragoon the AYSO’s trombones and half its horns, it compelled the orchestra to remain at its Euro-touring size, and thus deprived all and sundry – but especially me! – of the seductive Scheherazade.
Was I downhearted? Well, obviously, I was, a bit – but nowhere near as much as I might have been, because it opened the door on what would hopefully be a riveting take on an unusually intriguing alternative – the “Cinderella” of Beethoven’s symphonies. What’s the Big Deal? In a fairly hefty nutshell, it’s this:
Sod’s Law picked the wrong guy when it dumped on Beethoven. At first, his understandable terror at the inevitability of total deafness was compounded by less obvious emotions – embarrassment and shame. He was best known as a performer, so once word got around he’d be ridiculed personally and ruined professionally. Reflexively, this archetypal angry young man grew ever more angry, concealing his affliction behind noisy bluster, and increasingly seeking solace amid lonely Nature. Eventually, he descended to the brink of suicide, at which point only the love of his art stayed his hand.
Swayed by his rural surroundings, he started sketching a symphony (No. 6, Pastoral), but had to set it aside when mundane business beckoned. Hurling himself back into the hurly-burly, in 1803/4 he wrote his Third Symphony. With the Eroica, he sublimated his rage into music of unprecedented scale and expressive scope; he ripped up the rulebook, revolutionised the form – and gave Sod’s Law a well-deserved poke in the eye. Immediately he pitched into writing another (No. 5), but had to sideline that as well, to make way for the Fourth (1806).
Why? Well, some – prompted by the music’s apparent amiability – would have us believe that Beethoven, after the supreme effort of the Eroica, simply wanted some nostalgic relaxation. That simply won’t wash. For one thing, he’d a commission to fulfil and so, being strapped for cash, he worked within relatively cosy conventional confines specifically so that he could produce the goods prestissimo.
For another, anyone who really listens – or indeed cuts out the middle man and refers to Beethoven’s score – becomes increasingly aware that not all is sweetness and light. That apparent amiability wrestles with the Eroica’s furious fires, that still glow and flare within. Ultimately Beethoven seems to suggest, in his coda’s shocking dismissal, that he’d done with “easy” music. Of course, he hadn’t – it was probably just how he felt at the time.
Sod’s Law had one more, rather pathetic little trick to play. I arrived at Forum North in good time, only to find that the start had been put back half an hour! Did this bother me? Well, it might have, except that, as it happened, we all emerged – half an hour later than expected – not so much bothered as bowled over. For, in defiance of Sod’s Law the programme had a cumulative impact that smacked less of reaction to the vagaries of “unforeseen circumstances” and more of prudent planning.
The key to this was the choice of a suitably serene substitute “overture”. Antun Poljanich, clearly having his finger firmly on the pulse of Elgar’s idiom, unerringly steered the AYSO’s supple strings through the sweet ‘n’ simple Serenade. Ever alert, flexible and close to playful in the outer movements, he moulded the central Larghetto’s amorous phrases with touching tenderness.
The temperature was cranked up by the original programme’s sole survivor. Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto is an operatically ebullient entertainment for listeners, and an equally stern test of a soloist’s mettle. From the very first bar, the air was thick with flying flair.
The AYSO, oozing oodles of “oomph”, launched soloist Natalie Harris – leaping a vertiginous three octaves with ridiculous ease – on her merry, mettlesome way, brimming with confidence in both bravura and cantabile. They disdained the moderation implied by the finale’s “alla polacca” marking, but there was no denying the resultant dash and audacity. This fleet-footed yet jolly romp was capped by Natalie’s brilliant rippling runs, burbling like a babbling brook in full flood.
First soothed, then stimulated; whatever would be next? “Scorched” wouldn’t be too wide of the mark. In Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, Antun was clearly having no truck with any received wisdom. From their chilling enactment of the introduction’s Leonora-like brooding stasis, the AYSO erupted in a veritable blaze of incandescent vitality. Admittedly, their Adagio’s contrast of lyric and rhythmic was a mite muted – but otherwise there emerged a mind-bending realisation of Beethoven’s glorious profusion of sheer joy and indomitable, aggressive fighting spirit.
Their impressively incisive attack, with the strings sometimes hacking away as if their very lives depended on it, released a flood of explosive dynamics and pungent, propulsive rhythms – not to overlook those jolly good tunes – which swept all before it. Correspondingly, in the coda the sudden hold-up in the proceedings transcended its “traditional” rôle of Haydn-esque witticism, emerging as a breathtaking dramatic gesture, a portentous question-mark whose point they rammed home with graphic intensity.
The virtually full house was ecstatic in its approbation, and quite rightly so. The AYSO had given Sod’s Law another poke in the eye. In fact, I can think of no better way to sum up this tremendous concert than to quote the immortal words of Mr. Punch: “That’s the way to do it!”