Auckland Youth Symphony’s Scheherazade Seduces Whangarei at the Second Attempt

New ZealandNew Zealand Vaughan Williams, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov: Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra, Albee Ai (bassoon), Antun Poljanich (conductor); Exhibition Hall, Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 15.4.2012 [Pse]

Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Mozart – Bassoon Concerto
Rimsky-Korsakov – Symphonic Suite “Scheherazade”

There’s good news, and there’s bad. Generally, etiquette requires that I now ask which you want first. However, in the absence of those clever webby-widgets that would enable you to choose, I’ll have to do it for you. So – the good news is that the Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra kicked off Whangarei’s 2012 concert season in truly glorious style.

The bad news is slightly more involved. It seems to be a pandemic affliction of managements that they schedule maintenance at the most inopportune times. Thus, for reasons best known to themselves, Forum North’s management decided to refurbish the Capitaine Bougainville Theatre’s seating, not during the performing arts “low” season, but just when the season had got nicely under way.

Consequently, this concert was moved to only alternative accommodation, the adjacent, “general-purpose” Exhibition Hall. This gave me a chance to assess its acoustic. Inevitably, it was – and this is “the bad news” – every bit as drab and lifeless as that of the theatre, palpably marring both the opening and closing works. Believe me, you folks who live within spitting distance of decent concert halls don’t know how lucky you are!

In his haunting Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis Vaughan Williams intended the spatially separate groups – full string orchestra, small string band and string quartet – to envelop the audience in a counterpoint of sonic spiritual communion. Considering the somewhat confined space available, conductor Antun Poljanich did his best to keep faith with VW’s vision, by elevating the small string band to the little gallery at the back of the room.

Although the acoustic duly dampened – I might even say “drowned” – those enveloping spirits, it signally failed to dampen either the knowingness or the ardour of the performance itself. Wonderfully intoned, near-ideally paced and moulded, the sound slid stealthily out of silence, expanded euphoniously, and filled our ears with VW’s spine-tingling realisation of the mystery of the ages.

Mozart wrote his Bassoon Concerto for an instrument that was really still in its crude, rude infancy. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, in the right hands it still provides an admirable demonstration of the far more sophisticated modern instrument’s wide-ranging capabilities. Here, the right hands belonged to Albee Ai who, stepping forward from the ranks of the orchestra, calmly put her bassoon through its prodigious paces, thereby providing a poke in the eye to anyone foolish enough to believe that it is “the clown of the orchestra”.

In the slow movement Albee’s bassoon sang with affecting tenderness and gravity, whilst in the outer movements her playing simply brimming with refined wit and agility. The first movement often suffers from the virtuoso’s preferred tempo: “as quick as you can and then some”. Albee, however, opted more for the sort of sane and sensible tempo that I imagine Mozart must have had in mind. I’d have thought that this more relaxed – or less frenetic? – pace would have taken the edge off the stuttering passage that sounds as though it could have been written for a violin. Not so – Albee lost none of the effect of tossing down a gauntlet before the bassoon’s stringed cousin: “Anything you can do . . .”

Speaking of stringed instruments, they were perhaps too plentiful for this music, as they sometimes threatened to – but never quite did – overwhelm the soloist. On the other hand, they were not so plentiful as to muddy the AYSO’s idiomatically alert contributions to the music’s song and dance.

Acoustics are, of course, more than a mere incidental. We all know that composers often actively use reverberation – creating dramatic pauses specifically to fill the air with fading “after-glows”. Whangarei’s Exhibition Hall fills it instead with black blanks. Inasmuch as a black blank can be said to, this “sounds” dreadful – as we discovered, to our dismay, in the final item.

Following hot on the heels of the concert, my review in the [local] newspaper mentioned a missing trombone. Indeed, even when the orchestra stood at the end I could see only two, and there was a very slight but perceptible “void” in the body of the trombone sound. Later, I learnt that all trombones were actually present and correct but, on account of the small platform, one had been tucked in behind the other two trombones and tuba. So, that’s something else to blame on the murky acoustics.

Last year, I had done a fair impression of a cat on hot bricks, in anticipation of the seductive Scheherazade. However, the planned performance was scuppered by the dreaded “circumstances beyond their control” (see my review). This year, although I was fearful that I might remain unfulfilled a second time, there was no such glitch, and my anticipation was rewarded right royally.

The first time I saw him at work, I was very taken by Antun Poljanich’s exceptional interpretative insight and practical skills. Since then, each major work – and each minor one, for that matter – has added to that initial impression (see Tallis Fantasia above!). True to form, his “take” on Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece of musical magic hardly missed a trick. To say it’s merely a matter of getting tempo, dynamics and balance right might make it sound easy, but getting them – as near as makes no difference – all right, all the time, is a truly remarkable feat.

Not for Antun the out-and-out spectacular pyrotechnics that seem to be the fashion these days. His view is more in line with that of Ernest Ansermet, favouring fantasy over fireworks (but not entirely neglecting the latter!). This he achieved through tempi that were both apt and subtly elastic, bending to the will of the music; through climaxes that were allowed to “breathe naturally”; and a consistent concentration on that all-important instrumental colouration – there were even touches of percussion that, in untold hearings during more than 50 years, I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed before.

In particular and for example, the third movement’s basic tempo was not your usual adagissimo. Instead, as if underlining the word “young” in the movement’s title, Antun steered much closer to the composer’s andantino quasi allegretto. The music hovered, almost shyly, on the very edge of dancing. This produced a thoroughly entrancing transition: on the arrival of the central episode, the music slipped both gracefully and gratefully into actual dance. Thus it was that, reflecting Rimsky-Korsakov’s own ingeniously simple art, Antun’s wise hands conjured, like white rabbits from the top hat of his talented young charges, a continuous succession of iridescent enchantments.

In her many sinuous solos the orchestra’s leader, Olivia Francis, was perhaps wanting a little in the “character acting” department (given time, that’ll surely come!), but nevertheless played her demanding part beautifully. Her poised, pure-toned, diaphanous confidences irresistibly enticed the wondering ear into Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical dream-world, where it happily succumbed to an orchestra evidently relishing the job of sumptuously satisfying its every last desire.

Paul Serotsky