Auckland Youth Orchestra Send Audience Home Buzzing

New ZealandNew Zealand Mozart, Beethoven, Ellis, Shostakovich: Tracey Barnier-Willis (mezzo), Emma Couper (soprano), Olivia Francis (violin), Auckland Youth Orchestra / Antun Poljanich (conductor) Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 29.9.2012 (PSe)

Mozart:  Overture “The Marriage of Figaro”
 Mezzo Aria-Smanie Implacabilifrom Cosi fan Tutte
Soprano Aria “Der Hölle Rache”, from  The Magic Flute
Beethoven:  Romance No. 2, for violin and orchestra
Robbie Ellis: In Meinen Letzen Leiden
Shostakovich:  Symphony No. 9

This might seem a bit strange, but I’m going to start this review by talking about a concert I missed. Hopefully, you’ll see that there is some semblance of “method in my madness” (rather than the other way round).

Due to circumstances entirely beyond my control, I was on the wrong side of the planet in July, when Whangarei enjoyed (to the best of my knowledge) its biggest classical music event in living memory. For its second provincial tour of 2012, the Auckland Youth Orchestra had decided to do Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. AYO’s chosen touring partner, the Auckland Youth Choir, was apposite in all respects but one – its size. The normal remedy is to beef up the numbers by roping in legions of “extras”. However, in this instance they hatched a rather neat alternative. By inviting singing organisations based near their tour venues to take part, they not only kept costs down but also (in all but one instance) introduced the added frisson of “local interest”, which got the audiences – and the income – up.

The first Whangarei organisation that caught their eye in the NZ Choral Federation listing was Opera North. The redoubtable Joan Kennaway, who is a living legend in these parts, did a brilliant job of assembling and coaching an ad hoc chorus of talented ON singers, every man-jack and “woman-jill” of whom was fired up by this Heaven-sent opportunity. By all accounts, they did very well – so well, in fact, that they were invited to repeat their success in the final performance of the tour, held in Auckland Town Hall the following day. Happily, considering the exceedingly short notice, all but two of them managed to grace that occasion.

Meanwhile, surveyors of the AYO’s season “flyer” had for some time been wryly observing that the programme for the third and final concert looked a bit on the slim side – Guilmant’s rather substantial Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra and a trio of arias plus a trio, assembled from Mozart’s operas, would not be touring the “sticks” – the former on account of the lack of suitable organs at those venues, the latter because the Auckland singers wouldn’t be available.

Before the season even started, it had been suggested that, for the Whangarei concert, a couple of the arias might be retrieved by offering them to local singers. This idea failed to fire any interest – until, that is, it was raised again following Opera North’s superb efforts in the Beethoven. Thus it was that Joan Kennaway received her second invitation in one season to provide singers, which resulted in two of Northland’s most accomplished soloists, both “graduates” of Opera North, making their orchestral debuts. The AYO also came up with an additional item, nicely nudging the programme length out of the “red zone”.

In his characteristically unfussy manner, Antun Poljanich drew from the ever-eager AYO a memorable Marriage of Figaro overture, busy and bristling with ear-catching accents – an ideal prelude to the two Mozart arias. In the mezzo aria Smanie Implacabili (from Cosi fan Tutte) – which came complete with its introductory recitative, Ah scostati! – a hysterical Dorabella convinces herself that she’s dying of grief because her inconsiderate fiancé’s waltzed off to war. This sort of thing is a god-send for Tracey Barnier-Willis, who simply loves a good lament, whether tragical or comical. Confidently pushing her succulent contralto to its upper limit, Tracey wrung the aria dry of every last drop of angst.

In Der Hölle Rache (Hell’s Revenge, from The Magic Flute) the Queen of the Night commands her daughter to commit murder, underlining her dark intent with some stratospheric top “F”s. Although this aria is not new to Emma Couper, this was the first time she’d performed it up at the proper operatic pitch. You’d never have guessed! Piercingly accurate of pitch and exuding exultant malice, Emma ripped into her vengeful rôle with . . . well . . . a real vengeance.

To round off the first half the AYO’s leader, Olivia Francis, stepped into the soloist’s slot to bestow a heartfelt performance of Beethoven’s ever-popular Romance No. 2. It strikes me that in this piece there’s an uncommonly fine line between the two undesirables of formal rigidity and expressive indulgence. Gracefully tip-toing this tightrope, Olivia preserved with sublime sensitivity the logical progression of the music’s varying moods, and always kept the accent, even in sterner sections, firmly on the requisite “romance”.

I don’t know whose idea it was, but it was a nice one, to have all three lady soloists share in the subsequent “curtain calls”.

After the interval the AYO, whose accompaniment of the solo performers had been circumspect as well as colourful, dropped that former quality like a hot brick. AYO composer-in-residence Robbie Ellis’s In Meinem Letzen Leiden (“In My Last Suffering”) is effectively a tone-poem, based on a quotation in Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia, describing Schumann’s terminal insanity. Schumann’s last music (represented by the eponymous chorale harmonisation) and coded references to his nearest and dearest mingle in a nightmarish profusion of wild eruptions, slitherings, shrieks, roars, and grotesque dancing, peppered with hiatuses and lucid oases.

With such abundance of rip-roaring orchestral “special effects”, the AYO had a right whale of a time; it made a thoroughly grand noise, but very little sense – which must be entirely the point, mustn’t it? The final item, Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, is equally confusing, albeit for very different reasons.

Let’s face it: if you completely ignored your boss’s express wishes, what outcome would you expect? Shostakovich knew well enough that the Soviet desired a magnificent paean to celebrate its victory over the Nazis; instead, it got this seemingly frothy confection. Even if you don’t go along with “revisionist” views of Soviet history, you’d agree that this was bound to land him in hot water, wouldn’t you? So, just what was he playing at, and is there indeed some sort of covert meaning?

To his undying credit, Antun steadfastly refused to “load” his interpretation either way, preferring to concentrate on elucidating the score itself,and leaving the listener to read into the music what he will (or won’t, as the case may be). Not, you understand, that Antun and the AYO settled for merely playing the right notes as per the instruction book – far from it: as articulate and incisive as ever, they asked the right questions.

For instance, if you just play the notes, the first movement is “Haydn-esque”, good-humoured and robust, but bespeckled with disruptive, apparently comic incidents. However, Antun’s baton forged those ructions into a logical progression, a sort of “systematic abuse” that ultimately left the first subject reeling, not so much incidentally inebriated as consequentially “punch-drunk”.

Then again, the second movement emerged as something of a Twentieth Century re-take on the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. On the slow side of moderato, almost breathlessly quiet, it felt so weary and forlorn, casting into stark relief the ponderous menace in the looming counter-subject. A contrast similarly informed the fourth movement – its exquisite solo bassoon, so plaintive and lonely, seemed to provoke from enriching strings what sounded uncommonly like a conclusive “Amen.”

The only blot on the landscape of this performance was some seemingly far-too-timid “small” percussion (snare drum etc.). However, for the most part this was down to the dead hand of the venue – sounds from the rear of the stage reach the conductor well enough, but then struggle to penetrate to the audience sitting on the dark side of the theatrical proscenium.

It must be so, firstly because I’m not alone in noticing it, and secondly because in every other respect this was a thoroughly mesmerising, provocative performance of a work so often dismissed as mere (and unaccountable) confectionery. There were such superb contributions, from all sides – including tutti – and at all dynamic levels, that I hardly dare single out Albee Ai’s eloquent bassoon soliloquies. But I have; so I (or you) will just have to live with it. The audience, not many of whom, as far as I can gather, were particularly familiar with this symphony, went home positively buzzing. Roll on next season!

Paul Serotsky