More Brilliant Beethoven from the Auckland Youth Orchestra

New ZealandNew Zealand Hindemith, Mahler, Beethoven: Olivia Francis (violin), Alex McFarlane (viola), Auckland Youth Orchestra / Antun Poljanich (conductor), Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 11.5.2013 (PSer)

Hindemith: Trauermusik, for Viola and Strings
Mahler: Symphonic Poem “Totenfeier”
Beethoven: Violin Concerto

It must be 15 years or more ago that “themed” concerts became fashionable. Today, they are still all the rage – which (let’s face it) is a long run for a fad. It wouldn’t bother me if they were always ingeniously assembled, with pertinent and provocative “umbrella” titles, but in most cases – these days increasingly synonymous with “most concerts”! – they are nothing of the sort. For instance, a few weeks ago, an otherwise very good Northland Sinfonia concert bore the rather facile title “Autumn Moods”. I understood what it meant well enough (it presently being that season in these parts), but couldn’t for the life of me square it with the programme’s content.

Having grouched in my local newspaper review about that one, I could hardly let the title bestowed on this Auckland Youth Orchestra concert slip quietly under my radar. Where the former was mystifying, the latter was misleading – to, I suspect, most music-lovers, “Life of a Hero” means one thing only: Ein Heldenleben. Not so here (we should be so lucky!). There is a connection, but it’s unlikely to spring to mind unless you happen to be researching the programme notes! It relates to Mahler’s symphonic poem Totenfeier (“Funeral Rites”), concerning which – when he adapted it for his Second Symphony’s opening movement – Mahler had suggested that, if you really must, you could imagine it laying to rest and reflecting on the life of his First Symphony’s hero.

But, even if you swallow that, the “theme” doesn’t extend to the rest of the programme making it, like so many others, so tenuous that it smacks of desperation. Yet, even of a programme title that actually did form some sort of literary “umbrella”, the late, great Adrian Smith once asked me, “Why do they insist on having these stupid titles?” It’s a good question, and the answer I get is, “Well, we have to put something on the poster.” At which point, I rest my case.

Right – to business. In the Mahler, the AYO’s eyebrow-lifting, nerve-tingling opening tremolando promised so much, but for once delivered rather less. This was in part down to the stage-setting: the visually impressive, black-curtained “cave” enclosing the large forces – not only behind and on either side, but also above – did the “back row” players few favours. With their backwards-facing bells, the six horns – a force unprecedented on this provincial stage – sounded stifled. Even the brass, blessed with the advantage of forward-pointing bells, packed but a feeble punch.

Over that electrifying tremolando, craggy bass strings put the fear of God into mere mortals – or they should. Here, instead of bow-heels hacking the hell out of strings, suave urbanity ruled and, unfortunately, set the tone for subsequent climaxes. Antun Poljanich asked the right questions, but to me – no believer in a temperate approach to Mahler – he seemed shy of the right answers, which left Mahler’s convulsive musical storms sounding distinctly teacup-bound.

Luckily, this in no way applied to the many musings on the drop-dead gorgeous second subject – and, most curiously, neither did it to the closing cadence’s swirling jackhammer. Oh, if only the stunning savagery with which this was delivered had been applied to the start, how Mahler’s “funeral pyre” would have blazed.

At last year’s ALTO recital (see review), Hindemith’s Trauermusik – a work I hadn’t heard before – had left me flat cold. I’d blamed the music, whereas (of course) I should have blamed the arrangement – for viola and piano. With hindsight, the reason’s obvious – the piano is possibly the worst choice an arranger could make, since it’s incapable of reproducing the multitudes of expressive inflections (in particular, swellings) of sustained notes which Hindemith poured into his original string orchestral score. Not surprisingly, then, Antun’s baton held me spellbound, weaving his AYO strings into a tapestry of gracefully curving musical phrases. The hushed strings nestled around and, as it were, comforted Alex McFarlane’s oaken-hued viola, condoling with its fervent yet properly respectful lamentation.

After last year’s extraordinary effort in Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 (see review), I was expecting great things of this performance of his Violin Concerto. Many play it like they would Brahms, apparently disregarding the fact that Beethoven, although a revolutionary, was essentially a Classical composer, much of whose phenomenal vitality derives from the tension between these two aspects of his character.

This was immediately apparent in the orchestral exposition, which typified the orchestra’s contribution throughout – stern yet fluent, full-toned and rich yet pristinely articulated and balanced. When Olivia Francis entered, her violin, sounding slender and sweet, seemed to grow out of the orchestral texture, ascending to its “natural” place as the leading, but not predominant party – it felt, if I may put it this way, as though the egalitarian spirit of the old concerto grosso moved across the face of the music. Between them, soloist and orchestra made the music flow with a Haydn-esque logical ease, but with the intensifying sense of a stallion straining at the reins always just beneath the surface.

A few “wobbles” – matters of consequence only to competition judges and hard-nosed critics – did nothing to impair Olivia’s clear-sighted interpretation, or indeed our enjoyment of it. Olivia, confident, constantly attentive to telling details of attack, yet never at the expense of the music’s astonishing architectural perspectives, carried off the daunting, multi-layered cadenza with energetic aplomb.

I have a fancy that, for each particular piece, there’s a “key” tempo that will “unlock” it, liberating its lyricism (assuming, of course, that the piece has any lyricism to liberate). Consider, for example, how many adagios and even andantes have, over the years, become slower and slower: I wonder, why else would this be, if not in search of that elusive key? I wouldn’t be surprised if, more often than not, folk are looking in the wrong direction.

This andante may well be one such, for here it wasn’t allowed even to dawdle, never mind wallow – yet, it sounded so right, and (speaking as one who has more than once been bored to tears by this movement) from the first to the last it enveloped me in a web of enchantment. Olivia caressed the phrases with such unaffected tenderness that, when her singing line rose aloft, it seemed to soar on angels’ wings. Moreover, at this tempo the orchestra’s stabbing phrases, which bridge to the finale, were tightened into a “call to action” closely paralleling that of the work’s opening.

Their neatly-pointed, playful finale veered cheerfully between feather-light and boisterous, again underlining that feeling of revolutionary beast reined by classical master. I wondered, momentarily, how the two chattering horns here managed to penetrate rather better than Mahler’s half-dozen, but was nevertheless very glad they did. Take them, some jolly bassoons, bags of orchestral verve, Olivia’s vaulting athleticism (coming precious close to dancing), a cadenza that was by turns whimsical, dynamic, devil-may-care, and downright rowdy (well, why not?), followed – after some teasing false starts – by a romping run for the line, and what did it all add up to? In short, my expectations fully fulfilled!

Paul Serotsky