Youth Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky Takes Auckland by Storm

New ZealandNew Zealand  Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saëns, Monti, Tchaikovsky: Richard Chen (violin), Laurence McFarlane (percussion), Auckland Youth Orchestra, Antun Poljanich (conductor); Auckland Town Hall, Auckland, New Zealand, 27.07.2013 [Pse]

Rimsky-Korsakov:  Capriccio Espagnol
Saint-Saëns:  Havanaise
Monti:  Czárdás
Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 4

Although I’ve lived in Whangarei for nigh on six years now, this was my first time at Auckland Town Hall. I’d have gone a lot sooner, were it not for the lengthy round trip, coupled with a congenital antipathy to getting lost in mazes masquerading as busy big cities; reasons that were overridden by a couple, who know their way around The Big Kiwifruit, very kindly making me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

It felt so good to be sitting in a proper concert hall once again. Auckland Town Hall certainly looked the business, and the pre-concert atmosphere positively hummed with anticipation. Nevertheless, I have to say that its reverberation decay time was a bit abrupt. I estimated it at only around a second or so. Yet, as this amounted to around a second or so more than the decay in Whangarei’s Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, I wasn’t really inclined to grumble.

It was pretty much a full house although, lacking any comparative experience, I couldn’t say to what extent this was because entry was free of charge. Yes, really! Read all about it in the footnote. Mind you, it’s not as if the Auckland Youth Orchestra’s usual ticket prices are exactly bank-breakers, and anyway I’d imagine that the programme itself would have had punters flocking like flies to a jam-pot.

This concert “celebrated” the end of what I gather was a hugely successful tour of the length and breadth of New Zealand’s South Island, during which the orchestra played this programme at six locations in a mere seven days. Maybe you’re thinking that would leave no elbow-room for recreation? If so, you’d be under-estimating youthful ingenuity. Some players managed to squeeze in a bit of ski-ing. However, your estimation of youthful risk assessment would probably be nearer the mark – since one violinist did end up with a broken arm.

Speaking of the follies of youth: in my very early teens, not long bitten by the Music Bug, I nigh-on wore flat my (then) meagre collection of records by playing them repeatedly. Unwittingly, I became “conditioned”, so that other performances of any one of those works didn’t feel just different – they felt “wrong”, even when they were in fact “right”. I’ve no doubt that plenty of others are in the same boat; it’s harmless enough, unless you happen to be a reviewer, in which case you sometimes need to be on your guard.

This concert was just such an occasion, featuring not one, but two of my childhood “pets”! The first was the opener, Rimsky-Korsakov’s glittering Capriccio Espagnol. This acknowledged masterpiece of the art of orchestration demands immaculate balance and the utmost clarity, demands to which Antun Poljanich and the AYO very nearly acceded. I’d quibble over a few details, such as the understated pizzicati in Variazioni, the under-accented brass fanfare at the start of Scena, and the all-but-inaudible triangle – particularly in the excellent harp cadenza. Rather more than a mere detail, though, was the unseemly modesty of the castanets – in this, of all works!

But otherwise it was a treat from start to finish: bags of bounce in the Alborada; the Variazioni languorous but not languishing, capped by a truly luxuriant climax; and a detailed but smouldering Scena. When it was cut loose, the Canto Gitano went with a real “swing”, but the subsequent Fandango was surely too hasty for proper savouring of Rimsky’s resplendent cavalcade of colours. Even so, there was still plenty to headroom for an impressive accelerando, Antun urging his rampant players into a sizzlingly spirited dash to the line.

After that, Saint-Saëns’s Havanaise seemed as soothing as a cool beer on a hot afternoon. Backed by an orchestra playing with a nice blend of warmth and vivacity, AYO violinist Richard Chen caught the music’s progression of moods, sultry and sexy in the slower passages, vigorous and vital in the faster ones.  All he needed was a bit more “oomph”, so that we could have heard more easily his well-considered rendition.

The first half ended with something of a “party piece”, a perky performance of Vittorio Monti’s famous Czárdás – one of those pieces that absolutely everyone knows, but to which remarkably few can actually put a name! On this occasion, the solo violinist’s part was given to percussionist Laurence McFarlane. Before an orchestra bubbling with unalloyed fun, he rattled off, with athletic aplomb, the slow bit on a marimba, the quick bit on a xylophone, and the central “trio section” on a glockenspiel.

The one work in the second half was Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, the second of my childhood “pets”. At the time I bought the LP, I was utterly unaware of the import of the words inscribed on the sleeve, “Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky”. What a standard I’d inadvertently locked myself into – even today, its embedded influence compels me to find quite superb performances a bit limp-wristed!

Not surprisingly, then, the AYO’s somewhat tentative opening “Fate” fanfare had me gritting my teeth and trying to quash that conditioning. Happily, Antun Poljanich helped me out, conjuring a preternatural hush for the start of the first subject, and investing the stabbing accents of the expanding theme with needle-sharpness. This music sounded sorely troubled, a far cry from the more usual “dream-like”, “striving” or “defiant” attitudes. Correspondingly, the second subject’s balletic grace took on an oily taint, seducing the first subject into seeping back. Consciously or not, this progression, culminating in a climactic conflict of extraordinary intensity, surely reflected the music’s autobiographical subtext.

This similarly informed the Andante, which was phrased to create a “fireside” mood far from cosy, mingling warmth with world-weariness, whilst the central section’s impassioned outburst was tinged with anguish. The close was breathtakingly rendered, the strings and woodwind so hushed, and heartbreakingly poignant.

This temperature seemed to infect the Scherzo’s pizzicati – neatly articulated but somewhat under-emphatic. Similarly the “pizzicato” brass were rotund rather than punchy; but not so the woodwind, who were quite bibulous – with top marks going to the deliriously reckless piccolo. However, as the threads came together, things distinctly warmed up, yielding a sturdy, even jolly close – nicely preparing, as it happened, for the finale, which burst upon us like a thunderclap!

Poljanich here opted for highly contrasted tempi, taking the variational “verses” fairly leisurely, and the barnstorming “refrains” with the gas-pedal floored – and all devoid of any trace of awkward “gear-changing”. This was electrifying; the whole orchestra seemed to have caught fire. The strings and woodwinds especially sounded superb, spitting their streams of notes like machine-gun bullets.

The conductor’s approach to this ostensibly episodic movement was strategically conceived. Through the latter half of the variational “festivities” he steadily built a seismic pressure, whose ultimate eruption disgorged the “Fate” theme.  From the subsequent grim, stunned hiatus crept the coda, inexorably evolving into a whirlwind of untrammelled hysteria. I was gob-smacked – this finale punched a real hole in my “conditioning” (and not before time, eh?), showing a clean pair of heels even to the legendary Mravinsky.

What’s more, they did it without a tuba, which was missing both from the programme booklet credits and the platform. After that, I’d have rested content, but there was more (you see, you can get more than your money’s worth, even at a free concert) – they wheeled the percussion back out and reprised Monti’s Czárdás, a more-than-welcome encore that amounted to a lollipop and a half.

Paul Serotsky

Footnote: There can’t be many of us who don’t worry about the current situation and future of classical music – those perennial concerns about ageing audiences and diminishing interest, popular misconceptions like elitism, “highbrow-ism”, exclusivity and all the rest of it. The eternal questions are, “What are the causes?” and “What can be done about it?” Answers abound, of course, but as yet it seems that no-one has found the right answer (or answers), or at least, none that are practicable (and, preferably, don’t involve serious injury to the patient).

Like many other organisations and individuals, the Freemasons Lodge of the Liberal Arts, a long-standing, wholehearted supporter of the AYO and its aims and functions, has these concerns and asks these questions. The FLLA came to the conclusion that one obvious barrier between classical music and the people for whom it was written is cost – classical concert tickets, particularly for family-sized groups, are generally expensive enough effectively to exclude a very substantial proportion of the population, regardless of any other factors. FLLA decided to try, in association with AYO, a different “cost model”.

Basically, this was to do away with tickets or any other form of entry charges. People could just walk right in and sit right down. On their way out (or via the web site), they could volunteer a donation, as much or as little as they saw fit. I’m not saying that FLLA and AYO are the first to try this idea, but it is an extremely laudable one, doing immediate and serious damage to “elitism” and “exclusivity”, for a start.

Of course, it’s very likely that practical difficulties will arise. In particular, the idea could become a victim of its own success, with people being put off because, to get in, they have to queue for a day or more before the doors open! This particular concert, for instance, was virtually a sell-out (if that’s an appropriate term in this context). For now, though, it is sufficient that they are trying it. More power to their elbows, say I.