New Zealand Borodin, Shostakovich, Dvořák: Jacky Siu (cello), Auckland Youth Orchestra, Antun Poljanich (conductor), Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, New Zealand. 16.05.2015 (Pse)
Borodin – Polovtsian Dances
Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107
Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”
The Auckland Youth Orchestra (AYO) has been performing regularly in Whangarei since 2009. During that period, they’ve failed consistently in just two respects – firstly they’ve never yet played anything that wasn’t eminently worth hearing, and secondly they’ve never given anything even approaching a dud performance. Hard as it might be, I can live with that! Needless to say, on both counts this concert was no exception.
However, having noted during the concert numerous oddities of orchestral balance, I was seriously thinking otherwise. As it turned out to be an object lesson for me, I have gone into it in some detail in the appended Footnote. Right now, all we need to know is that the performers were not at fault.
Crammed, cheek by jowl, onto the stage was our biggest AYO to date – triple woodwind, 5 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, percussion, and over 50 strings. They were assembled to play two hugely – and deservedly – popular works, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”). These framed something rather more lightly-scored, an equally rewarding if somewhat tougher nut – Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto.
I grew up with the Mercury/Dorati recording of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, and consequently to me it never feels fully dressed without the chorus part, that lusty singing which so enriches the music’s essential “oriental splendour”. In fact, so steeped am I in this “operatic” version that, when I listen to the orchestra-only version, my mind spontaneously contributes a “ghost” chorus. I actually find myself surprised (though I haven’t the faintest idea why I should be) when people who have grown up with the orchestra-only version say that they prefer the music without the chorus!
Either way, though, the Polovtsian Dances should above all glitter and sparkle, be sensual and tender, brim with bounce, incisiveness and sumptuous spectacle. That’s a tall order because, sometimes, satisfying one proviso puts the mockers on another. Antun and the AYO ticked lots of boxes. They expanded the “Stranger in Paradise” tune warmly yet without loss of intimacy, and pointed up the scintillations in the central reprise. Elsewhere, instead of simply flooring the gas pedal, they focussed unfailingly on putting spring into the steps of the dancing and driving rhythms. From start to finish this was one hugely enjoyable romp.
Some musical works are seemingly inexhaustible mines of hidden treasure, treasure that takes generation upon generation of perceptive performers to winkle out. Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony is not one of these. It’s a work that’s both direct and transparent, and has been played by all and sundry since the day it was born. Consequently, everything that can be wrung out of the score has long since been wrung out of it. Not that this in any way demeans its intrinsic greatness, but just think: when did you last hear a performance of it that was in any way revelatory?
Hence, all we really have are different ways of approaching it. On this occasion, the interpretation neatly balanced the music’s myriad felicities against the architectural “long view”. Antun Poljanich craftily sculpted Dvořák’s tumultuous climactic arches to thrilling – and cumulative – effect. Shunning sensation-seeking “gear changes”, he opted for compatible tempi that both accommodated and consistently enlivened the dance elements, and integrated them with the passages of melancholy contemplation (the qualities of “dance” and “melancholy” are, of course, sometimes inseparable).
This sort of music is food and drink to players of a youthful disposition, and the AYO positively gobbled it up, responding to Antun’s vision with their customary precision and nerve-tingling enthusiasm in a performance whose grand sweep was peppered with invigorating accents that often slip under the listener’s radar. The subito forte that ends the slow introduction seemed slightly ragged (and, to be fair, it often does, even in far more venerable hands) but, in the subsequent extended accelerando through which Antun “cross-faded” seamlessly into the main allegro, the ensemble had already become as tight as a drumskin – and thereafter stayed that way.
Of the many beautifully turned solo spots, the most memorable were, almost inevitably, the Largo’s lonesome, soulful cor anglais and the heartstring-tugging quartet of string section principals. At rock bottom, however, this was a thoroughgoing team effort, which illuminated the tension between the thrill of the “new” and the longing for the “old” that lies at the heart of this wonderful music.
I suppose it’s as well to be mindful that, in the years prior to 1959, when Shostakovich wrote his First Cello Concerto, his world had been becoming increasingly crazy. After Stalin’s death, all hopes for a return to something approaching sanity had been dashed, by dizzy successions of “thaws” and “freezes”, ruthless internal power struggles, armed suppressions of overt dissidence, ever-more-sophisticated “management” of the masses and a continuing persecution of Soviet artists that reached a new low with the Pasternak affair of 1958 – a singularly shocking business that surely touched the composer personally. It’s difficult not to see some reflection of all this carry-on in the concerto, particularly in the hair-raisingly savage humour of its outer movements – yet, even without the benefit of that background, I doubt that anyone would entirely miss the pervasive currents of animosity, bullying and suffering.
Only partly because of its exceptionally long, daunting cadenza, the concerto poses a formidable challenge (to the soloist, that is, not the audience). But, if AYO principal cellist Jacky Siu was quaking in his shoes, he didn’t let it show. However, I was utterly unprepared for what did show – a concentration so intense that it seemed to set his instrument afire. In every respect, this was a through-thought performance, probing, powerful and nigh-on peerless – and I’m saying that in full awareness of the company that puts him in.
Jacky couldn’t have wished for better orchestral support – although I do wonder whether that’s quite the right word for the woodwind, who spent the first movement spitting vitriolic barbs at his back! In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the orchestral hostility more alarmingly conveyed. It was a vicious onslaught that lent real point to the cello’s resistance; as he doggedly mutters the catechism of his one motive (significantly, “D-S-C-H” turned inside-out), his sole ally is that “Jiminy Cricket” of a horn, here positively glowing with humane sympathy.
The sheer aching of the hushed strings in the beautiful Moderato was heightened by exposing, rather than softening, the cutting edges of Shostakovich’s acidic dissonances. Jacky’s cello, precise and focussed, lamented fit to break its heart. Following an orchestral “oom-pah” section dripping with irony, his harmonics were chilling. And, come the cadenza, you could have cut the air with a knife! Jacky was eloquent in every detail and yet fully focussed on the overall logic; it seemed to “last forever”, and yet was “over in a flash”.
Antun double-underlined the feeling of queasy danse macabre in the Finale, whose befuddled sarcasm (see “crazy” and “dizzy” above!) was overdone to a turn by all concerned. I’m sure that Prokofiev, the undisputed master of the inebriate line, would have been well pleased with this – as he might equally have been with the quickly skittering dance, where the AYO’s combination of taut control and raw energy was electrifying.
This must rank as the most impressive performance we’ve yet heard from the AYO. Had it been recorded (in a decent acoustic), I’d hazard that even reviewers more sane and sensible than I would place it at, or at least very near to, the top of the pile.
The main oddity I noticed in the balance of that unusually large orchestra was this: in tuttis – even ones where the brass are intended to dominate the texture – the AYO strings actually drowned all the heavy metal! I found this a bit on the unbelievable side, because no conductor, never mind one as astute as Antun Poljanich, could possibly have got it this wrong.
I was right to be sceptical. Later, I learnt that listeners at the back had experienced the exact opposite – for them the brass were “overwhelming”, “overpowering”, even bordering on “painful”. Such a disparity couldn’t possibly be engineered by either conductor or players. Needless to say, this was enough to persuade me to bin my comments on wayward balances. So, what was the problem? Well, what was the difference between those at the back and me?
The theatre’s stalls are wider than they are deep, fan-shaped and fairly steeply raked, designed for seeing rather than hearing. The acoustics are “dead”, by which I mean that you hear no indirect sound. I was sitting two or three rows further forward than usual. My head was on a level with those of the strings. At the rear the wind were on a platform about a foot high, woodwind in front, brass behind, with the percussion gathered near a corner. Antun obviously would have judged the correct balance from his position on the podium, and because the brass were “hiding” behind the woodwind, he’d have had to get them to blow a bit harder.
Anyone whose head was on the line from the middle of the orchestra through his head would hear pretty well the same balance. To any listener sitting below that line (towards the front), the strings would predominate, there’d be a fair bit of woodwind, and the bass would be weak. Any listener sitting above that line, particularly those at the very back who would see the bells of the instruments, would get the force of the harder-blowing brass full in the face. Of course, this disparity must have always been there, but on this occasion it would have been substantially exacerbated by the exceptionally large number of intervening bodies on the stage.
I’ve experienced orchestras play in acoustically “dead” venues before, without there being any such disparity of perceived balance. It only now strikes me that, on those occasions, the auditorium seating was not raked – everyone sat “below” the orchestra, and therefore heard the same balance. We all know (don’t we?) that, to bloom and glow at its very best, music must inhabit a good, reverberant acoustic. These conjectures, if there’s anything in them, tell us a bit more about why that should be so.