Auckland Youth Orchestra Invites Audience to Pay What It Likes, then Plays a Blinder

New ZealandNew Zealand Smetana, Spohr, Sibelius: Kenny Keppel (clarinet), Auckland Youth Orchestra, Antun Poljanich (conductor), Forum North, Whangarei, New Zealand. 2.4.2016. (PSe)

Smetana – Vltava (from “Ma Vlast”)

SpohrClarinet Concerto No. 1

SibeliusSymphony No.2 in D

How often do you find a symphony concert advertised as “FREE”? Not often, I’d hazard. Well, this one was – but just to prove that the Auckland Youth Orchestra’s management wasn’t entirely off its rocker, there was a modest rider: “voluntary donations welcome”. Maybe you’re wondering how it works? Something like this: you turn up, go in, sit down, listen, get up, and leave. On your way in or out you may, if you wish, drop some cash into one of the collecting buckets (or, if you’re feeling “tech-savvy”, you can donate via their website).

Of course, what you really want to know is how such a scheme isn’t a fast track to orchestral bankruptcy, aren’t you? As this can’t exactly be explained in three words flat, I’ve appended a full discussion below this review; so, for now, suffice it to say that, since the scheme’s worked over the last few years at their Auckland concerts, AYO’s now testing the water at all their venues.

That magic word certainly filled the house – the place was positively humming! In the concourse, the early-birds were right royally entertained by a taste of tomorrow’s musicians – the children of Sistema Whangarei. Thence to today’s musicians, conducted by their musical director, the acutely perceptive Antun Poljanich.

For once there was neither title nor theme attached to the programme – not that I’ve any dislike of titles or themes as such; it’s just that, more often than not, I quite frankly find these things specious, as if clutching at straws – any old straws – to make the concert poster more “eye-catching”. Does anyone remember the halcyon days when concerts never had titles? I do (says he, dropping a clue as to his advancing years), and I never once felt short-changed. The usual format was “overture – concerto – symphony”, and the names of the works themselves were sufficient to draw the crowds (or not, as the case may be).

Thus, it was purely a matter of personal satisfaction to observe that this concert, if you allow a not unreasonably loose interpretation of “overture”, is just one such, or (if you’re “taken by a sudden whim”) you can note that it features two contrasted and arguably seminal nationalist works, sandwiching a work that … well … isn’t. Either way, it’s packed with top-notch music – and that’s what matters!

The concert began with Smetana’s Vltava, a piece that, unlike many popular pieces, responds quite badly to routine performance. Happily, AYO’s performance was anything but. Those used to the way that the famous tune flows along will have been intrigued to find that Poljanich had uncovered in this melody a teasing lilt that considerably enhanced its charm. Equally enhanced was the country dance, both by being slightly distanced and fading away to nothing (more or less) – so that we heard it as from a boat sliding past on the flowing waters – and from the somewhat “upright” accentuations that lent it a cocky but formally strutting air (if such a thing is possible).

Although there were no more of these minor revelations, two presumably being seen as quite enough for one short piece, the remaining scenes were still cutely characterised, especially the central, moonlit episode with its silken strings over softly burbling woodwinds, whilst the work’s entire string of scenes was cunningly crafted into an ebbing, flowing whole.

Spohr wrote his attractive First Clarinet Concerto in 1808, by which time Beethoven had torn up a respectable proportion of the rule-book. Spohr’s work, however, has no such savage aspirations, instead hovering modestly between the Classical and the Romantic; it’s an edifying amalgam of Eighteenth Century formal elegance and an incipiently Nineteenth Century mode of emotional expression.

Fleet-fingered former AYO clarinettist, Kenny Keppel, had a bit of a shaky start, slightly strangling a couple of tricky phrases. I mention this only because it underlined two significant points. Firstly, this showed just how difficult Spohr’s music is to play, even on a thoroughly modern instrument. It’s interesting to bear in mind that when Spohr showed his draft score to his friend Johann Simon Hermstedt, the clarinettist for whom he’d written it, instead of – as is usual – suggesting loads of technical changes, Hermstedt insisted on modifying his instrument to render Spohr’s delectable notes playable!

Secondly, it brought home more forcefully the extent to which Keppel was a master of the music’s hybrid quality. Whilst always respectful of the formal, he was keenly responsive to the music’s multitudes of momentary whims. His assured blend of discipline and spontaneity, accentuated by his almost balletically sympathetic – and not at all distracting – bodily movements, made it look, not entirely inappositely, as though he was playing jazz. Backed by the warmth and piquancy of the AYO, guided unerringly by Poljanich through all the soloist’s twists and turns, Keppel brought affecting tenderness to the short adagio, and dispatched the fun-filled finale, with its unexpected “throw-away” ending, with bags of zest and wit – and a shed-load of sheer cheekiness.

Its very popularity tends to make us forget that Sibelius’s Second Symphony was, in some respects at least, as revolutionary in 1902 as Beethoven’s Eroica had been a hundred years earlier. In this work, his inimitable mature style and sound-world didn’t so much “emerge” as “explode into being”. It’s as though he’d distilled his style and materials, leaving nothing but pure, unadulterated “Sibelius”. So striking is the transformation that, I must admit, I’m surprised that it is rarely, if ever, presented in concert with the First. Having the AYO’s stupendous 2009 performance of the Third still reverberating in my memory, I was naturally anticipating great things.

I was not disappointed. Yet, curiously, it was this performance that led me, for the very first time, to question a Poljanich tempo. The finale’s “big tune” fairly crackled with excitement, but somehow Poljanich had contrived to convert Sibelius’s allegro moderato marking into allegro molto (in fact, after the concert I sampled no fewer than four recordings from my shelves, and at this point even the quickest of them was palpably slower). This might still have been OK, except that – to my mind –  it cost the music its essential ingredient of grandeur. Fortunately, the numerous first-time listeners in the audience would have been blissfully unaware of this!

In all other respects, though, it was uniformly terrific. The AYO gave it all they’d got, sweeping their listeners ever onward through, it seemed, a vast, unfolding drama, its myriad details etched sharply against the irresistible narrative thrust. This much was plain right from the outset where, even though woodwind danced pertly and declamatory string phrases were sculpted with infinite care, the music never lingered a moment longer than necessary.

The slow movement really did feel as though Sibelius was recalling his “distillation” process, through the stark contrast between the harsh, granitic edifices of the “new” Sibelius and the meltingly mellow “romantic” string melody of the “old”. On its final appearance, the “old” was sweetly sung with heart-rending nostalgia by the AYO’s strings, before it was suffocated by the grinding, growling “new”.

Especially impressive were the finale’s extended crescendi, which were built with throat-grabbing inevitability by Poljanich’s sure hand – a hand that heightened the tensions by, almost ruthlessly, fully exposing the surging tumults of spine-tingling Sibelian “cross-rhythms”, a fair number of which had previously escaped my attention altogether (which is saying something, considering how many times this music has swept through my mind). And the coda – Ah! here (at last?) Poljanich elicited every last drop of the music’s towering grandeur. Afterwards I thought, perhaps a bit incongruously, shouldn’t this be mandatory listening for Kiwis who make indecently profligate use of a certain word? For, few things can properly be described as “awesome”, and this was surely one of them.

Paul Serotsky

Appendix: The AYO “Free Concerts/Voluntary Donations” Scheme (for more information and to donate visit the AYO website)

The AYO is essentially an orchestral “finishing school”, whose members pay for the privilege of playing. As such it is, as near as makes no difference, a professional-quality amateur orchestra. For their own benefit, they need to gain as much experience of performing in public and of touring as they can – or, rather, as much as they can afford. In common with many symphony orchestras, AYO struggles continuously just to make ends meet.

Granted, they don’t have the perennial problem of paying players’ salaries, but even so, their income, derived from grants, sponsorship and ticket sales, is nowhere near enough for them to do all they really need to do. Even in Auckland, their base, where around a quarter of New Zealand’s population is living within fairly easy driving distance of AYO’s venues, they were playing to less than full houses.

Provincial touring, however, is severely constrained; for one thing, there’s no sponsorship support out in the sticks and, for another, the populations in range of their provincial venues are very much sparser. Quite honestly, considering that they always incur losses, they do really well to get to provincial venues even once a year.

Of course, like any orchestra, their financial concerns are inextricably connected to the curious attitude to classical music of the world at large – all the prejudices and misconceptions (we all know the sort of thing) that over many decades have become so ingrained that the vast majority of mankind now constitutes “a horse that can’t even be led to water, never mind made to drink”.

Clearly, AYO needed to do something to ameliorate its financial situation, but, short of miraculously reforming a world-full of intractable horses, what could it do? You can only change what you can control. Therefore, one solution is to find more sponsorship. The trouble with this is that too many sponsors spoil the broth – each additional sponsor dilutes the existing sponsors’ perceived benefits.

Then again, experience has shown that revenue can be increased by changing ticket prices; oddly enough, it matters little whether you put them up or down, or juggle the differentials between the prices of the different seating areas. Unfortunately, either way the improvement is generally small, impossible to predict with any degree of certainty, and can too easily end up doing the opposite of what you’d hoped.

Those seemed to cover all the AYO’s options, until one of their sponsors had a rather radical idea. 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, 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 wholly different “cost model” – to charge the customers nothing. Or, to be more precise, to let the customers decide for themselves how much they want, or are willing, or can afford to pay? In other words, advertise a concert as “FREE”, but at the same time suggest that “voluntary donations are welcome”. This was indeed a bold move – but it was a risk worth taking, because the potential benefits are huge.

First and foremost, it demolishes financial barriers, making live symphonic music available to everyone, even those who are too poor to afford the ticket prices (to be fair, AYO prices have never been particularly expensive). Thus there is an exceedingly strong possibility that “free” concerts will get full or very nearly full houses, which is precisely what the AYO wants, to inspire the players and spur them on to even greater things. This in turn should magnify the listeners’ pleasure, which in its turn should maximise that most effective of advertisements, word of mouth.

Moreover, it should “incentivise” waverers, those who think they might like symphonic music, but for one reason or another (including being reluctant to put up ticket-money on the off-chance!) never quite get round to taking the plunge. And, having attracting a wider audience, some of them are sure to “stick”, having discovered a new, abiding love – with the major fillip of thereby delivering a well-deserved poke in the eye to those who gripe about “élitism”.

Of course, the Big Imponderable is “voluntary donations”. Having got a full, rather than half-full (or half-empty) house, to break even with the old ticketing system you only need an average donation of about half the price on the ticket. Any more than that and you’re onto a winner. The AYO accepted that the exceedingly poor would donate little or nothing (but be none the less welcome), whilst they expected that the very well-off would tend to be generous, and that those in between would donate what they could reasonably afford.

On balance, it seemed worth a shot. So, in 2012, with some backing from the FLLA, they gave it a whirl at their Auckland Town Hall concerts. It was, as the saying goes, a resounding success. The hall was full, receipts were up by a substantial amount, and “free” concerts at this venue became the norm.

However, the AYO remained unable to afford to subsidise more than one concert a year at their touring venues, which were vitally important for “work experience”. So, in 2016, they decided to try out the “free concerts/voluntary donations” scheme across the board. This is a somewhat riskier venture, partly because this time there’s no sponsor providing backup, but mostly because provincial “income profiles” are a fair bit lower than in the Big City – the richest are less rich, the poorest are poorer, and the median income is correspondingly less favourable.

The concert reviewed above was the first in the trial. The house was pretty well brimful with a lively, attentive and highly appreciative audience – so from the important “work experience” and “barrier breaking (etc.) viewpoint, this was very successful. However, the income from the donations buckets added up to only about the same as last year’s ticket takings. This would tend to confirm the “income profile” factor, and exemplify Whangarei as a “break even” venue, so we’re unlikely to get any extra concerts on the back of this showing. It will be fascinating to see what happens if they do it again next year – will the effects be cumulative, will the novelty just wear off? I’m an optimist (although I hide it well), so I’m going to say that, on balance, I believe that this superb scheme is going to grow and grow.


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