Auckland Youth Orchestra rides tandem with Sistema Whangarei in an unforgettable performance

New ZealandNew Zealand Shostakovich, Dvořák, Hardiman, Meyer: Shangrong Feng (piano), Sistema Whangarei (guest artists*). Auckland Youth Orchestra / Antun Poljanich (conductor). Anglican Church, Whangarei, New Zealand, 1.4.2023. (PSe)

Ronan Hardiman (arr. Larry Moore)Lord of the Dance*
Richard MeyerDragon Hunter*
Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No.2
Dvořák – Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Under the banner ‘Together!’ supplemented by the strapline ‘Young Musicians United’, this was ‘A combined concert with Sistema Whangarei’ – something of a celebratory collaboration since 2023 is Sistema Whangarei’s 10th anniversary and Auckland Youth Orchestra’s 75th. Details being in short supply, I am guessing that most of the collaborative fun must have been during the joint rehearsal, because the concert itself was a simple matter of Sistema’s 19 strings playing a couple of short items, followed by AYO with two rather longer ones. Nevertheless, I like the idea: after all, a perspective is clearest when its components are assembled ‘Together!’

The Sistema 13-3-1-2 strings group apparently covered a wide range of ages and (presumably) experience, yet, within the relatively conservative confines of the pieces they played, displayed an impressive unity of ensemble, sonority and intonation, both smooth and well-blended as well as ever-so-slightly ‘HIP’. I found the performances of Hardiman’s Lord of the Dance and Meyer’s Dragon Hunter delightful, their (uncredited) conductor coaxing from his players some nicely shaded dynamics and perky dancing rhythms. The AYO’s motto, ‘Here Plays the Future’, would seem to apply – albeit less immediately and over a slightly wider timeframe – to these Sistema youngsters!

In Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2 the soloist was Shangrong Feng, who in 2022 added joint winner of the 2022 AYO Piano Competition (playing in this concert being part of her prize) to her CV, which is commendably extensive for a young woman still working for her Master’s degree. So, being an aptly youthful work, a 19th birthday present from Shostakovich to his son, this concerto should be just right for her. It says much of its composer that he could create something so playful and carefree, beset as he was by the growing storm clouds of new threats.

It soon became abundantly clear that great pains had been taken in balancing soloist and orchestra. Shangrong seemed to eschew sheer bullishness, yet even the most blaringly sonorous climax never submerged her. The opening’s woodwind augured well: the piano entry was smooth, dead straight, and soon lively! The imposing first climax sounded wonderful, paving the way for Shangrong’s pure and sweet second subject, to which the discreet orchestral accompaniment was neither reticent nor shy. Conductor Antun Poljanich ensured that everyone pitched into the uproarious development, laced with telling dynamics and superbly accentuated rhythms. The pair of ‘sly winks’ – one mimicking Rachmaninov and the other Shostakovich’s self-parody of his own symphonic ‘massed unisons’ – were truly imposing, no-holds-barred affairs.

The second movement, as is often not the case, was taken at a genuine andante, Poljanich injecting into the welling and sighing of the silken strings the proper little pauses. The ‘magic moment’ of the piano’s entry would have been breath-taking if the audience hadn’t already been holding its breath! Shangrong’s fingerwork had great poise, maintaining a delicate balance between the two hands. This was all beautifully done, whilst the brief climax was, if anything, understated, thereby eliciting a further, enchanting moment of release.

The finale has always reminded me of a boxing match: in the red corner, a ‘straight’ duple-time theme (father); in the blue corner, a ‘rebellious’ septuple-time theme (son), and interweaved with their sparring the ‘referee’, and allied to a third, rippling theme. Shangrong and the AYO put on a bout as exciting as any and it had a suitably uproarious ending.

After the interval, a complete change of mood: Dvořák’s remarkable – and, to my mind, often misunderstood – Seventh Symphony. Arguably, only twice did Dvořák put himself at the centre of a symphony. One was, of course, the Ninth, where his fascination with the ‘new’ collided with his homesickness for the ‘old’. The other was this one, written in the grim shadow of his beloved mother’s death – a period he himself described as ‘of doubt and obstinacy, silent sorrow and resignation’; hence Dvořák’s preferred subtitle, From Sad Years, far more apposite than the usual legend, The Tragic. Yet, despite this – and the notes in the score – over the years I have heard many performances that play down the angst, as though Dvořák couldn’t express sorrow!

It makes a change for someone to do this music full justice (this is not to say that it hasn’t been done before!). Throughout, Poljanich focussed on the music’s ‘doubt’, ‘obstinacy’, ‘sorrow’ and ‘resignation’, and underlined the remoteness and transience of any ‘light-hearted’ elements. The proof of the pudding was in the playing of the AYO, who backed him up to the hilt. Right at the outset, whilst their sound superbly blended opulence with clarity and the maestoso marking was scrupulously observed, the dancing first subject was immediately tainted by disquiet. In the development, even though the music kept trying to raise its spirits, ever-present was a tragic undertow, which erupted fearsomely – as daunting as it was transfixing.

Similarly, in the Poco adagio, the woodwind sang soulfully and the strings sobbed: all was ineffably sad, yet tenderly tinged with consolation – until, that is, we were confronted with a massive ‘funeral march’! Subsequently, the woodwinds lilted, the strings flowed eagerly; but all that faded away. The mood became songful, almost hopeful; but that too faded, becoming shaded with anguish, ripening for an explosive, tormented tutti.

Yet, you can’t help thinking that the third movement’s Scherzo: Vivace would somehow earn it an exemption. Not here, it didn’t. When quiet, the music strove to be lively and gay – but was always brutally knocked back by the jagged climaxes. Poljanich conveyed the impression of someone repeatedly trying to buck himself up, only to be floored by resurgent, irrepressible grief. So, what could the coda’s outburst express, other than a despairing attack of panic? And, how cunningly Dvořák’s closing bars prepared for . . .

. . . the finale’s initial gasp of gloom, yielding to a feeling of groping for the allegro, which bursts in like a storm, fuming with strife. Again, the second subject attempts optimism, even unto a clamorous climax, but doom forces its way back in. An uneasy, ghostly creeping prefaced the central climax, replete with baleful brass and slashing strings and woodwind. There was no relief, and finally the first subject, its ‘gasp of gloom’ stretched and distorted into a good imitation of a horrific scream, brought the symphony to its concussed conclusion.

I have heard many fine performances from AYO under their redoubtable conductor, Antun Poljanich – but never one that dug so alarmingly deep into the very psyche of the music. Quite literally, this was a terrific – and unforgettable – performance.

Paul Serotsky

Leave a Comment