Review of Whangarei Concert, 2 April 2016 – Seen and Heard International

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