Whangarei Concert Review – June 2022

Seen and Heard International

Auckland Youth Orchestra and Whangarei Anglican Church organ strike sparks

New ZealandNew Zealand Gigout, Mozart, Saint-Saëns

Christina Ellison (soprano), Shiddharth Chand (tenor), Nicholas Forbes (organ), Anna Kexin Zhang (flute), Harrison Chau (Harp)
Auckland Youth Orchestra / Antun Poljanich (conductor).
Anglican Church, Whangarei, New Zealand, 18.6.2022

Gigout (arr. David Millar) – Grand Choeur Dialogué, for Organ and Brass
Mozart – ‘Il Mio Tesoro’ (Don Giovanni); ‘O Zittre Nicht, Mein Lieben Sohn’, ‘Dies Bildnis’, ‘Der Holle Rache’ (The Magic Flute); Andantino, from Concerto in C for Flute and Harp, K299
Saint-Saëns – Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78 ‘Organ Symphony’

It is just one day short of three long years since the Auckland Youth Orchestra (AYO) last gave a concert in Whangarei (see review click here); the reason for this hiatus I think we all know! This time, the AYO played in Whangarei’s Anglican Church, the one venue hereabouts that they have not yet tried, and anyway the only one having anything approaching a suitable organ. However, the church’s acoustic is tricky, on account of the bulk of its considerable internal height being an inverted ‘V’ shape so deep that it makes your average Swiss chalet look decidedly squat. Offset as that is by there being plenty of polished woodwork, the only way to know whether it will suit a particular type of ensemble is to ‘suck it and see’.

Happily, barring a couple of rows taken out to accommodate the orchestra, there was a virtually full house, an array of witnesses which probably helped the acoustics almost as much as it pleased the performers. The programme was sandwich-style: two slabs of substantial French bread enclosing a medley of Mozartian meats – four operatic arias garnished by a concertante movement. Whether this was intended to be slightly curious or provide strong contrast, I am not sure; but the concert opened with a clear-cut curiosity.

I bet that I am not alone in having never even heard of Gigout’s Grand Choeur Dialogué, and I doubt I will ever hear the original version for two organ choruses. However I am pleased to have heard David J Millar’s arrangement for one organ chorus opposed to orchestral brass plus euphonium and timpani. Here the hall came up trumps because, whilst the console is at the front, the organ itself is behind the audience, lending a truly antiphonal frisson to the exchanges. The music is grandly ceremonial and at times positively awe-inspiring. The performance was resplendent; the sonorities fabulous; the climaxes rousing; and the dénouement roof-raising!

The Mozart sequence generously featured four young soloists. A suite of five arias from The Magic Flute was intended but, because one singer unfortunately became indisposed, this had to be reduced to three of those planned, prefaced by one from Don Giovanni (offered by its singer). Shiddharth Chand, who has adopted the exotic nickname of Sid, sang Don Ottavio’s aria ‘Il Mio Tesoro’. His voice, a fresh, ‘open’ lyric tenor, admirably conveyed the initial consolatory mood, but he seemed to overlook the latter half’s grim import. In the Queen of the Night’s ‘O Zittre Nicht’ the sweet yet penetrative and agile tones of Christina Ellison epitomized what is, at this point in the plot, a distraught mother.

Sid then tackled Tamino’s ‘Dies Bildnis’, this time with his hands expressively supporting his voice and showing great delicacy when singing softly, immersing himself in the role of a young man falling in love with a portrait. Finally, and I might say inevitably in such selections, the aria immortalised by the (thankfully) nigh-on inimitable Florence Foster Jenkins: ‘Der Holle Rache’. Christina dived in at the deep end, her coloratura crackling, her curses laced with venom!

Between the two pairs of arias, flautist Anna Kexin Zhang and harpist Harrison Chau regaled their audience with a refined rendition of the Andantino from Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. If there was any fault, it was that the harp was just a touch too quiet; nevertheless the clear and pure flute and the cleanly articulate harp blended as sweetly as a love duet.

The accompanying orchestra retained its full complement of 40 strings, but Antun Poljanich ensured that the sound produced was entirely appropriate, both in volume and refinement, and shaped with a subtlety of dynamics and phrasing entirely in sympathy with the soloists – including the markedly more strenuous final aria, in which the energised orchestra fairly breathed fire!

After the interval, the orchestra re-assembled amid a buzz of anticipation. One reason is that Antun Poljanich is known for his interpretative insight and his ability to fire up his talented young team – on its own enough to quicken pulses. But this time there was more: it is likely that this was the church organ’s biggest test; and it was also quite possible that this was the Whangarei première of Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony, popularly known – albeit somewhat misleadingly – as his ‘Organ Symphony’.

As Poljanich raised his hands, silence fell (apart from the ‘hiss’ of the rain outside), from which the whispering strings emerged, very slowly – a soft sound of tremendous breadth that, by the onset of the allegro, somehow seemed to shimmer. The first movement was strongly, almost architecturally forged – and generated a lot of heat – with a sustained lyric flow out of which towering climaxes were thrust. I should mention something I had never noticed before: in the latter stages the music occasionally hinted at that fluid, almost slithering style made familiar a few years later by César Franck’s Symphony in D minor.

Out of a hiatus measured by pizzicato basses, the organ made its first entry, its veiled depth beautifully gauged by Nicholas Forbes. Radiantly silken strings took up the second movement’s mellifluous melody, a bit more andante than is usual – not unreasonably, since its Poco adagio marking means (in effect) ‘a little on the leisurely side’ – and this nicely firmed up the music’s gorgeous curves, which was not lost on the woodwind. Throughout, the watchword was beauty; even the agitated, rapid string phrases seemed contoured to suit.

Poljanich took the third movement boldly and very quickly, perhaps losing some detail, but gaining in electrical tingle. The whole orchestra was on its toe-tips, playing was robust and precise, climaxes punched with considerable force, all building brilliantly towards the hush of the second ‘measured hiatus’ – which sounded slightly Sibelian! Anyone thus momentarily distracted qualified for the full shock of that massive eruption of organ tone.

I really cannot recall a better performance of the fourth movement. All the episodes were fully characterised – the rippling piano in the most obvious statement of the work’s motto theme (that informs so much of the music); the gigantic organ/orchestra tutti; the sparkling woodwind interplays; the stabbing strings and braying brass; the mighty motto climax! Yet, an underlying, purposive progression both eased the episodic seams and primed the explosive closing climax. But there was more. Normally, the timpani provide a ‘one-two’ rhythm accompanying the massive organ and orchestral chords. Poljanich brought the timps right to the fore. The player beat the skins with astonishing brutality, which seemed to ‘discover’ in the notes played something more than any plain ‘one-two’. I can’t be sure, but possibly this ‘something’ was from the motto? Whatever, it brilliantly capped an already superlative performance.

Paul Serotsky