Whangarei Concert Review – October 2023

Seen and Heard International

In the run-up to its 75th anniversary, Auckland Youth Orchestra courts controversy in Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Mendelssohn, Guilmant, Beethoven: Morag Atchison (soprano), Catrin Johnsson (mezzo-soprano), Jack Bourke (tenor), James Harrison (bass), Nicholas Forbes (organ), Auckland Youth Choir, Auckland Youth Orchestra / Antun Poljanich, David Squire (conductors). Anglican Church, Whangarei, 14.10.2023. (PSe)

Mendelssohn – Verleih uns Frieden, WoO 5 (1831)
Alexandre Guilmant – Symphony No.1 in D minor for Organ and Orchestra, Op.42 (1874)
Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 ‘Choral’ (1824)

Later this October the Auckland Youth Orchestra would celebrate its 75th anniversary. Thus far, the AYO’s ‘orchestral finishing school’ has benefitted some 3,000 talented young players. That adds up to around forty complete orchestras’ worth or, looking at it another way, an average annual turnover of 40 musicians. Whilst that, not unreasonably, tends to suggest an ensemble perpetually in the making, in my 14 years’ experience of the AYO I have always found the exact opposite (see my numerous Seen and Heard  reviews). Surely, this is testament to the dedication, enthusiasm and sheer hard work of all those youngsters – with, for over 25 years, the remarkably capable guidance of music director and orchestral coach Antun Poljanich.

By arranging their season’s final inland tour to conclude on the Festive Friday, they contrived two ‘full dress rehearsals’ of their celebratory programme, this Whangarei concert being the first. The additional presence of four vocal soloists, an organist and Auckland Youth Choir (actually, about 102 of its 120 members), meant there were 180 musicians packed into Whangarei’s Anglican Church, leaving only about two-thirds of the floor space into which an audience could be packed.

The AYC, 40 years old next year, although a completely distinct organisation, apparently operates on a ‘business model’ closely similar to that of the AYO (it is a splendid formula, so why do otherwise?). To them, accompanied by a small proportion of the AYO with a touch of organ and under the baton of the choir’s music director David Squire, fell the honour of starting the proceedings, with Mendelssohn’s  Verleih uns Frieden (Grant us Thy Peace). This sublime prayer for peace, based on words by Martin Luther, is these days one we sorely need answering! Incidentally, my ears, unfamiliar with this work, detected in the orchestral introduction a distinct pre-echo of Wagner’s Rhein! The choral entry, basses only, was forthright and immaculately blended; the rest of the choir’s entry injected warmth and ‘lift’ – an unforgettably thrilling sound. Although, perhaps surprisingly, never pianissimo, dynamics were nonetheless superbly contoured, the climax powerful but wholly unforced – absolutely spell-binding.

The nineteenth-century’s vast expansion of the organ’s capabilities caused a polarisation of opinion: some declared it the ‘King of Instruments’, a veritable ‘one-man orchestra’; others sided with Berlioz who – pronouncing, ‘The organ is Pope, the orchestra Emperor’ –  saw them as complementary or, allowing the political implication, opposed. Alexandre Guilmant was of this latter camp. He wrote not ‘organ symphonies’ but ‘organ sonatas’; reserving the former title for sonatas he had arranged for organ and orchestra, like the one here performed.

Antun Poljanich and Nicholas Forbes thoroughly explored both sides of Berlioz’s ‘coin’, with such zeal that, at times, the effect was not far short of apocalyptic. The AYO and organ were either (as at the very start) slugging it out like a pair of heavyweight boxers, or (as in the first movement’s second subject, with its respectful nod towards César Franck) caressing one another as tenderly as two not-so-star-crossed lovers. Particularly beguiling was the second movement, with its lusciously liquid organ and velvety strings: here, alternations of organ and orchestra seemed to stage a sort of ‘inverted battle’ – a contest to determine who could be, not the more powerful, but the gentler. The volcanic ending of this brilliant performance fair set my head buzzing; eventually, a small voice meekly suggested that the ‘honours were even’ – on both counts!

After the much-needed interval, there remained the anything-but-small matter of Beethoven’s towering masterpiece. Unfortunately, for me at least there was a problem. I cannot say whether its source was the performers or a foible of the church’s acoustics (it has a steeply raked, ‘Swiss cottage’ style ceiling/roof, so some focussed reflections are indeed possible). From my seat, at centre and back, I could see the timpanist’s head and shoulders at the rear of ‘stage left’, whilst his arms and drums were completely hidden by intervening musicians. On the opposite side, I had an unimpeded view of both players and instruments of the ‘Turkish percussion’. From my perspective, the latter sounded quite normal, in that I could hear them with the customary difficulty (why is this? Are conductors embarrassed by them? Beethoven clearly wasn’t); but the former consistently threatened to drown out the rest of the orchestra! I strongly suspect the acoustic was the culprit, although from the tenor of the performance it is a fair bet that Poljanich did intend the timpani to be quite prominent.

Making due allowance for that, this performance was both impressive and hair-raising – and definitely food for thought, because they used the 75th anniversary as a platform to air a daring and potentially controversial view of this hallowed work. Basically, Poljanich did not apply his luxuriant forces to a richly ‘Romanticised’, reverential interpretation of the Ninth. Instead, he seemed to go back to basics – though not in the ‘HIP’ sense – taking his cues from Beethoven’s character and track-record, forging a Ninth as revolutionary as the Third or the Fifth. Thus, the first movement was less an apotheosis of a classical form with a’rumble’ in the middle, and more a protracted eruption of blazing fury. I have never before heard this first movement tackled with such pervasive, blood-curdling intensity; in spite of sacrificing the shock value of that climactic ‘rumble’, this was a veritable revelation.

It is only logical that some of the aggression should leak into the Scherzo, which was pushed beyond ‘boisterous’ to outright ‘belligerent’. The music’s almost incessant chattering, especially when so precisely articulated and sharply accented, became dangerously demonic. And this considerably widened the contrast with the subsequent Adagio. Through perspicacious use of tempi, dynamics and phrasing, the usually prayerful mood was supplanted by something like a panorama of the tender emotions, most perceptively and eloquently expressed.

All this – along with the finale’s introductory ‘scream’ (the summation of the early movements) – imposed a wonderfully dreamlike quality onto the finale’s misty reminiscences. The first hint of the ‘Ode to Joy’ was like a welcome sunrise after a stormy night; the melody, with all its counterpoints and descants, expanded generously. After an already joyous climax, the savage resurgence of the ‘scream’ was firmly rebuffed by the bass’s ‘Oh friends, not these sounds!’; the feeling of ‘clearing the way’ for better things was eminently palpable, according to the hairs of my nape, which thereafter got little or no respite!

The choral finale emerged as an accumulation of ecstasy. The only possible quibble was the Seid umschlungen, Millionen episode, which did not (as is generally the case), gradually dissolve into celestial murmurings. Instead, Poljanich kept the music’s feet on the ground, and merely looking aloft. Arguably, this was justified, as it minimised any gap in the ‘accumulation’. Otherwise, no-one put a foot wrong: the poised soloists and the lusty young choir all sang their hearts out, the almost 75-years-old AYO played its socks off, and Joy unfettered echoed to the rafters. Standing ovation? Oh, yes – about that there was no controversy!

Paul Serotsky