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Views And Reviews: Fire And Ice

...A fair guess might be that the city’s music-loving citizens would, metaphorically speaking, be fighting in lumps over the tickets.

That fair guess turned out to be a bit wide of the mark. I’ll make no bones about this – I was embarrassed. There they were, crammed cheek-by-jowl onto the stage, no fewer than seventy-six accomplished musicians – confronted by an auditorium that was not just partially populated, but lightly dusted with a measly TWO DOZEN citizens. I ask you, how could practically ALL of Whangarei’s myriad classical fans have passed up such a rare opportunity?...

Paul Serotsky deplores the lack of local support for eloquent musicianship of the Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra

“Fire and Ice”
Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra
Finn Schofield, David McGregor (clarinets)
Antun Poljanich (conductor)
Sunday 25 October 2009, 1.30 p.m., Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, New Zealand

For an inveterate classical music lover like myself, living in Northland has one really big disadvantage. You see, Northland, the bit of New Zealand lying to the north of Auckland’s tentacular sprawl, is virtually a symphony-free zone. The root of this problem is not that Northland is uncultured – far from it! – but simply that it lacks any real “concert halls”.

Like most professionals – and indeed, on account of their sheer size, MORE so than most professionals – symphony orchestras tend to steer clear of places whose venues don’t come up to scratch. So, what would you expect to happen when, against all the odds, a symphony orchestra actually IS prepared to “enjoy” what one of Whangarei’s least inadequate venues has to offer? A fair guess might be that the city’s music-loving citizens would, metaphorically speaking, be fighting in lumps over the tickets.

That fair guess turned out to be a bit wide of the mark. I’ll make no bones about this – I was embarrassed. There they were, crammed cheek-by-jowl onto the stage, no fewer than seventy-six accomplished musicians – confronted by an auditorium that was not just partially populated, but lightly dusted with a measly TWO DOZEN citizens. I ask you, how could practically ALL of Whangarei’s myriad classical fans have passed up such a rare opportunity?

I suspect it was a coincidence of several unfortunate factors. For a start, the timing – 1.30 on the Sunday afternoon of the Labour Day holiday weekend – was less than ideal. This, almost perversely, seemed to have been deliberately designed to minimise the numbers of potential attendees, losing them hand-over-fist to long-standing family commitments and the like.

Perversity came complete with an effectively-deployed backup – the abysmally inadequate advance publicity formed a second salvo, cutting a swathe through any potential punters left standing by that opening broadside. Consider how I found out about the concert. Pam and I popped into the annual Orchid Show held in Forum North. Coming out, I casually browsed a noticeboard. By some miracle, my eye glimpsed – lurking in the bottom left-hand corner and partially obscured by other notices – a small hand-bill bearing the magic word, or rather the magic letters, “orches . . .”

Other than that, I saw precious little. The events calendar of one of the local “freebie” newspapers declared, somewhat tersely, “Auckland Youth Orchestra, ‘Fire and Ice’, Forum North”. If you’d gone a-Googling, you’d have found a few further references, but no more information. At the Northern Advocate newspaper, the reporter who deals with music and arts news had received no notice in any of what she describes as her “e-mail tsunamis”.

Of course, it’s POSSIBLE that the real reason was something else entirely. For instance, it was conceivable that the city harbours some pandemic popular prejudice against “youth orchestras”. If, for the sake of argument, you imagine that audiences for local youth orchestra concerts consist mostly of doting parents, smiling through gritted teeth at the earnest but agonised scraping, blowing and banging of their musically-inclined offspring, you would equally anticipate that the audience for a VISITING youth orchestra would be zero (or thereabouts), and triumphantly declare, “Q.E.D!” However, whilst doubtless there are some who hold this decidedly misguided view [1], surely that “some” cannot extend to the population of an entire city, can it? Well, I sincerely hope not, otherwise my embarrassment would have been compounded with shame.

We generally – and rather more sensibly – think of a “youth orchestra” as a sort of “nursery” giving practical experience of orchestral playing to youngsters, including children. Going by that definition, the Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra (AYSO) isn’t really a youth orchestra at all. It caters exclusively for fully-competent instrumentalists in the 18 to 24 age-range. Thus, it’s more of a “finishing school” where young adults, hovering on the thresholds of professional careers, can hone their orchestral techniques.

Of course, if they are not yet professionals they must be classed as amateurs – which means that we can look at the AYSO in the light of the ideas I discussed in An Amateur Orchestra Discovered, Prompting Some Reflections on Amateur Orchestral Music-Making, and Tested on a Concert Review. http://www.openwriting.com/archives/2009/08/an_amateur_orch_1.php#more At first sight, you’d think that because, technically, they are as near to professional standard as makes no difference, they are operating with minimal “headroom” for the risk-taking that (I claimed) generates truly nerve-tingling performances. However, in this instance there are factors that work to expand the headroom.

Firstly, YOUTH gives them the advantage of virtually unbounded energy, enthusiasm and self-confidence (or even over-confidence). Secondly, INEXPERIENCE means that their music-making is still a source of wonder and adventure, as yet untarnished by long years of the professional’s daily grind. On both counts, they are also going to be brimming with the will to succeed, to be hell-bent on proving themselves to anyone who dares to come within earshot.

All they lack are the sorts of wisdom and understanding that only come with age. This lack, though, is not really a problem, because these qualities should be provided by a suitably sympathetic conductor, whose enviable job it is to guide them onto the paths of musical righteousness and (probably) keep them from flying off the rails in some fit of youthful zest.

So, we have something for which I hadn’t quite accounted in my earlier article – an exception to prove the rule, a situation where a high technical standard goes hand-in-hand with appreciable risk-taking headroom. For these reasons, I found the prospect of this concert infinitely more mouth-watering (or whatever is its aural equivalent) than any “mere” professional offering. Of course, there remains one all-too-obvious question – did they live up to my great expectations?

Inexperience, as a purely technical issue, surfaced only in an occasional tendency for the AYSO to slip slightly out of sync. This would be bothersome only to the particularly picky, especially if weaned on the synthetic “perfection” of modern recordings. Otherwise, on the whole the AYSO admirably demonstrated that eagerly-anticipated potent combination.

If proof were needed, which of course it is, their opening item, Glinka’s attractive and effervescent “Ruslan and Ludmilla” Overture, provided it in spades – this was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with strings incisive and unanimous, woodwind articulate and frolicsome. Unfortunately, splendidly as they played, the brass – especially the five horns – tended to struggle. They, and to a lesser degree the whole orchestra, were robbed of their inherent rich resonance by the Capitaine Bougainville Theatre’s utterly unsympathetic acoustics.

For some reason that eludes me, many a conductor regards this overture – in common with Rimsky-Korsakov’s notorious little “Flight of the Bumble-Bee” – as a bull does a red rag. They ought to know better, yet they insist on turning performances into ill-advised World speed record attempts, and thereby drowning the music’s sparkling good humour in a welter of unwarranted virtuosity. Antun Poljanich is one who knows better. He steered his mustard-keen charges along the “golden mean”, keeping the pot bubbling merrily, yet careful to let neither a gabbled nor a garbled phrase spoil the brew.

In the opening of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet”, Poljanich elicited some exquisitely nervous accenting of the phrases, pointing up the composer’s intended underlying tensions, thereby laying the customary ecclesiastical ghost that haunts what is, truth to tell, really a sombre harbinger of conflict and tragedy. Not unreasonably, I’d expected rather more in the way of unfettered fireworks in the pugnacious passages. However, the disparity between what I saw and what I heard soon persuaded me that most of the blame lay with the blotting paper that passes for the theatre’s acoustics.

Compensation came courtesy of the famous “love theme”, which the youngsters – not altogether surprisingly, considering the fantasy-overture’s subject-matter – played with uncommon affection, tenderness and, in the big reprise, bags of blood-stirring ardour.

I’d not previously come across New Zealander Bernie Allen’s Fantasia for Two Clarinets before – and neither, for that matter, had I encountered even the name of Bernie Allen. According to the programme note, Allen’s intention was to paint a picture of a meeting between Irving Fazola and his protegé Pete Fountain, who were reputedly two of the finest clarinettists in the New Orleans jazz tradition. The picture, mingling the gaudy and the gloomy aspects of the city, comes complete with a vivid enactment of a “cutting session”, in which the improvising liquorice-lickers try to upstage each other. Nodding towards both Copland and Bernstein, Allen’s piece is “symphonic jazz” worthy of comparison with anything of Gershwin’s.

The gutsy AYSO had got it right under their collective skin, whilst the competitive soloists were, quite simply, sensational. Finn Schofield moved like a jazzman, largely because that’s what he is, some of the time. Musically, however, the relatively upright David McGregor gave as good as he got, causing showers of brilliant sparks to fly in all directions. Afterwards, my companion commented, “The only thing wrong with that piece was that there wasn’t enough of it.” You know, I couldn’t agree more. Bernie Allen is one name I’m not likely to forget in a hurry.

Like Beethoven’s Eighth, Sibelius’s Third Symphony is considered by many as a lightweight work. Hmm. It’s obvious (isn’t it?) that, if you pick a group of symphonies, any group of symphonies, then one of them is bound to be lumbered with the legend, “the lightest of the bunch”. However, that comparative ranking doesn’t necessarily make it lightweight in the absolute sense. I’d say that, of Sibelius’s seven symphonies, the Third – or maybe the First? – is the lightest, but it’s by no means lightweight. Underneath the generally smiling surface, there’s much chemistry afoot – Sibelius is busily fusing the elements of “fire and ice” [2] into the molecules of his unique mature style.

This vernal masterpiece was an inspired choice, partly because it was springtime in NZ, partly because its mesmerising, motivic dancing and busy, layered ostinati were right up the alert AYSO’s street – and especially because it’s a particular favourite of mine! I could have hugged Poljanich for his eloquent interpretation, drawing from his young charges idiomatic playing that surely would have pleased the noble Finn himself.

Sibelius’s Third is one of those works that hits the ground running, so that the players have to respond like invading paratroopers. From their very first note, the strings nailed the incisive rhythm with the sort of precision generally associated with the legendary Philadelphians. Am I overstating the case? Probably, but believe me, that’s just how it seemed when the opening bars lifted both my hackles and my eyebrows. What’s more, they stayed up there for quite some time, bolstered by the generous attention given to the music’s scrumptiously expanding harmonies and textures, particularly the robustly-registered, rustic bass parts.

To be fair, it wasn’t quite wall-to-wall sweetness and light. The trumpet-capped summits of the intense crescendi that round off both exposition and reprise felt a wee bit matter-of-fact, and the surge that disgorges the reprise seemed to get its feet tangled at the crucial moment. The latter may have been just one of those things (accidents, I believe they’re called), but the former, being TWO of those things, must have been intentional, and in the context I found that bemusing. Still, to put it in perspective, I’ve heard worse from even seasoned professionals.

As befits its “con moto” marking, the second movement tiptoed daintily through the tulips (note the seasonal touch!), although, I’m happy to say, Poljanich was not inclined to let the places where clouds occluded the sun slip by unnoticed, resulting in a more-than-usually satisfying emotional balance.

However, the best was yet to come. Sibelius had saved the most remarkable of his new ideas for the finale, a movement that creates in my mind an impression of the eruption of new life out of the dead of winter. At first, the music is disjointed, now calm, now twitchy, and prone to wild outbursts. All the disparate elements gradually coalesce into an irresistible, increasingly torrential ostinato. Likewise, Poljanich had saved the most remarkable of his conducting abilities, to elicit from his young charges an overwhelming sensation of mounting momentum. Hair-raisingly projected, this electrifying answer to my “all-too-obvious question” really deserved a torrential ostinato of applause. We few, who merely sat and listened, did our level best.


[1] Personally, as one who was weaned on a mixture of far-from-perfect LPs and live concerts, I would NEVER pass up a chance to hear amateurs, especially youngsters, performing. If you go expecting to hear “perfection”, you’ll always be disappointed, whereas, with nothing more drastic than a little pre-concert expectation-tuning, you’ll instead find the magic that’s always in the air.

[2] This is not quite the same “fire and ice” as the concert’s title! The rather neat graphic design of the programme booklet cover implied, perhaps more hopefully than accurately, that “fire” was to be supplied by the Russian composers, whilst “ice” would come courtesy of Allen and Sibelius.


To read more of Paul’s invigorating words on the greatest music ever written please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/


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