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Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra, Roentgen Ng (piano), Antun Poljanich (conductor); Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 3.10.2010 (PSe)


Even before a note was played, the air in the nigh-on full auditorium was already tingling, but the moment Antun Poljanich’s baton galvanised the Auckland Youth Symphony Orchestra, sparks started flying all over the place. Hand on heart, I am not exaggerating – technically, the AYSO’s players may be still wearing their orchestral “L” plates, but in the business of bringing music to pulsating life they are already up there with the very best.

As Ira Gershwin famously put it, “Who could ask for anything more?” Who indeed? Not us, I’d venture. We were enthralled, not least by their ready responsiveness, electrifying unanimity, razor-sharp articulation and “bull’s-eye” intonation. It’s often said that he real test of an orchestra’s mettle is not how loudly it can play (anybody can make a right old racket!), but how quietly. Well, the AYSO is one orchestra that can pare its sound down to such a whisper that you have to hold your breath to hear it. Yet, still more impressive than all these “mere” technicalities was the sheer sense of utter conviction oozing from their every pore.

Nowadays, it’s all but mandatory for a concert to have a theme, and this one followed that unwritten rule to the letter, and with a bit more justification than most. Russian composers, and latterly composers of the wider Soviet bloc, are renowned for their exceptionally colourful, physically exciting music, concerts of which invariably induce paroxysms of ecstatic anticipation in habitual hedonists (like yours truly!). Hence, this concert entitled “Back to the USSR”, featuring music by Khachaturian, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, was a singularly tasty prospect.

Instead of any of Khachaturian’s own three standard concert suites, Antun opted to make his own selection from the score for the Gayane ballet, picking items that particularly emphasised the influence of those spicy Armenian folk-idioms. The apposite opener was Dance of Welcome, which was taken at a cracking pace. In the balletic context this would, in all probability, have had the choreographer tearing out his hair, but here it had the rather more desirable effect of setting a couple of hundred toe-ends twitching cheerfully.

“Backing” percussion created a magical atmosphere for the Dance of the Old Men and Carpet Weavers, in which smoky flutes and piquant oboe and trumpet solos threaded the music’s tangy clashing harmonies and exotic lilt. In the subsequent Ayesha’s Dance, the strings “leant” most seductively into the languorous melody, in which flexibility of tempo alternated with some deliciously accented cross-rhythms.

Antun drew urgent expectation from the opening crescendo of the final item, Dance of the Elders, maximising the contrast with the bone-weariness of the emergent main theme – I could almost hear aged limbs creaking (and they weren’t mine, since I hadn’t yet been sitting still for too long!). Lubricated by stylish woodwind, Armenian drum and strings, this flowed magnificently to its climax.

Antun had demanded, and the players had dug out, every idiomatic nuance of the exotic rhythms, erotically coiling melodies and “lemon-drop” dissonances. Almost apologetically (“It is not yet fully prepared”), he offered an unadvertised bonus – and the AYSO brought the house down with a rip-roaring rendition of the boisterous, whirling Lezghinka. I had to wonder what it will do to the house when it is fully prepared!

I couldn’t help but notice that the percussion balance had been a bit hit-and-miss. This will not have been entirely their fault. Removing some half-dozen or more heavy wing curtains and drawing aside the drapes at the rear of the deep stage had improved things (compared with last year’s concert), but this amounted not so much to “better” as to “less bad”. So next time, I hope they’ll tweak their balance to compensate more effectively.

The piano, which featured in all three works, took centre-stage for the 20-year-old Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, which was written (six years too soon to qualify as a Soviet work!) to show off his prodigious talents to his “elders and betters”. The similarly youthful Roentgen Ng knew exactly how to tackle it – fearless of the knotty challenges, he reacted to the brass’s ripe invitation with reckless abandon.

In his wake he left a smattering of fluffed notes, the detritus of his overriding determination to get right to the heart of the music. This was a smart decision. Nowadays, we get too hung up on note-perfection – Prokofiev’s concerto is a work of wilful exuberance, and to play it with anything less than that would be a gross dereliction of duty.

Roentgen, to my mind, made but one slight slip. Following the dewy-eyed, but not unduly languorous romantic interlude, he set off at such a hair-raising lick that he had no elbow room to elicit the “drunkard’s walk” feeling inherent in the notes. Otherwise, his judgement was faultless, reaping rich rewards as he impishly involved a far-from-reluctant orchestra in his multifarious, mischievous pranks.

Following a first half filled with fun and frolics, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is altogether a different proposition – over 40 minutes’ worth of concentrated, profound and involving music. Antun, wise to every twist and turn of the plot, was a sure-handed guide through the work’s structural and dramatic complexities. The AYSO responded with peerless playing that, by virtue of its intensity, actually made the work seem shorter. This was an extraordinarily potent Shostakovich Fifth, a performance to set above even last year’s Sibelius Third. It will long resonate in my memory.

The dry acoustic may have stifled some of the opening string canon’s deep bite, but it couldn’t cool either the petrified fire of their ensuing main subject, which at times almost scalded the ears with its piercingly precise intonation, or the fury of their vast, savage central climax – although, for all I know, it may actually have helped their matchless realisation of the conclusion’s remote, aetherial glistening.

The AYSO shovelled oodles of irony into the grotesquery of the Allegretto, lurching, like a “Punch and Judy” show, between comic vulgarity and surreal malice. The utter bewilderment of the poor oboe, emerging dazed from the mêlée, was at once funny and disturbing. Antun’s expressive shaping of the Largo’s great curves, allied to the spine-chilling pianissimi, subtle phrasing and shading of the AYSO’s strings and woodwind, gave eloquent voice – and a more than usually Mahlerian flavour – to Shostakovich’s song of infinite sorrow and isolation. I’ll admit, much as I admire this overall performance, I’ve occasionally heard each of the other movements done even better – but I have never, in all my born days, witnessed such a haunting Largo as this one.

The undemonstrative Antun left no stop left unpulled in the finale’s frenzied tumult: brass blaring, tubs thumping and violins screaming streams of searing repeated notes, a cumulative tidal surge of sound, apparently unstoppable – until it hit that dreadful central buffer. The end was doubly triumphant. The leaden pounding of drums, relentlessly stamping the main theme’s aspirational motive down into the dirt, signalled the triumph of Evil over Good. But, in the torrential applause that followed, we acknowledged the triumph of the alliance of youth and wisdom.

Am I exaggerating? Well, look at it this way: If this performance had been recorded, I, a traditionally tight-fisted Yorkshireman, would pay good money for a copy, and be happy to give in part exchange all my other recordings of this symphony.

Paul Serotsky


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