Last week I had the good fortune to attend Sydney Youth Orchestra’s third and final concert of the year, entitled The Masterworks, in Sydney Town Hall. As with the last concert, it was opened by the SYO Philharmonic presenting an overture by Wagner, this time the Rienzi. This was followed by Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony.
On the face of things, the Rienzi Overture is a curious choice for a concert called The Masterworks, as it comes from an early opera that is much less thought of than Wagner’s ‘masterpieces’. However, it is an impressive piece of work and bears all the traits that, to my mind, are characteristically Wagnerian. My own knowledge of the overture is interesting to note here too. In my late teens I bought many classical CDs sold in those wire bins department stores have for discount CDs and the like, including two collections of works by Wagner, who I then held as a favourite (blame Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd). I expected to have some overlap, probably from the Ring Cycle or Tannhäuser, but no, the only piece on both albums was the Rienzi Overture. So, even if the opera itself doesn’t do as well as Wagner’s later works, the overture remains a popular one for orchestras, and in the SYO Phil’s hands it was easy to see why.
Wagner is known for his use of themes, and for being grandiose, and the Rienzi Overture, in that sense, is very Wagnerian. The thing to remember is, for the grand moments to work, they must be balanced with sufficient pathos in between, and in those moments I think Wagner produced some of his best themes and thematic presentations. Working them in performance puts an orchestra to its limits, it must rise in subliminal glory, then sink back to gentle, without losing continuity or that Wagnerian vitality. The SYO Phil traversed the thematic shifts with aplomb, leaving us entranced and awed all at the right times. I always enjoy seeing the triangle come out in the percussion section, and I’m putting its role in this overture as the best triangle moment of the SYO’s concert year. That sounds trite, the triangle being the butt of so many jokes, but that’s why I love seeing it and hearing the extra effect it gives, which comes across more clearly in live performance.
Now, I’ve mentioned my love for Dvorak before, so I won’t go on about that here. The Cello Concerto was one of the first pieces of his I really knew – besides his ninth symphony of course – and his music’s place in my heart owes a lot to this. It was another of those discount albums that introduced it to me, I found it at the back of a Woolies in Bathurst … I know, weird, but clearly meant to be. It’s a very Bohemian work, not in the coloured skirts and crocheted ponchos sense you’ll find on Pinterest, but the style of classical music from Bohemia in the late 19th century sense. Like Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Country), there is a strong evocation of the natural landscape of Bohemia; soaring mountains and dark forests, matched with fields and friendly villages abound in my listening to much ‘Bohemian’ music. There are passages in the Cello Concerto which also remind me of Dvorak’s symphonic poems which tell of dark and tragic Bohemian folk stories, with wild and malevolent beings ruining people’s lives, but in such beautiful folkloric ways.
This performance captured all of that. This was no doubt helped, not only by the skill and passion of the soloist, Umberto Clerici, but also his obvious rapport with the orchestra. Between solo passages Clerici not infrequently looked at and to members of the string section with encouraging nods and appreciative smiles. And the orchestra clearly responded, as, with Clerici, they evoked the fantastic forests and mountains within my imagination and thrilled me with the highs, and made me swoon with the slower passages.
As an encore, Umberto Clerici performed a piece by Giovanni Sollima, who I believe he said he is friends with. It was a shortened version of the piece ‘Alone’ and it was truly electric. I mean that in the way it was alive, and energetic, and liable to jump like lightning arcs in unexpected but utterly spectacular and completely natural ways. Clerici apparently recorded it for an album produced by ABC Classics, I’ll let you know more when I’ve tracked that down.
The final piece is one I can claim no prior knowledge of, which is a terrible oversight on my part. One thing it definitely is, is a great work to end The Masterworks on. Aside from one slow movement, it is all Allegro. It is energetic and full of passion – indeed the final movement is Allegro energico e passionata – and the orchestra rose to meet the demands of this thrilling score. It also features a number of solo moments that allowed members of the orchestra to shine and all who were called on to do so, did so with appropriate verve and skill. It was a fitting finale to both a great concert and a wonderful year for the SYO, I’m honoured to have witnessed the concerts.