University Wind Orchestra
Neil Coy (conductor)
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Although Berlioz’s Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale enjoyed huge success during the composer’s lifetime, it is very seldom encountered in concert halls these days. At least in part, this would be due to the demands of its instrumentation (which includes half a dozen trumpets, a small army of clarinets as well as a battery of percussion to keep five or six musicians very busy). So it was with more than usual interest that I listened to Berlioz’s epic played by an orchestra drawn from the student bodies of the Conservatorium of Music and the School of Music at the University of Western Australia.
In the lead-up to the most important work of the evening, we heard other music inspired by the fervour of nationalism, when revolt was in the air and more than a few heroes (and a number of scoundrels) rushed to man the barricades at various European centres.
There were three Revolutionary Marches by Smetana (originally for solo piano but here presented in orchestrations by Vaclav Nelhybel). Like a good deal of music written in a state of patriotic fervour, it’s strong on flourish but low on musical worth. (the genre exemplified at its worst in Shostakovich’s hideous and embarrassingly over-the-top Leningrad Symphony). Also on the bill was Wagner’s Trauersinfonie. Based on themes from Weber’s opera Euryanthe, it was written for a torchlight procession to the family crypt of the Webers where the composer was to be reburied in his native Germany after being exhumed from his English grave (he had died on a visit to London). Wagner delivered the grave-side eulogy.
Here, Neil Coy coaxed a most commendable response from his young charges, especially in relation to quality of tone and maintaining a sense of onward momentum at slow speed which represented a feat of fine musicianship.
Here – and throughout the evening – Coy did wonders in maintaining acceptable decibel levels in a venue notorious for its over-bright acoustic. It is all too easy in a hall such as this to lose control of this crucial factor – and it says much, then, for Coy’s handling of the score in a way that allowed the sheer drama of the writing to come across without causing irreversible damage to the audience’s eardrums.
An added frisson to the listening experience was the announcement that Bruce Thompson, the scheduled trombone soloist in the second movement of the Berlioz work, was not on the premises. In fact, he was far from the premises – he was at his more usual post at the Concert Hall until the WASO had completed its performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.
Would Robinson get to the Conservatorium Auditorium in time? Would the traffic lights be kind to him as he roared through the night on his motorcycle? In the event, the symphony got under way with only minimal delay. And, I’m happy to report that Thompson’s account of this tricky and demanding solo revealed little sense of stress as he breathed life and meaning into an instrumental line that had originally been written in a completely different context for voice (for Berlioz’s opera Les Francs-juges that he never got round to completing) and lifted holus bolus for the symphony.
It is nearly impossible to listen to this grandest of orchestral threnodies without picturing Berlioz conducting the work as orchestra, coffins of fallen patriots on the way to re-interment, soldiery and various political bigwigs marched slowly across Paris, with Berlioz walking all the way backwards. That must have been more challenging than rubbing one’s tummy at the same time as patting one’s head. Moreover, the route was so long that some of the movements were repeated no less than half a dozen times.
The Conservatorium performance, by contrast, was a much tamer affair with all the instrumentalists sedately seated. And conductor Neil Coy, despite occasional weakenings of concentration among his young players, did wonders in setting realistic tempi, maintaining a fluent sense of onward momentum and – most importantly – allowing the immense drama of the writing to register.
This fascinating program provided one of the year’s most engrossing listening experiences.