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Strings and winds – New Zealand School of Music Lunchtime Concerts

By , 31/07/2012

New Zealand School of Music Lunchtime Concerts

NZSM String Ensemble (Martin Riseley, conductor)

MENDELSSOHN – String Symphony in C Minor

DVORAK – Serenade for Strings in E Major

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 18th July 2012

NZSM Woodwind Soloists  (Emma Sayers, piano)

Music by Vivaldi, Arnold, Creston, Sancan, Milhaud, Cockcroft

Old St.Paul’s Church

Tuesday 31st July 2012

It’s always a pleasure to attend and write about concerts of music featuring student performers. Somehow, there’s a unique dimension of expression involved, a kind of tremulousness which at different ends of the performance spectrum can either set things a-tingle with wholehearted enthusiasm or else undermine efforts with nervousness.

There are, of course, plenty of nooks and crannies in-between these extremes, into which inexperienced performers can slot themselves – it’s always a fascinating process to observe and experience, but essentially a heart-warming one, listening to youngsters pouring their feelings into sound-vistas suggested by great music and opened up by the performers’ own skills.

I’ve been to two July concerts recently at which students from the NZ School of Music were performing – one on Wednesday 18th, at St.Andrew’s Church, involving a string ensemble playing music by Mendelssohn and Dvorak, and the other on Tuesday 31st, at Old St.Paul’s Church, which featured individual wind instrumentalists making plenty of variety of sounds in music from different composers.

At St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Martin Riseley, violinist extraordinaire, and a tutor at the School of Music, directed the string ensemble. He got a terrific response from the young players right throughout the Mendelssohn work, the String Symphony in C Minor – at the outset the players’ precise attack and focused tones gave us a foretaste of the whole performance’s strength and clarity. Throughout the whole ensemble there seemed a similar full-blooded commitment to giving the music resplendent tones and clear articulation – the lower strings sang their lines and figurations with as much eloquence and finesse as their lighter-toned cousins opposite.

The lunchtime concert time-schedules wouldn’t permit the whole of the work which followed, Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, so that we had to do without the gorgeous slow movement. For the Dvorak the violin sections “swopped around”, bringing some different faces to the fore for the concert’s second part. Though a lovely work, the Serenade contains many pitfalls of articulation and rhythm, to the despair of amateur orchestras I’ve heard attempt it; and so I was interested as to how these young players would fare.

It began well, the serene opening nicely floated and counterpointed between upper and lower strings, the lines relaxed in flight and with plenty of elbow-room. The second subject I found a bit beefily-played, wanting, I thought, a lighter, more quixotic touch, so as to make a telling contrast with the crescendo, and render that top note in each phrase a bit more wide-eyed with wonderment. But the divisi ‘cellos were lovely, the players able to fill out their tones and fine them down in places most sensitively, as with the movement’s end. The following Waltz-movement was beautifully done, with violas making their presence felt in those all-important middle textures – and the music’s trio-section brought out the dynamic contests with plenty of heartfelt expression.

Dvorak’s wonderfully out-of-doors manner throughout the third movement was nicely captured, the excitement built up in the opening measures as the melody spread throughout the orchestra, and the melting romance of the music’s descending theme expressed beautifully, especially by the ‘cellos. However, I wanted a bit more emphasis given to those wonderful downwardly leaping intervals at the phrase-ends during the middle section (I think they’re fifths and sevenths) – here they were all “snapped shut” too readily for me, without being properly savoured! But then there was nice work from the violins leading back to the opening “running” section, a real sense of the music riding the crest of a wave in places, even if the string-tone was a bit dogged and scrappy here and there.

Maybe the ensemble ought to have finished with the slow movement instead of the finale, the latter being such a tricky beast to bring off. The rhythms really have to be “felt” rather than “counted” (as Ken Young would have said!) – and the lines are so cruelly exposed. There’s also a lot of near “sotto voce” work which I thought the players found it hard to make into part of a coherent line – I felt we got “going through the motions” playing rather than something with sweep, drive and purpose. Better, surely for these young musicians to have been encouraged to throw themselves into things like the ferment of that famous crescendo, and make something rough but exciting and abandoned of it, rather than produce the somewhat dogged get-the-notes-right impression that we got in places here.

However, we did get a lovely transition back into the return of the work’s very opening (a heart-warming touch from the composer!), and the energetic plunge back into the allegro vivace rounded it all off with honour satisfied. Still, it was the group’s playing of the Mendelssohn which I enjoyed, nay, really took to heart on this occasion – so very engaging and exciting to experience.

 

My second NZSM reviewing assignment was just under a fortnight later at Old St.Paul’s, where a number of wind students presented their “pieces”, the exercise being part of their course requirements, to, I might say, the audience’s pleasure and delight. This concert also brought added value with the wonderful accompaniments (some of them more out-and-out partnerships than accompaniments!) by the School of Music’s Emma Sayers, whose playing invariably adds a new dimension to whatever music she takes part in presenting.

Beginning the program (with a Vivaldi concerto, rather than the Handel the program was suggesting) was Oscar Laven, playing the bassoon. Here was the instrument relishing the role of singer and romancer as well as being a “character”. Oscar Laven’s phrasing of the lyrical episodes was of bel canto quality, to which was added a strong but flexible rhythmic sense, and plenty of virtuoso verve, as withness the rapid runs towards the end of the work. This was followed by Jeewon Um’s performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for Solo Flute, the lyrical opening enchanting and the dance-like episodes spectacularly virtuosic.

Saxophonist Sam Jones very “correctly” introduced the Paul Creston Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, wanting to emphasize for the audience the difficulty of the Sonata’s piano part, and properly acknowledge Emma Sayers’ contribution to the performance. He played brilliantly, with a stunning command of colour and technical agility, crucial in music with as much rhythmic energy as this! As absorbing to listen to was the piano part, the two musicians triumphantly realizing the piece’s tonal variety and underlying dynamism – a great listen!

An almost complete contrast was afforded by flutist Monique Vossen’s choice of Pierre Sancan’s Sonatine, the composer’s best-known work – the opening sequences impressionistic-sounding, rather in the style of Ravel, and with corresponding fairy-tale ambiences and textures. I thought the tuning between instruments wasn’t right in places, here (no tuning of the flute  was done beforehand that we could see), but though it didn’t mask the player’s artistry the pitch discrepancy was occasionally a distraction. In other respects rapport between flute and piano was exemplary, each taking rhythmic and melodic cues from one another, everything done with an enviably light touch and expressive purpose.

Another saxophonist, Reuben Chin, played an exerpt from Milhaud’s Scaramouche, a work whose popularity had resulted in all kinds of arrangements being made of the original piano duo for various instruments, not all of them by the composer. Here, the player exhibited a lovely singing tone as the music moved from dreamscape to graceful dance, the musicians relishing the expressive possibilities of lyrical saxophone and gently rhythmic piano accompaniment. Nothing could have been further from the style of Patrick Hayes’ performance for solo clarinet of Barry Cockcroft’s “Blue Tongue” (the composer simply HAD to be an Australian to write a piece with such a title!). More decomposition than anything else, the piece involved the player gradually dismantling the instrument, while trying to keep the piece going, and unifying the music with an reiterated rhythmic note. In putting it all across, Patrick Hayes demonstrated an entertainer’s gift as well as a musician’s skills in keeping the proceedings alive and buoyant throughout.

Yet another saxophonist, Katherine Macieszac, finished the concert in fine style with the third movement of the same work that Sam Jones had earlier played part of, Paul Creston’s Sonata for Alto Sax and Piano. Bustling 5/4 beginnings and an engaging garrulity swept the opening argument along between the musicians – first we heard the sax singing songs over the piano’s toccata-like drive, then listened to the instruments swap places, the saxophone rolling the rapid-fire notes into a blur agains the piano’s melodic progressions. For respite there were a few lyrical sequences before the 5/4 rhythm reawakened, and the piece drove to its energetic, breathless conclusion.

Fine, virtuosic playing from all concerned throughout the concert, communicating in almost all the items we heard, a real sense of enjoyment in the music-making.

 

 

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