Popular and enterprising fare from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Caitlin Morris (‘cello)
Andrew Aitkins (conductor)

KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978) – Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from the Ballet “Spartacus”
DVORAK )1841-1904) – Vodnik (The Water Goblin) Op.107
TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)  – Capriccio Italien Op.45
ELGAR (1857-1934) – ‘Cello Concerto in E Minor  Op.85

St.Andrew’s 0n-The-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 24th September, 2022

This attractive assemblage of pieces which made up the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s latest concert presented a colourful, spirited and enterprising programme, combining what one might describe as a clutch of “popular” classics with one piece definitely off the beaten track.

The popular pieces have somewhat different claims to fame, the Khachaturian piece featuring as the theme music for a popular television series within living memory, “The Onedin Line”, the music’s soaring, swooping theme tune evoking sailing ships and their transcontinental voyages – in the composer’s original ballet, set in Roman times, this same music depicted the love between Spartacus and his wife Phrygia, a pair of Thracian slaves captured by Roman forces.

Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, sketched out during its composer’s stay in Rome during 1880, uses a combination of music he heard in the streets and various folk songs. After completing his sketches he confidently remarked in a letter to a friend that “a good fortune may be predicted” for the piece, an assertion which has, over the years triumphantly proved correct, which opinion wasn’t always his feeling about many a far greater work he’d written and over which he often had serious doubts.

Finally on the concert’s “well-known front” came the Elgar ‘Cello Concerto, a piece whose popularity has been hard-won over earlier years, right from its first performances both in Britain in 1919 and the USA in 1922. The premiere of the work was practically sabotaged by the conductor’s neglect of the piece in rehearsal, to the point where a contemporary critic wrote in a review of the performance  “Never has so great an orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra!) made so lamentable an exhibition of itself!”. To make matters worse, after the American premiere two years later a critic wrote “It is a long work (!) and it ambles on and on, utterly without distinction, utterly without inspiration”…..

It really wasn’t until ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pre took up the work firstly at the BBC Proms with Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1963, and then via a classic recording with Sir John Barbirolli in 1965 (which became, in the lingo of the times, a “best-seller”), that the work began to convey its true quality and status in more widespread terms, which of course continues today with a new generation of ‘cellists.

The “odd one out” in this concert was definitely the Dvorak tone-poem Vodnik (The Water Goblin), one of several tone-poems completed by the composer AFTER he had written his Ninth and most famous symphony, the “New World”. Unlike with the symphonies, which he’d composed along the lines of the classical masters, Dvorak turned to the example of Franz Liszt who had first developed this new form of composition, and was from the beginning harshly criticised by conservative musicians and critics who, despite Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, disapproved of “programme” music.  Dvorak obviously wanted to explore and celebrate a native Czech spirit more freely with these works, which still today lag far behind his symphonies and overtures in popularity, though they are now receiving more notice, as in this present concert with “Vodnik” (The Water Goblin), the earliest of the composer’s ventures into this new territory.

Flanking the Dvorak in the first half were, firstly, the Khachaturian Adagio, and then Tchaikovsky’s rumbustious Italian picture-postcards, each a perfect foil for what followed. The Khachaturian was gloriously played here, the opening dominated by a splendidly-phrased oboe solo from Rod Ford, thereafter handing the theme over to the strings for further lyrical expansion, conductor Andrew Atkins getting his players to vary their phrasings and intensities most beguilingly. Sterner brass and intensely-wrought wind solos took the music through irruptions of excitement and expectation before the entire orchestra gave the music unashamed Hollywood treatment, building to a most impressive climax that was thrilling in its cumulative impact. And how gracefully did the winds, the horns and the harp bring about the piece’s dying fall, with Paula Carryer’s solo violin having the last eloquent word – most satisfyingly done.

At the half’s other end was the ceremonial splendour and contrasting rumbustiousness of a piece once popular but seldom played in concert these days – Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, a work I first encountered on 78rpm acetate discs (a precious memory) and which I still love to bits! Those brass calls at the start had here a proper spine-tingling effect, to which the different timbres of horns and heavy brasses added thrilling weight, though a couple of the accompanying “ra-ta-ta-plan” figures accompanying the strings’ sombre, but expressively shaped melody were too eagerly raced by the players. I thought the oboe-led winds took the music back most excitingly to the reiteration of the opening brass calls, if rather more tentative this time round. Some more “ra-ta-ta-plans” then led to a melody that’s one of the world’s charmers, played winningly by the winds, then the strings, and building up to a most satisfying irruption of festive sounds.  Away from this sprang the next section, lively, if none too tidily at first but with the performance recovering its poise sufficiently to make a scintillating impression with the concluding tarantella, everything breathlessly exciting!

In between these pieces was the Dvorak tone-poem, its relatively unfamiliar strains most strikingly and impressively brought into being at the outset, with the orchestral winds’ mischievous, spiky rhythms gradually becoming more macabre and frenzied as the eponymous Water Goblin danced along the lakeside in anticipation of capturing a human girl for a bride. Throughout, Atkins and his players vividly and tellingly contrasted Dvorak’s colourful depictions of the story’s grotesqueries with the simple natural beauty of the countryside and of the young girl, whose piteous abduction by the Goblin here occasioned particularly affecting playing from strings (violas) and winds as she lamented her fate. I thought conductor and players did terrific work making sense of Dvorak’s sometimes in places obsessive detailings, particularly throughout the sequences representing the girl’s captivity, the birth of her child, her pleading with her Goblin-husband to be allowed to visit her mother again (he will not let her take the child) and their reunitement. The final scene in which the spirit-husband impatiently comes to fetch his wife home again is fraught with all the tension, cruelty and ultimate horror characteristic of these Czech stories, which the composer knew as verse ballades written by the nationalistic poet Karel Jaromir Ereben. Atkins and his players again gave their all, demonstrating astonishing  commitment to making the composer’s somewhat unwieldy structure work its full dramatic and colourful effect!

After the interval came, for me, the concert’s second piece de resistance, a performance by Caitlin Morris of the much-loved Elgar ‘Cello Concerto. Being of the generation which had listened open-mouthed to Jacqueline du Pre’s “revival” of the work in the 1960s, and thus still having her interpretation well-nigh “imprinted” on my consciousness, I was delighted to witness a younger player’s performance that seemed to take what she needed from du Pre’s intensely poetic vision of the work but bring to it very much her own brand of intensity and poetry, and a technique capable of realising those goals with real verve and brilliance. Right from the opening recitative,  Morris commanded our attention, making the music very much her own and “drawing in” her fellow-players and listeners alike to a world opened up by the music’s unashamedly heart-on-sleeve outpourings.

Atkins and his players seemed at one with her throughout, matching her expressiveness at all points, with only a couple of orchestral interjections in the finale that seemed to me too wilfully brusque, and which caught the players off balance – elsewhere, all flowed as one, the effect being of hearing the music speak as poetry might be delivered by a great actor. What particularly caught my ear in the opening movement was the music’s Elgarian “stride”, that purposeful gait which evokes the composer walking over his beloved Malvern Hills, and which seems to characterise so much of his “Elgar the countryman” personality, with its dogged determination to succeed against all odds. By the time of the ‘Cello Concerto he HAD of course “succeeded” as a composer and a national figure, and the music of the rest of the work takes us beyond such successes and into expressive realms which suggest the sadness of things beyond recall in a rapidly-changing world.

A nimble-fingered account of the playful scherzo featured great teamwork between soloist, conductor and the orchestral winds, Morris’s diaphanously-voiced ascents during the exchanges a delight, as was the “wind-blown” aspect of the accompaniments – though the double-stopped passages weren’t always perfect, there was generated a proper sense of carefree abandonment in the music’s voicings and phrasings that for me captured its spirit.

Perhaps the highlight of the performance was the slow movement, my notes containing repeated references to the playing of soloist and orchestra “as one”, with tones and phrasings literally playing into each others’ hands, time almost seeming to stand still – the finale’s opening is, of course, intended to “break the spell”, though I thought the interjection here overly brusque – significantly, the  concerted passages of the rest of the movement didn’t attempt to match the opening’s vehemence, yet were still forceful enough.

In fact the quixotic mood was well caught, especially the “things that go bump in the night” sequence with its sforzandi-like irruptions; and, together with the soloist, the massed ‘cellos rose splendidly to the occasion with their “all together” recitative. And the final section, where the music has always seemed to me to unashamedly weep, was here given full emotional rein, with its lump-in-the-throat return to the slow movement’s theme. How dramatic, always, is the ‘cello’s return to the opening recitative, as was the case, here – though, right at the work’s conclusion, while I can appreciate how the composer wanted a brusque, “well, let’s get on!” kind of ending, it seemed to me on this occasion over-projected, and ill-timed, out of kilter with the performance’s overall character.

Composure was somewhat restored with Morris and Atkins (the latter on the piano) giving us a “return-to-our-lives” performance of Saint-Saens’ ubiquitous “The Swan” which rounded off the concert in a suitably thoughtful way. Very great credit to these WCO musicians on a number of counts, not least in the enterprise of the programming, and the enthusiasm and commitment with which they undertook the task of making it all work so well.

 

 

Music to celebrate an anniversary of international friendship

Chinese Arts and Entertainment Group presents
East / West: A Symphonic Celebration

XILIN WANG The Torch from ‘Symphonic Poem from Yunnan’
DOUGLAS LIBURN Drysdale Overture
YUANKAI BAO Chinese Sights and Sounds
Happy Sunrise
Green Willow
Lan Huahua
Song of Riddles
Dialogue on Flowers
TIAN ZHOU – Gift (Commissioned work of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra)
TRADITIONAL Pokarekara Ana|
SHIGUANG WANG The song of the Yangtze River
PIANO CONCERTO ‘Yellow River’

Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Brent Stewart
Soloists: Jian Liu, piano
Joanna Foot, soprano
Bo Jiang, tenor

Wellington Opera House

Tuesday, 20th September 2022

This concert, presented by the Chinese Arts & Entertainment Group, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and New Zealand. What a lovely way of celebrating this anniversary, with a full symphony orchestra, distinguished soloists and appealing music, Chinese and New Zealand.

Xilin Wang is one of the most remarkable older Chinese composers. The Torch Festival conjures up images of the traditional Yunnan province festival. Energetic wild  rhythmic celebratory passages are interspersed gentle melodious sections.

This Chinese landmark composition was followed by a work of New Zealand’s senior composer, Douglas Lilburn. Drysdale Overture was his first major composition. He wrote it while he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. It is a tribute to his father and the farm on which he grew up. It sounds a little like the music of his teacher, Vaughan Williams, but there are also echoes of Copland.

Pokarekare Ana is a popular traditional New Zealand love song probably originating during World War 1. It has been widely recorded, notably by Kiri Te Kanawa, with orchestral accompaniment, but it is also moving with only a simple guitar accompaniment. On this occasion, it was sung by the well known New Zealand operatic soprano, Joanna Foote. Lovely voice, impressive stage presence.

To balance the New Zealand item the next item was the popular Chinese song, The Song of the Yangtze by Shinguang Wang, President of the Chinese Opera. It was sung as a duet by Joanna Foote and the tenor, Bo Jiang, both well known opera singer.  Bo Jiang enhanced the performance not only with his fine light tenor voice, but also with his engaging smile and his dramatic gestures. The song was clearly very meaningful to the young Chinese woman sitting next to me, her eyes lit up, this was something she was very familiar with.

The Yellow River Concerto is a piano concerto arranged by a collaboration between Chinese composers, including Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua, and based on the Yellow River Cantata by composer, Xian Xinghai. This was done by order of Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao. It has been popular around the world ever since. It is rousing music with vigorous dramatic virtuoso passages alternating with simple folk song like interludes. It was played with brilliance by Jian Liu, Head of Piano Studies and Director of Classical Performance at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University.

As an encore Joanna Foote and Bo Jiang sang the popular Chinese song, No Sleep Tonight, much liked by the Chinese members of the audience.

This was an interesting concert of  music, largely unknown to a local audience, but it was more than that. It was a gesture of friendship, a statement that music is international with no barriers.

Heartland of the Romantic Piano Repertoire – Michael Endres at Waikanae

Michael Endres (piano)

SCHUBERT Drei Klavierstück, D 946

LISZT Rhapsodie Espagnole, S 254

SCHUMANN Kreisleriana, Opus 16

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 18th  September 2022

A solo piano recital featuring the heartland of the romantic piano repertoire, Schubert, Liszt, Schumann, is very rare indeed in Wellington. International luminaries flit in occasionally, play a concerto with an orchestra and flit our again, and the solid works that were once the rock foundation of piano recitals are just no longer heard. We must therefore be grateful to the organizers of the Waikanae Music Society for engaging Michael Endres for this recital. We in Wellington have not had the opportunity to hear him recently, though, going through the reviews on Middle C, I see that he has played in Waikanae a number of times over the years. Part of the problem is, of course, that we don’t have a suitable hall in Wellington at present, nor a piano that can compare with Waikanae’s magnificent Fazioli.

Michael Endres has world-wide reputation, has made a number of recordings, and a range of his concerts and recordings can be accessed on YouTube, and he has made the very sensible decision to move to Christchurch.

He started this recital with Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Pieces). Schubert wrote this in the last year of his all too short life, a year in which he wrote some of his greatest works including some of his monumental sonatas. This, however is a work on a much more modest scale. It is like a set of three Impromptus, and it is the more personal, moving for that. Endres brought out its understated lyrical charm and its sometimes innocent child-like quality. He brought out the contrasts, the drama and the gentle melodies. His sensitive playing did justice to the music, that flowed like songs, much like Schubert’s accompaniments to his songs, and underlying it all was a touch of nostalgia, very much part of this music.

Schubert was followed by Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole. This was a striking contrast to the self-effacing modest mood of the Schubert work. Liszt’s piece is based on two Spanish dances that he had heard during the time he had spent in Spain and Portugal in 1845, La Folia de Espagnol and Jota, It is a dazzling bravura work. Endres did justice to the virtuosity of the piece. He exercised great control, while bringing out the elements of sheer fun. He let the music breath, playing it with natural fluency, straight from the heart.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Schumann, the central figure of romantic music. It started with Kreisleriana, Opus 16, It is a series of eight contrasting fantasy-like pieces in which Schumann attempted to encapsulate the constant swings of moods of Kappellmeister Kreisler, a character in E. T. A. Hoffman’s novel, something that must have been close to Schumann’s heart. He wrote these pieces in the course of just four days in 1838. Hoffman’s Kreisler was an eccentric musician at odds with the world around him, half crazed and intensely passionate. This might have meant something very personal for him with his own issues of mental balance. In the eight short pieces you hear the full gamut of moods and passions, but you also hear the power and musical resources of the piano. It is one of Schumann’s most popular piano pieces, and one is unlikely to ever hear a better performance of it then Endre’s, with its subtlety and sensitivity to the range of moods.

The concert ended with transcriptions of two of Schumann’s songs,  firstly Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower), transcribed by Clara Schumann, and,Frülingnacht (Spring Night),  transcribed by Liszt. 

For an encore Endres played a charming little piece Pensée Fugitive by Smetana.  It was a most satisfying and enjoyable concert. Come back again Michael Endres!

Towards a new Romantic language

Orchestra Wellington: Leviathan

Wagner Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1
Psathas Leviathan Concerto for percussion
Schumann Symphony No 2

Alexej Gerassimez (percussion)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday. 17th September, 2022

The whole concert took the title ‘Leviathan’, which was, frankly, misleading. Much more than half the concert came from the soundworld of nineteenth-century German romanticism. But still, ‘Leviathan’ was a better marketing pitch. And the concert was traditional in format: an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. But this being Marc Taddei’s programming, the effect was anything but traditional.

This concert, like all Orchestra Wellington concerts, began with an introduction to the works by conductor Marc Taddei. The OW audience obviously enjoys these little chats.  The opening words concerned the 2023 season. It was, Taddei informed us with a dramatic flourish, to be called ‘Inner Visions’ (like the Van Morrison song?) and summed up by this quote from the painter Kandinsky: ‘That is beautiful which is produced by the inner vision, which springs from the soul.’ He went on to flatter the audience: ‘You complete this process of music-making. You are the interpreter of what you hear. We try to manifest the composers’ ideas, but you make it come alive.’

Onward to this evening’s concert. Music, Taddei helpfully explained, has two strands. One, which had its roots in the Enlightenment, saw music as Apollonian, idealized. But the other, since medieval times, gave rise to romanticism. And tonight’s concert was in the romantic tradition. ‘It consists of three unassailable masterpieces … with a work by our very own genius, John Psathas.’

The ‘overture’ consisted of the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, a most un-overture-like piece of music. When Wagner told his friends, including Schumann, that he planned to write an opera based on the Arthurian legend of one of the Grail knights, Schumann announced he had been thinking of writing an opera on the same theme. (For Arthurians, Lohengrin is the son of Parzifal in the medieval poem Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach.) Naturally Wagner got there first. The introduction begins with the faintest shimmering of the high strings and gently builds, entry by entry, to a big portentous crescendo that culminates in an orgasmic crash on the clash cymbals, and a decrescendo back down to shimmering lyricism. The playing was beautiful, whether it was the strings’ endless delicacy or the tender solos from the winds (a gorgeous cor anglais solo, for instance, from Louise Cox). The work was written in 1848, but already it is possible to hear elements of Wagner’s mature leitmotif style.

John Psathas’s monumental percussion concerto was commissioned by the Tonhalle Dusseldorf and the soloist, a young German percussion virtuoso called Alexej Gerassimez. The artist’s appearance was supported by the German Embassy.  The work is in four movements, and requires two large batteries de percussion, one at the back of the orchestra and the other at the front of the stage, as well as 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a tuba.

Alexej Gerassimez is a tall, lithe young man, very light on his feet – because at times he was required to run from one side of the stage to the other – and at one point two extra percussionists came downstage to play instruments on the left while he dealt with several simultaneously on the right-hand side.

The writing is characterized by Psathas’s fast, exciting rhythms and his cumulative, layered climaxes. Sometimes the orchestral writing was rather static, with all the momentum provided by the percussion instruments. The second movement referred to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, with Psathas bringing the ‘background melody’, played ‘with love and compassion and warmth’ by the cellos and basses, into the foreground.

The enormous third movement was titled ‘Soon We’ll All Walk on Water’ and featured an amplified plastic bottle, played by scratching, shaking, and beating. The movement culminates with Gerassimez playing a bowl of water with his hands, and finally using a colander to pour water back into the bowl. Then followed another bottle solo with the strings playing mournful grey chords in the manner of Goretsky’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs against the quite jolly bottle rhythm.

Likewise a Wagnerian passage on wind and brass formed a wash of colour behind a solo on what sounded like small stones being struck. Another crescendo is followed by a quiet, thoughtful clarinet solo (Nick Walshe).

The last movement, ‘A Falcon, a Storm, or a Great Song?’ (quoting Rilke) contained some of the loveliest marimba playing I have ever heard, along with steel drums, what sounded like a slit drum, woodblocks, a whip, tubular bells, bass drum, and timpani, all building to a final crescendo complete with snarling trumpets and a final single triangle note.

Leviathan is a most interesting work. It must have been challenging to bring off. Leaving the soloist to one side, there was still a vast amount of percussion being played by Jeremy Fitzsimons, Brent Stewart, Naoto Segawa, and Yoshiko Tsuruta, with Sam Rich on timpani, and a gazillion notes for the big brass section. The tempo changes must have been challenging. And that’s before the soloist is added, bringing a world of complexity and fast changes.

The audience loved it. There was rapturous applause, with Gerassimez shaking the hand of Concertmaster Amalia Hall and conductor, the composer arriving on stage to hug everyone, and several curtain calls.

After the interval, the symphony. Marc Taddei embarked on an introduction to the work that lasted about 20 minutes. Schumann’s Second Symphony was in fact the third one he wrote. It is ‘personal and deeply felt,’ said Taddei: ‘It is the most personal symphony written in the nineteenth century or indeed in any century.’ I’m not quite sure what this means, or whether it is even true, though I became quite distracted trying to think of candidates for more personal works. (Shostakovich, certainly. Tchaikovsky, definitely. Mahler!!)

Taddei rehearsed the sad facts of Schumann’s mental ill health before telling us about Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Bach and the great Bach revival that Schumann and Mendelssohn embarked upon around this time. The second symphony, it turned out, was flavoured with Bach whilst containing many references to Schumann’s friends and his beloved wife Clara.

And then the musical examples – every movement was analysed, with the key themes played and musical references unravelled and displayed. It was interesting, and I am certain the audience thought it marvellous, but most of it is so intrinsically part of Schumann’s musical language that in the event it is mostly subliminal.

Finally, the symphony itself. Taddei was right. This is a masterpiece and it deserves to be performed often. If you are thinking of programming a Schubert symphony over the next year, please programme this instead. It was mostly very well played, though without the meticulous attention to detail and clarity that Gemma New would have provided. Taddei conducted without a score, and at one point in the second movement he stopped conducting altogether and turned to grin at the audience. Another favourite trick; the audience grinned back.

Although the Scherzo is fun, and the Allegro vivace creates a big pile-up of overlapping themes with ‘B-A-C-H’ ringing out at the end, the Adagio espressivo that follows is a glorious thing. It takes its theme from Bach’s Musical Offering ‘and turns it into a romantic song without words’. There were beautiful solos by Merran Cook (oboe) and Jamie Dodd (bassoon) and a horn duet (Shadley van Wyk and David Codd). The fourth movement is a bouncing delight, fast end energetic.

It was notable that there was applause after every movement – a spontaneous response to beautiful music. I would love to hear the work again. Indeed, if the concert had started and ended with it, omitting the Wagner, I would have been happy. But Taddei’s point was about the invention of the musical language of romanticism. Schumann wrote the symphony only two years before Lohengrin. And Psathas quoted liberally from that language whilst putting it to wholly novel purposes.

All in all, a very satisfying and absorbing concert. I am intrigued to see what Inner Visions Orchestra Wellington may bring us in 2023.

An evocative blend of liturgy, history, and magisterial polyphony

PALESTRINA –  Missa Papae Marcelli 

The Tudor Consort,
director, Michael Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

3rd September 2022

For readers without a keen interest in Renaissance polyphony performance practice, let me say upfront that the Tudor Consort gave a luminous, beautifully tuned, highly polished and uplifting performance of Palestrina’s most famous mass setting, one which could easily hold its own against the many existing recordings of the piece by eminent choral ensembles. Arguably, the first challenge of performing such a well-beloved masterpiece is simply to live up to people’s memories of it; not to place unwanted obstacles on the well-worn path the audience has looked forward to treading. This, however, gives rise to a second challenge: how to make the experience of listening new, interesting, and worth showing up for on a chilly Wellington evening?  The Tudor Consort (henceforth TC) is more than capable of meeting the first challenge, and one could easily imagine the live recording of this performance taking up a place in RNZ Concert’s regular rotation. I could end this review here were it not for the much more interesting question of how Michael Stewart and his singers addressed themselves to the second challenge.

Per the concert programme, the Missa Papae Marcelli (henceforth MPM) was presented “in the form of a Mass reconstruction for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This practice of liturgical reconstruction, established by TC’s founding director Simon Ravens, might seem a straightforward idea enough, but in fact it raises more questions than it answers: which liturgy is to be reconstructed? How strictly? On the basis of what information? And to what artistic end?  

In the given case, one might have expected to hear a Catholic Mass as Palestrina himself would have experienced it – a literal reconstruction of the historical context from which the MPM arose.  What we got, however, was something more creative and nuanced. Michael Stewart’s programming is always thoughtful and intelligent, and here he made strategic departures from both liturgical and historical fidelity for the sake of musical interest. These included (1) the selection of Gregorian chants, (2) the inclusion of polyphonic settings of some of the chants, and (3) the voicing of the Gospel reading. Essentially, the programme presented the music of the Tridentine Mass as it might have been heard in the century before Vatican II (i.e., well after Palestrina) with a few additional flourishes that, while extra-liturgical, made sound artistic sense.  

First, the selection of chants. The liturgical chants that comprise the fabric of the Mass fall into two categories, ordinary (performed at every Mass) and proper (specific to the date in the liturgical calendar). Mass settings like Palestrina’s provide polyphonic versions of the ordinary chants (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), leaving space for the propers (Introit, Gradual, etc.) to be filled in as appropriate; for this Mass reconstruction, Stewart selected the chants proper to the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on 8 September.  Gregorian chant itself underwent a significant “reconstruction” process in the nineteenth century, led by the monks of Solemnes Abbey in France, whose editions provide the basis of most contemporary chant performance, including this one (though many conductors, including Stewart, disregard the Solemnes rhythm markings, which are controversial). While the Solemnes editions purport to restore the chants to their “original” forms, this is precisely why they don’t reflect what Palestrina himself would have heard – since he lived in the very midst of the ongoing process of revision (“corruption”!) that the Solemnes monks would later seek to reverse.

The legend that Palestrina “saved” church polyphony from a death sentence at the Council of Trent by writing the MPM – in which the wordiest texts, those of the Gloria and Credo, are pronounced simultaneously by (almost) all the singers, making the words easy to hear – makes the juxtaposition of the Mass with the “restored” 19th-century chants particularly piquant. While the Palestrina-as-saviour story is considered apocryphal, the textual transparency of the MPM is undeniably striking, and probably does reflect the composer’s awareness of contemporary concerns about the intelligibility of liturgical texts – concerns that would also have influenced ongoing revisions to the plainchant sections of the mass. The refurbished Solemnes chants, however, are often quite complex and ornate, making few concessions to intelligibility! This complexity was underscored by the slow, careful chanting of TC’s tenors and basses during the Introit, as the choir processed to the front of the church; though monodic, the chant is not so simple that walking and singing at the same time comes easily. They got palpably livelier once they had arrived in place and had a conductor in front of them.

In a second departure from strict authenticity, Stewart followed the plainchant Introit, “Salve, Sancta Parens,” with a polyphonic setting of the same text by Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), who (as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s in Venice 1527-62) was a dominant figure in the musical landscape of Palestrina’s youth. Willaert’s motet is scored for six voices: two free-composed and the others paired off in canons, one of which paraphrases the plainchant melody. This produces the effect of a self-propelling machine in perpetual motion, as each new phrase interrupts the echo of the preceding one and sets off its own echo, which is in turn interrupted.  Although the plainchant melody – which we had just heard – serves as a cantus firmus, it is virtually indistinguishable in the complex interplay of voices, even in TC’s crisp and disciplined performance. Their ensemble singing here was spectacular; I particularly enjoyed their smooth braking at the end of the piece, with Stewart’s conducting imposing an orderly ritardando and clearly laying out the resolution of each line into the final cadence. 


By the time we got to Palestrina, then, the audience had already heard two ways in which a liturgical text could be both beautified and, to some extent, obscured by a musical setting. The comparative transparency of the MPM settings – the Kyrie and Gloria are sung back-to-back – was immediately palpable, underscored by TC’s crisp singing, clear entrances, and (in the Kyrie at least) perfectly simultaneous consonants.  These were followed by a brief Collect, then the Gradual and Alleluia chants, both gloriously melismatic, followed by the Gospel reading, also chanted in Latin (I should mention that the performance was accompanied by slides which gave the Latin text and English translation of each piece of liturgy, an excellent idea, much better than forcing people to squint at program notes, and only slightly marred by typos in the Latin).  Here we met Stewart’s third piece of artistic licence, which was to split up the Gospel reading among many (all?) of the male voices, rather than having one singer impersonate the priest.  This innovation was inspired by the form of the text, which for this Feast Day happens to be the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – the genealogy of Jesus stretching all the way back to Abraham, a long, long series of “begat”s. Scattering these among a series of soloists, entering as it were on each other’s heels, both added textural interest and sped things up.  By breaking up the monotony of the text, it paradoxically underlined it, adding a new dimension of meaning to the text by calling our attention to the sheer number of generations that had to survive, and meetings (each a small miracle in its way) that had to occur, to get from Abraham to Jesus via King David.  As a scholar of literature, I appreciated this – but nonetheless welcomed the relief of Palestrina’s exuberant Credo setting, performed with a beautifully blended tone and perfect diction to round off the first half of the concert.


The Credo marks the end of the Mass of the Catechumens, which is followed in the Tridentine rite by the Mass of the Faithful, so this was a liturgically as well as musically appropriate place to break for a short interval before recommencing with the Offertory, this time chanted by the treble voices. The Offertory text, “Beata Es, Virgo Maria,” would return at the end of the concert in Palestrina’s glorious 8-part setting, another inspired moment of liturgical deconstruction. First, however, we had to get through the central drama of the Mass, the liturgy of the Eucharist.  The choir gave beautiful renderings of Palestrina’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements, with legato lines so sinuous they could plausibly pass for angelic. If I had a wish here, I’d have liked to hear the sopranos open up more – I’m a fan of the adult soprano sound in early music, a huge improvement over the children favoured by some – and similarly in the Merulo motet that duplicated the Communion chant, “Beata viscera,” later on (bookending the duplication of the Introit at the start of the programme).  Merulo, eight years younger than Palestrina, provided an interesting contrast to their older contemporary Willaert, and to Palestrina himself, but I can’t say this piece made a huge impression on me; in contrast, the choir absolutely lit up when they returned to Palestrina with the closing “Beata Es” motet. Whether this reflects my taste, or theirs, or the solemnity of the Roman liturgy, or simply the mastery of Palestrina as compared to everyone else, who can say, but the choir felt like a different instrument performing Palestrina than they did in the rest of the programme; here, they genuinely soared.  

Congratulations to the Tudor Consort on this moving and evocative concert, a compelling tribute to Palestrina as well as an intellectually and artistically coherent performance.

 

Colour and excitement aplenty – Monique Lapins and Jian Liu play Bartók for Rattle

Rattle Records presents:
BARTÓK – Violin Sonata No. 1 Sz 75
Violin Sonata No. 2 Sz 76
Rumanian Folk-Dances Sz 56 (arr. for Violin and Piano by Zoltan Székely)
Sonatina for Piano Sz 55 (arr. For Violin and Piano by Andre Gertler)

Monique Lapins (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)
Producer: Kenneth Young
Recorded: Graham Kennedy
Mastering: Steve Garden
Cover and Booklet Art: Night Music II by  Ernestine Tahedl

RATTLE RAT-D130 2022

Both violinist Monique Lapins and pianist Jian Liu are well-known to me via various recent live concert experiences, though I’ve yet to see them perform together (my Middle C colleague Steven Sedley reviewed a St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert at which the pair performed Béla Bartók’s First Violin Sonata – https://middle-c.org/2021/05/monique-lapins-and-jian-liu-give-consummate-performances-of-bartok-and-debussy-at-st-andrews-of/). Rattle’s new CD devoted to Bartók’s works for violin and piano certainly whets the appetite for more from the pair! Backed by stunning visual presentation (the fantastical Bartók-inspired work of Austrian-born Canadian domiciled artist Ernestine Tahedl adorns the front cover and the booklet pages), everything about the production is so  attractively wrought and sonorously captured one can’t help but be drawn willingly into the music’s colour and excitement.

Bartók’s extensive researches in to and collecting of Hungarian folksongs strongly permeate both of the major works on this recording,  given that, at the time of their writing (1921-22) he was also expressing  interest in the Second Viennese School’s modernity and atonal explorations, along with the works of Debussy and Stravinsky. The folk-song element is evident at the opening of the First Sonata when the impressionistic whirlwind of piano tones introduces a folkish lament-like song from the violin.  An ebb and flow of exchange between the instruments dominates the first section, now forceful now rhapsodical, with the piano often set a-dancing by the violin’s roller-coasterings! The “great calm” that settles over the music’s central sequences is beautifully caught by the recording, the piano’s crystalline patternings augmented by the violin’s delicately-sculptured lines – all so haunting and magical, and gorgeously realised by both Lapins and Liu. Though interspersed with further trenchant violin lines and monumental piano tones, a sense of contained calm (with echoes of a “Dies Irae” chant!)  returns at the movement’s end.

The slow movement is begun raptly and wistfully by Lapins’ violin,  a gorgeous outpouring of tone, eventually joined by Liu’s piano – the plaintive and heartfelt exchanges bring to my mind the Debussy of Canope,, from his Book II Preludes,  the sounds suggestive of a deep yearning, so tender and inward. Distant gongs which sound mid-movement then build in weight and focus,  the rhapsodic mood gradually made excitable as the violin pours forth folk-like declamations, though the piano grounds the music once more, planting footprints in the music’s snow – we hear some ethereal high violin notes and responses of limpid beauty from the piano, before the enchantment of it all regretfully draws to an end.

The third movement is a foil to all of this, something of a madcap house,  not unlike the contrast between the second and third movements of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto – though Bartók’s differing moods in his finale are even more quixotic than Ravel’s! Wild, combatative chords from the piano issue a call to arms, a challenge taken up by the violin, its wild dance hotly pursued by the piano (lovely smoky, pesante-like tones from Lapins’ violin) resulting in a right old set-to between the instruments – extraordinary declamations, each blaming the other for the ruckus! – the instruments plunge into the “friss” again and again, but come to grief each time with different issues, one of them marked by almost grotesquely clumsy figurations from the piano, to which the violin cocquettishly responds, and another a sudden salon-like gesture of genteel insouciance – but both are whirled away once again by almost (at this stage) “silent-movie-galloping” sequences, with Lapins and Liu both on fire, the piano dancing and the violin rocketing up and down! – when, perhaps at the brink of exhaustion’s point,  a couple of mutually wrought, no-nonsense gestures conclude the mayhem!

The composer described the violin parts of both his two Violin Sonatas in a 1924 letter as “extraordinarily difficult…..it is only a violinist of the top class who has any chance of learning them” – though violinists “of the top class” may proliferate today, the difficulties of this music remain formidable, both technically and interpretatively. The Second Sonata has two movements, replicating the traditional “verbunkos” (translated as a “recruiting dance”), a sequence featuring a slow lassu introduction and a concluding friss. Lapins and Liu launch the work with expressive, long-breathed gestures right from the beginning, the opening folkish phrases beautifully sung by the violin and resonated by the piano, creating atmospheric and gorgeously-modulated sequences burgeoning with intent.  They “grow” the composer’s slow-motion intensities patiently, the playing by turns suggestive and full-throated, keeping the music’s exploratory musings and the folk-like figurations poised and expectant throughout as the movement comes to its tremulous conclusion.

As for the second movement, Lapins and Liu keep the listener virtually on the edge of the seat throughout the music’s brilliantly kaleidoscopic energies, beginning with portentous piano rhythms, brash string pizzicatos and impetuous running sequences, the exchanges growing wilder as the music develops. Along with an improvisatory kind of feeling – the music lurches from quiet and brooding to raucous and energetic almost without warning throughout – there’s a strong sense of striving towards somewhere the music might call home, expressed most convincingly in the folk-like themes that recurs on each instrument by turns throughout, a lyrical fragment of which eventually calls the work to rest. But along the way one relishes some familiar Bartókian gestures, such as the “tipsy” sequences mid-movement, during which one can almost smell the wine on the music’s breath; and the suggestions of “night-music” in places, though more hinted at than actual in such capricious music as here.  Elsewhere, the quicksilver volatility of these players’  exchanges and responses to the music are remarkable, from the brooding expectancies to the more trenchant, full-on engagements, the music seeming to reach out and summon the questing, exhausted spirit home at the end….

I enjoyed comparing Lapins’ and Lui’s playing with that on another New-Zealand-made recording of the same sonata, that by violinist Justine Cormack and pianist Sarah Watkins on the Atoll label (ACD 101) coupled with sonatas by Debussy and Janacek. I thought Cormack and Watkins found more light and shade in the work’s various sequences, their lighter touch enabling a quicker tempo for the first movement and lighter textures in places in the second. Having said that one couldn’t possibly nominate a preference for one performance or the other based on anything except raw feeling – suffice to say that I felt the Bartók performance by each duo was engagingly of a piece in style and intent with their presentations of the other music on their recordings.

It was a good idea for Lapins and Liu to present each Sonata with a kind of “makeweight” top provide some “breathing-space” for the listener in the wake of such intensities! – thus after the First Sonata we hear a set of “Romanian Folk Dances” which first appeared as a piano solo, but has since been arranged for various instruments as well as in an orchestral version by the composer – Bartók’s friend Zoltan Szekely made this particular arrangement. I first heard this music in its solo piano form on my very first Bartók LP featuring the pianist Gyorgy Sandor – on the sleeve of that disc the LP’s contents were described as  “A timid soul’s approach to….” (in small lettering) “BARTÓK” (in big print)! With works like the “Out of Doors” Suite and the ”Allegro Barbaro” on the disc, it was all an exhilarating experience,  here replicated for me by Monique Lapins and Jian Liu but without a trace of timidity!

After the Second Sonata the disc concludes with another arrangement, that of a Sonatina for solo piano SZ55, originally titled Sonatina on Romanian Folk Tunes when written in 1915 by Bartok, and subsequently reset for violin and piano by violinist Andre Gertler, who frequently performed with the composer. Lapins and Liu give these pieces all the fun and directness one imagines first attracted the composer to the “original” melodies. I felt sorry for the poor captive bear, in the middle “Medvetanc” (Bear Dance), but the concluding Allegro vivace restored my jolly listening mood. Throughout, as with the rest of the disc, I was lost in admiration at the players’ ability to adapt their style to the material, these dance-like items for me as warmly spontaneous and fun-loving to listen to as the performances of the two Sonatas were gripping and profound.

A Springful of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, from Orchestra Wellington

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Robert Schumann Dichterliebe arranged by Henrik Hellstenius
Deborah Wai Kapohe, mezzo

Robert Schumann Cello Concerto
Inbal Megiddo, cello

Felix Mendelssohn Midsummer Night Dream
Barbara Paterson, Michaela Codwgan, sopranos,
Dryw McArthur, Alex Greig and Danielle  Meldrum, actors,
Women’s voices of the Orpheus Choir.

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th August, 2022

Schumann and Mendelssohn may seem like traditional programming for an orchestral concert, but – trust Marc Taddei, – it was anything but run of the mill standard fare. This was a concert of works seldom heard or seldom heard in the form presented.

Schumann Dichterliebe, arranged by Henrik Hellstenius

It opened with Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe. This, along with Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin is a work that established the song cycle form as more than a collection of songs, and is a landmark of the lieder repertoire. The songs are settings of sixteen poems by Heine. Heine was some ten years older than Schumann and was already celebrated as the leading German lyric poet. Perhaps Heine’s intrinsic contradictions appealed to Schumann’s split personalities. Maybe the cunning craft of Heine’s poetry brought something out of Schumann the master miniaturist. But what we were presented with was not the well known song cycle of Schumann with its dramatic piano accompaniment, but an arrangement by the contemporary Norwegian composer,  Henrik Hellstenius.

Instead of the piano, we had a large orchestra with even an exotic ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument.  Its deep voice was a welcome addition to the brass section. The piece started with a bell-like sound produced by violin and flute. The piano part is deconstructed right through the songs into a kaleidoscope of colourful orchestral sounds. Wai Kapohe sang not as the usual image of a classical lieder singer, but like a jazz singer, or more like a chanteuse, using a microphone, and despite the vast auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre, she gave the impression of singing intimately for every person of the large audience. Her beautiful warm voice touched every one.

The  settings of sixteen of Heine’s poems are about love,  flowers, sorrow and pain, dream, memory of a kiss, the Cathetral of Cologne, a lark’s song of longing, a broken heart, fairy tale, and death.. The arrangement of Hellstenius turned Schumann’s music into a haunting post-modern musical experience. It is not a matter of being better than Schumann, bringing Schumann up to date; it is about looking at Schumann’s music through a contemporary lens, hearing it as eternally meaningful music.

Schumann Cello Concerto

The song cycle was followed by Schumann’s last orchestral work, his cello concerto, which he completed two weeks before he attempted suicide, and never had the opportunity of hearing it performed. It is a remarkable work, the first ‘romantic’ concerto written for the cello, a world away from preceding works for the cello, the cello concertos of Haydn and Boccherini.  The concerto starts with three chords played by the strings then the cello takes over with a beautiful melody, which Inbal Megiddo played with a ravishing sound. This set the tone of the whole work. The piece is episodic, a mark of much of Schumann’s work, short contrasting themes make up the building blocks of the overall piece, slow melodic sections interspersed with dramatic virtuoso passages.

The themes are like his songs, melodious. engaging.  The three movements, a lyrical yet dramatic first movement,  a slow second movement and a lively, energetic final movement, are connected by brief bridging sections. A song like quality pervades the work. Inbal Megiddo gave this concerto a beautiful, convincing reading. Acknowledging the warm applause, she played as an encore the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. She played it with a scintillating light touch. It was an appropriate bridge to the final item on the programme.

Mendelssohn A  Midsummer Night Dream

Mendelssohn wrote the overture to Midsummer Night Dream for the house concerts in his family’s lavish home, when he was a boy of seventeen and this it stayed in the popular repertoire ever since. It is a scintillating piece of music, but the Incidental Music was written much later, at the instigation of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, a music lover. Mendelssohn expanded the Overture into a forty-five minute suit exploring scenes from the play, that included the among its thirteen movements, the sprightly goblin-like Scherzo, the light jolly, otherworldly song with the choir, the dreamy Nocturne with its solo horn, the stately Wedding March, played at innumerable weddings since its first performance, and the foot stomping Dance of the Clown. The use of three actors as narrator reading out the lines from the play, and two solo sopranos singing some of the choral numbers greatly enhanced the music.

Hearing the whole Incidental Music to Midsummer Night Dream was a joyous experience. But it was more than that, it was an insight into Romanticism in music, fairies, dreams, magic, ingredients of romantic music and literature, that echoed the music of Schumann and other romantic composers.

Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei offered, as usual. an imaginative programme,  played well, with understanding, which amounted to more than the sum total of the works performed. It captured the spirit of an era, with contemporary commentary on it by the orchestral arrangement of the Schumann songs by Henrik Hellstenius

A state of extreme delight

‘Love Triumphant’ – NZSO’s Immerse 2022 Festival

Ravel Mother Goose Suite
Chausson Poème
Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Op. 35

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 7 August, 2.00 pm

This was the third and final concert of the Immerse series, programmed and timed to attract a family audience. And some kids attended, although they were quite hard to spot. It’s not every parent or grand-parent who thinks to bring the smalls to an NZSO concert, and not every child who has the patience to sit still for more than 40 minutes at a stretch. That was a great pity, because the programme was delightful. Even people whose short attention span is in line with their height would have found the music enjoyable to listen to.

Conductor Gemma New dispensed with formalities and opened the concert with a short talk about the music – specifically the plot of the programme for each piece – explaining that all of the music had been inspired by fairy tales and stories. (The concert title asserted that the  scarlet thread holding all the works together was love stories with happy endings, but this notion probably sounded much more convincing in the marketing department than it did in real life.) I was scrambling to keep up with New’s description of the Mother Goose  movements, but we all enjoyed the characterisation of Pat Barry (clarinet) as Beauty and someone called Sam on contrabassoon (David Angus seemed to be away) as the Beast.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite is, as I am sure you know, full of delicious colours and textures, with lovely melodies and many exquisite details. New is nothing if not a stickler for detail, so it was all laid out in front of us. Last night I felt that this is the best the NZSO has played in more than a decade. I had the same sensation today; except that this music is full of joy, and moves with ease and grace. All that complexity and emotional challenge had gone with last night’s wind and rain. The afternoon was sunny with a promise of spring, and so was the NZSO’s playing.

Once again, the higher winds and percussion sections were kept busy. There was glorious playing from Robert Orr (oboe) and Bridget Douglas (flute), and delicious textures in the percussion, with xylophone, tam tam, triangle, and tubular bells. Larry Reece’s timpani playing is always a delight, being so precisely placed right on the very front of the beat, but the whole team sounded great on the ear. Carolyn Mills’ dry, percussive harp sound cut through the thick textures. At times the warmth of the string sound could almost have been Elgar.  Once or twice the cut-offs weren’t quite as clean as they had been last night, and I wondered about New’s gestures – too expansive? But the Suite was over far too quickly. I could have listened to it again.

The stage was reset for the Chausson and there was a distinct buzz of excitement in the audience. We would hear the remarkable Hilary Hahn one last time. Indeed, she walked on stage to loud cheering.

The author of the programme notes seemed puzzled by Chausson’s small output, but it is easily explained: he died at the age of 44 in a cycling accident. Had his brakes been more reliable, his name would certainly rival those of Debussy and Ravel today. His Poème was written for Eugène Ysaÿe, who had asked him for a concerto. Chausson thought that was too big an ask, and opted for something shorter, in one movement. It is nonetheless extremely beautiful, and Hahn was doing the cadenza full justice… until she stopped. She laughed, restarted, and carried on. The audience was happy. Then she stopped playing again in about the same place. It seemed that she had got lost navigating the complexities of the cadenza. She took a moment, said ‘I feel like the Cirque de Soleil’, and started that knotty passage again. As violin teacher Lynley Culliford commented in the interval, ‘It was such a human moment. So good for our kids to see.’

The audience went wild, of course. Several curtain calls, and on the third Hahn came out with her violin and, just as she had done last night, played a movement from another of Bach’s partitas for solo violin (perhaps the second movement of the G minor partita?). Her Bach is extraordinary: intimate and tender, delicate, and very moving. Hahn says that she has played a piece for solo violin by Bach every day since she was eight:

Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest. Keeping the intonation pure in double stops, bringing out the various voices where the phrasing requires it, crossing the strings so that there are not inadvertent accents, presenting the structure in such a way that it’s clear to the listener without being pedantic – one can’t fake things in Bach, and if one gets all of them to work, the music sings in the most wonderful way.

If that is what it takes, we should all play Bach daily, and insist that our children do so too.

The last work in the concert was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. ‘The Sultan was angry,’ Gemma New began. ‘He didn’t trust anyone.’ She characterised the four movements as follows: the adventures of Sinbad’s ship; adventures on land; all the love stories in the world; all the festivals and parties. By this time, I felt as though I had used up all my superlatives about the NZSO’s playing. How wrong I was.

The four movements are, as every child in the Michael Fowler Centre today now knows, linked by the voice of Scheherazade herself, telling the Sultan stories as best she can in order to save her life. Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppanen is a very fine violinist, and he played wonderfully well. The rest of the orchestra rose to meet him. From the very opening, the sound was huge and enveloping. My notes say things like ‘Tuba! Flutes! Vesa and harp! The waves rolling! Robert and Bridget!’ as though I was in such an advanced state of delight that I had lost most of my brains.  Quite true, of course.

New conducts in an expansive style with a detailed vocabulary of gestures. She is petite, and throws her whole body into it. Yet it is not showy; it is all in the service of drawing the music from the players.  Once or twice last night in Doctor Atomic I wondered what it is like for the orchestra, with so much information coming at them in every bar. Are they secretly longing for a straightforward downbeat (and leave the rest to us?). Whatever, it works. There was a crispness to the playing, with wonderfully tiered crescendos and decrescendos. Some of the pizzicato effects were extraordinary, like a ghostly wind; or the long held notes on the basses; and everywhere fast, tidy tempo changes, with the orchestra turning on a dime. So many gorgeous solos: from the harp (Carolyn Mills), first clarinet (Patrick Barry); first oboe (Robert Orr), first flute (Bridget Douglas); trombones (Dave Bremner), with a gorgeous unified string sound. There were moments when the lower strings provided a dark underlay to the solo above; a trombone and triangle duet; shot notes on improbable combinations of instruments such as triangle and tambourine. One of the crescendos in the fourth movement was so beautiful it bought tears to my cynical old eyes. And then a helter-skelter race to the finish, with some of the fastest tempi I have ever heard in this work. No one lost touch. Finally, it was back to Scheherazade, who comes to the end of her last story, with Vesa’s impossibly high, impossibly long last note. A dazzling and beautiful concert. Bravo!

 

NZSO under New management

‘Style and Substance’ – NZSO’s Immerse 2022 Festival

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 77
Tabea Squire Variations
John Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony

Hilary Hahn, violin

Gemma New. conductor
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 6 August 2022

This was the second concert of the Immerse series, and the second outing of the acclaimed
violinist Hilary Hahn with the NZSO under the baton of Gemma New, its newly appointed
Artistic Adviser and Principal Conductor. The house was almost full, with such a happily
expectant air that everyone must surely have been here on Thursday for the first concert of
the series.

Gemma New is a local girl made good – only 35, but already with a long list of appointments
and accolades, including the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award. She has been called ‘one of
the brightest rising stars in the conducting firmament’, and she is becoming famous around
the world for her precision and the expressive beauty she draws from her orchestras. Hilary
Hahn is one of today’s great violin virtuosos, with three Grammys and a huge global
following. Putting them on the programme together for three concerts must have seemed to
the NZSO a masterstroke of genius and good fortune.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto was Hahn’s suggestion. She first recorded it at the age of 21 with
the Orchestra of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. That youthful recording
has been named one of the eight great recordings of the work (ahead of one that was my
favourite 40 years ago, David Oistrakh with the French National Radio Orchestra under Otto
Klemperer). It was Gemma New who suggested the two works to accompany it because,
she said, they ‘had a Brahmsian quality’. Not many people would make that observation of
John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony and fewer of the Variations by Tabea Squire. But
that is the world of Gemma New, in which the exquisite and the unusual are two faces of the
same coin.

From the first bar, it was clear that Gemma New’s Brahms was a very different work. Gone
were the sludgy textures and blurred rhythms I had by heart from the Oistrakh/Klemperer
recording. The NZSO is under New management.

Hilary Hahn’s first entry was electrifying. She has been performing this concerto for more
than half her life, and yet she made it as fresh and exciting as it must have been when
Brahms’s friend Joachim played it for the first time.

New kept the NZSO to a restrained dynamic range for much of the time. In a recording, the
balance between violinist and orchestra can be addressed by microphone placement and
engineering. In the concert hall there is a constant threat that the violinist will be
overwhelmed by the orchestra – the concerto is scored for four horns, two trumpets, and
timpani, after all. Not so here. New is known for her meticulous attention to detail, and the
NZSO obliged with beautiful, shapely, thoughtful playing.

The audience was so moved by the monumental first movement that most of them
applauded at the end of it. I almost joined in, because of the huge gratitude I felt for Hahn’s
superb playing. In the third movement, Allegro giocoso, orchestra and soloist danced for
sheer joy. At the end, most of the audience was on its feet. Hahn took four curtain calls
before coming back to play the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor partita as tenderly as you
could wish.

Gemma New introduced the works for the second half of the concert with evident relish. She
loves new music. In 2010, as soon as she graduated from the Peabody Institute in Maryland,
she formed the Lunar Ensemble to perform new music. Together they premiered 30 works in
six seasons. New’s Carnegie Hall debut in 2013 included works by John Adams and Andrew
Norman.

‘I think Brahms would have liked Tabea Squire’s theme and variations,’ New told us
confidently. The work is a deconstructed set of variations on a sixteenth-century pavane,
‘Belle qui tiens ma vie’ – deconstructed, because the theme doesn’t fully appear until right at
the end (although it is sneakily previewed by the horns and there is a wisp of it audible in the
strings about halfway through). I expected this teasing treatment would soon become
frustrating; but Tabea Squire’s orchestration was clever and the ideas never flagged. The
theme finally made its proper appearance at the end, played by alto flute, piccolo, and cor
anglais with the tenor drum underneath – a nice twist on the recorders and drum she
originally scored it for.

Twenty years ago, when Hilary Hahn was starting to make her name on the concert stage,
Gemma New and Tabea Squire were first and second violinists in Wellington Youth
Sinfonietta. A remarkable journey so far, and much is yet to come.

The final work in the programme was John Adams’ monumental and troubling Doctor Atomic
Symphony (based on his newsreel opera of 2005, about the Manhattan Project and the first
atomic bomb test in New Mexico). The symphony condenses many of the musical ideas of
the opera into 25 minutes of inventive and emotionally shattering music. The symphony calls
for a large orchestra, with a huge batterie (xylophone, tubular bells, timpani, bowed drums,
thunder sheet, tam tam, celeste, tuned gongs…) and more tuba solos than you might
imagine (Andrew Jarvis, Scott Frankcombe). It is a monumental work, terrifying and deeply
troubling. At one point Dave Bremner (Principal Trombone) stands to bark orders
(channelling General Leslie Groves). The emotional heart of the piece is Robert
Oppenheimer’s aria from the opera, a setting of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, ‘Batter
my heart, three person’d God’, beautifully played by David Johnson (Guest Principal
Trumpet).

This was a stupendous concert. The NZSO has never played better than this. If you are
reading this review before the last concert of the three, on Sunday 7 August, do not hesitate.
If it’s too late for that, you can’t afford to miss Gemma New’s next outing with the NZSO. She
is an extraordinary talent, and her knack for exciting programming is so very welcome.

The band is back – NZSO with Hilary Hahn and Gemma New

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

JOHN RIMMER – Lahar
SERGE PROKOFIEV – Violin Concerto No. 1
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 4th August 2022

The band is back. This was the first concert by the NZSO for some time, apart from their outing to open the St James Theatre a couple of weeks ago. And what a splendid concert this was! The orchestra was at its best. I have never heard them play better. They appear to have a special rapport with Gemma  New, the newly appointed Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Like many of the members of the orchestra, she came through the ranks of the Youth Orchestra system, and played in the Wellington and New Zealand Youth Orchestras as a violinist, but then went to America to learn the art of conducting. She has served as Resident Conductor of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, and is Resident Conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. To say that this young woman, still only in her mid thirties is vastly talented is an understatement. As a conductor, her style is energetic, athletic and dramatic. She seemed to draw music out of the very essence of the players in the orchestra with her meticulous attention to details, to phrasing, to dynamics, yet giving the solo instrumentalists space to play their lines freely.

John Rimmer : Lahar

The concert opened, very appropriately, with Lahar, a short piece by one of New Zealand’s senior composers, John Rimmer. It is the arrangement and development of the last movement of Rimmer’s major work: The Ring of Fire. Quoting the programme notes: It is intimately connected to the sound of nature. Rimmer is an electronic composer. Electronically virtually any sound can be reproduced and the instruments of the orchestra emulate that in this piece that captures the environmental sounds. You get the earth rumbling on the tympani, birds chirping on the flute and piccolo, powerful brass chords, falling woodwind passages, depicting a volcanic eruption and the silent peaceful aftermath. Rimmer explained in his introduction before the performance that the piece is hot, very hot. You hear explosions, the noise of the forest. Amidst the cacophony a melody emerges played on the piccolo and the cello solo, which is transformed into a lament. For the listener there was a whole world of musical experience within this seven minute orchestral work.

Serge Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev was an up and coming young composer in Paris, already making a name for himself when he composed this concerto. After the shock of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, discordant music became widely accepted and even became mainstream. Prokofiev evolved his own harmonic language, taut harmonies and driving rhythm,  combined with lyricism. The First Violin Concerto opens with a scarcely audible melody  played by the solo violin on top of the orchestral accompaniment. This develops into an energetic dance and the movement ends with an ethereal flute solo. The second movement, a virtuoso scherzo, is driven, and energetic. Prokofiev later reused some of this material in the duel scene in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. The final movement is dominated by a lush violin solo interposed with strong rhythmic drive. Hilary Hahn’s playing seemed effortless, spontaneous, straight from the heart, with a beautiful tone and great control. Soloist and conductor, two prodigiously talented young women, were of one mind with total mutual understanding.

For an encore Hilary Hahn played a scintillating rendering of the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin.

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 

This symphony has a tragic history. After Stalin went to see the composer’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and walked out before the end Shostakovitch felt doomed. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony, which was ready for performance, and wrote a grand 44 minute work, which, according to the Pravda article attributed to him, was ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to justified criticism’. The symphony was an immediate success, both in the Soviet Union and in the rest of the world. It certainly has powerful themes, pulsating patriotic rhythms, folk music elements. It is immediately moving and captivating, but perhaps, in this peaceful remote corner of the world, far from the threats of Stalin’s Russia in 1937, it seems a little drawn out, the themes over elaborated. The shadows of a terrified composer lurks behind the triumphal tone of the work. One can read all sorts of things into the first movement, Allegro moderato, full of dread, or into the lyrical second movement, ‘a malevolent march’. The third movement, Largo, mournful, made the audience at the first performance openly weep. It is indeed, music full of grief. The triumphal march returns in the final movement, but it resolves into a haunting funeral march. Does the symphony end on a hopeful note or a note a desperation ? It depends on your interpretation not only of the music, but also of the tragic world of Stalin’s Russia. In either case, it is very moving and all-absorbing music. One will never hear a better performance of this work than this one under the baton of Gemma New. It was all minutely crafted, carefully thought out, every phrase, every dynamic change and contrast was sensitively molded.

This was a splendid concert and the very large audience, a virtually full Michael Fowler Centre, responded with a huge ovation. I am looking forward to a new era of exciting music with Gemma New at the helm of the orchestra. My one gripe is that the excitement of this wonderful concert should have been shared by people all over the country. It should have been videoed and shown live, available to all, no matter where they live, be it Reefton or Ruatoria, and perhaps available anywhere in the world to show that Aotearoa is not just a country of milk powder and the All Blacks – that it is not an international cultural backwater, but an exciting place with its own cultural landscape. It was appropriate that the concert opened with Rimmer’s Lahar, depicting just that.