PULSE – Vector Wellington Orchestra’s first 2009 subscription concert

Body – Pulse; Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major, Op.15; Janáček – Sinfonietta

Vector Wellington Orchestra: Marc Taddei (conductor); Michael Houstoun (piano); Members of the Central Band of the Royal New Zealand Air Force


Wellington Town Hall


Saturday 18 April 2009


First things first – full marks to Vector Wellington Orchestra’s programming flair for this concert, bringing together such an interesting juxtapositioning of works to open its subscription season. The remaining concerts in the series don’t in my view have quite the same enterprising zeal (we could have done with at least one other New Zealand work, for example, to counterweight things like Duke Ellington’s Suite from The River and Piazolla’s Tangazo). No matter – Michael Houstoun’s performances of all the Beethoven piano concertos will, I’m certain, more than compensate, along with crowd-pleasers such as Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.


It’s interesting that both the Wellington Orchestra and the NZSO chose works by Jack Body at the beginning of their respective seasons. I have nothing but admiration for Body’s music, and consider his orchestral works excellent concert choices, but am left wondering when any of our local orchestras are going to get around to giving neglected works by, say, David Farquhar, John Rimmer, Edwin Carr and even Douglas Lilburn (his First Symphony languishing in concert-hall obscurity) the chance to become repertoire classics of a homegrown kind, music which can be heard alongside and compared favourably with any from anywhere.


Still, it was fascinating to compare the performances of Body’s music by two different orchestras and conductors (albeit in different works), Melodies with the NZSO a fortnight previously, and Pulse with the Wellington Orchestra in the present concert. The NZSO and Pietari Inkinen scored points in matters of ensemble and polish, but regarding flair, colour, atmosphere and rhythmic excitement, Marc Taddei and the Wellington Orchestra seemed to me to have a distinct edge, taking us right inside the intoxication of ritualistic frenzy noted by the composer when observing the original New Guinean fire-dance from which much of this music was transcribed.


There’s been some discussion regarding Jack Body’s transcription pieces, with opinions expressed as to the validity of regarding the works as original compositions – but Jack himself has no such inhibitions regarding his sources or inspirations, describing his Pulse as ‘a radically conceived composition for orchestra based completely on transcription and quotation’.


The work liberally quotes from Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Stravinsky’s ballets Agon and Le Sacre du Printemps, though the ‘borrowings’ are intriguingly, at times even gruesomely refracted (Beethoven ‘synthesised’ by Berlioz?) through a pulsating latticework of rhythmic and textural incident, making the point that all music worldwide and through the ages is derived from ‘pulse’. Interestingly, it was as much melodic as rhythmic pulse which Body’s use of those quotations brought out – and who would have ever thought that the opening chord of the Eroica would give rise to smiles and chuckles from an audience?


Michael Houstoun then took the stage to give us the first instalment of his much anticipated cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos with the orchestra, beginning with the First (actually composed AFTER the Second, but published as No.1 in C Major).


Houstoun gave us poised and finely shaped playing at the outset, his first entry and subsequent taking up of the leaping octave theme slightly more relaxed and mellow than Taddei’s opening tutti with the orchestra, which seemed at first a little edgy in places in intonation and rhythm. A beautifully-pedalled ambient glow from the pianist marked out the development’s beginning as a magical entry into a realm of enchantment, anticipating something of the romantic feeling of the work’s Largo movement. The cadenza was a marvellously exploratory exercise in modulation, Houstoun occasionally gathering up armfuls of tonal weight and splendour, which would then be tossed aside in favour of differently constituted ideas, in a way that I found fascinating – and I liked the witty “Yes? – No….Yes!” series of indications from the piano regarding the orchestra’s reentry point..


The slow movement was gorgeously introduced by Houstoun’s opening paragraph, one which I felt Taddei and the orchestra took a little time to warm to, some unexpectedly brusque phrase endings from the orchestra suggesting that the players’ concentrated feeling for the music didn’t quite extend to the whole of some of the passages.


With Houstoun, there’s not a note I think that hasn’t cost him a great deal of thought regarding where it fits in the scheme of things, so that you get the feeling that he values it all so much and presents it as something cherishable and to be taken seriously. The reprise of the orchestra’s reply to the pianist’s opening was more lovingly shaped by Taddei, as if things had by then come into wider focus; and the rest was characterised by some rapt exchanges between piano and orchestra, a momentary ‘blooped’ brass note at one point reminding us of how expertly delivered everything else was.


Altogether, the performance was a wonderful realization, with the ebb and flow of the argument between soloist and orchestra nicely maintained. The only thing I miss with Houstoun, and this was especially evident in the concerto’s finale, is a ready sense of humour – nothing is ‘cheeky’ or just a wee bit outrageous or simply ‘thrown away’ though, I must admit that at one point during the Rondo Houstoun surprised me by finishing a phrase on a diminuendo when I was expecting an upsurge of tone, which made me smile. In all other respects it was a very strong interpretative viewpoint, as always with this pianist, and one I suspect that would stand up to repeated hearings and remembrances really well – I look forward eagerly to the remainder of the Beethovens from him during this year.


In a sense Janáček was a kind of Beethoven of his time, wholehearted and expressive in his emotions, single-minded in his pursuit of musical ends, totally uncompromising in the face of diffidence or hostility of others towards his music, and obsessed with the musical ‘idea’ ahead of its execution, pushing things to extremes in search of his goals. His Sinfonietta was originally planned as a set of fanfares for a gymnastics festival in Brno, but the work then took hold of the composer and grew into five movements for full orchestra.


Resplendently filling two rows of organ gallery seats in the Town Hall on Saturday night, the dozen or so members of the Central Band of the Royal New Zealand Air Force made a stunning initial impression with their playing of the opening fanfares, even if Marc Taddei’s tempo was, I felt, a shade too quick for them to get successfully around the treacherous syncopations of the toccata-like middle section, which could have done with more ‘point’ rather than speed.


But the players were able to fill out the grander phrases with marvellous tones, aided and abetted by the hard-working stick-flailing timpanist Stephen Bremner. The second movement, played attacca, brought in the full orchestra with its utterly different sonorities to great effect, strings and winds playing their hearts out – though the players at first found the tempo changes between different sections unsettling, causing ensemble difficulties and affecting incisiveness at points.


Things came together nicely to herald the epic brass statements (played by three of the Central Band ensemble’s trumpets), creating a stirring, open-air feel around the proceedings, their highest notes having a kind of snow-capped splendour, with one player surviving and quickly rectifying a false entry towards the dying fall of one of the phrases.


The orchestra really came into its own in the third movement – a melancholy string phrase at the start was underpinned by deep, sonorous notes from the tuba, and plaintive winds echoed the opening string phrase – after which the orchestral brass announced itself, quite magnificently, with nicely nimble work from Peter Maunder’s solo trombone, and waves of great black tone pinning back our ears and bringing forth appropriate shrieks of terror from the winds. The horns couldn’t quite keep their ‘whooping’ up at the cracking pace Marc Taddei set when charging towards the movement’s climax, but it was a small blip on a mightily impressive sound-sequence.


More fanfares in the fourth movement were this time played keenly and crisply by the orchestral brass, with strings supplying an agonized counterpoint, and one of the percussionists bashing the tubular bells for all he was worth! Taddei and the orchestra also nicely brought out the folkish aspect of the last movement’s introduction, before Moira Hurst’s clarinet and Timothy Jenkin’s piccolo began to screw up the tension, leading the way into a kind of chaotic vortex of confusion which the composer resolves with a cymbal crash and a trumpet call, the fanfares of the opening returning with a kind of full orchestral counterpoint adding to the ceremonial magnificence. Was the tempo a shade too fast for the brass once again?


Taddei did broaden the pulse for the coda, which was spectacularly delivered by all concerned, an overwhelming final chord bringing out the raw grandeur of the music.


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