NZ School of Music Concerto Competition

New Zealand School of Music: Concerto Competition Final

Finalists: Judy Guan, Rafaella Garlick-Grice, Alex Chan, Andrzej Nowicki, Hannah Darroch, Charlotte Fetherston, accompanied by pianists Diedre Irons, Richard Mapp and Emma Sayers

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music, Friday 29 May

The annual concerto competition, formerly of the Victoria University School of Music, now the New Zealand School, ought to be a much more high profile event than it has ordinarily been. There is a very good school orchestra and the City Council would doubtless offer the Michael Fowler Centre at a peppercorn rent for a concert of such interest and importance and that might reinforce the status of Wellington as musically significant.

Wellington, after all, has been able to create and hold no major music contest, such as both Auckland and Christchurch cherish.

Judy Guan perhaps put herself at a disadvantage by playing a Chinese concerto, very popular there, but an essentially vacuous piece from the first decade of the Communist Chinese regime: The Butterfly Lover’s Violin Concerto. Beautifully played but, even though edited down to about 20 minutes length, it still far outlasted its musical content; it sounded padded: every time the end seemed nigh, the violin would set off afresh with another variation in the same saccharine vein. Nor was it a very rewarding exercise for accompanying pianist Emma Sayers. As adjudicator Michael Houstoun commented, such a slender piece demanded more personality, more varying dynamics and interest invested in phrasing.

Rafaella Garlick-Grice played the first and third movements from the Fifth Piano Concerto by Saint-Saëns. Her technique enables her to perform this highly virtuosic, but musically fine concerto with astonishing virtuosity and accomplishment, The problem was that the almost incessant, complex scales and bravura note-spinning, was delivered at an unremitting fortissimo and without the variety that should make every phase interesting.

Houstoun commented that he would have chosen the slow movement to play with one of the fast outer movements, for variety’s sake: a contrasting meditative piece was needed; he remarked that she tended to play at a constant mezzoforte instead of creating a magical pianissimo in the fast scales and The effect was no doubt aggravated by the fact that here, necessarily, was the only concerto involving two pianos: Diedre Irons’s orchestral reduction still contributed a torrent of notes that added to the aural assault.

Nevertheless, here is a highly accomplished pianist who won the audience vote for best performer.

Weber concertante pieces for woodwinds occupied two contestants. Alex Chan rather astonished with her high-pressure, unyielding performance of the Andante and Rondo Ungarese for bassoon. Though not among his best such pieces, rather pedestrian in the Andante, it is a fine and demanding showcase for the instrument; the Rondo is familiar and Chan managed its uninterrupted speed and energy with impressive stamina.

Clarinettist Andrzej Nowicki played the second and third movements of Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto, accompanied again by Irons. The calm opening phrases of the Romanza caught the audience with their exquisite pianissimo expressiveness. The Alla Polacca was studded with quick, adroit ornaments, constant variety of articulation. The whole was spirited, ever varied, fluent and persuasive.

Praising the immaculate performance, its inflections, shaping, constant changes of tone, Houstoun awarded Nowicki the prize.

Perhaps the most challenging concerto from a musical point of view was Nielsen’s Flute Concerto – the first two movements. Hannah Darroch had Emma Sayers deputizing for an orchestra, and here, in spite of Sayer’s wonderful sensitivity, was perhaps the most problematic of the piano transcriptions, and the orchestra’s absence added to the soloist’s problems in spinning coherent lines and phrases. though the long quasi-cadenza, with supporting repeated bass piano notes, offered one of the occasions when the flute, with fluttering ornaments, specially impressed. In the third movement, Allegretto, Darroch showed her keen understanding of Nielsen’s idiom, the tricky rhythms and the shaping of phrases, and in the thoughtful moment just before the end.

Houstoun’s comment here noted the beauty of her playing, as well as the pianist’s, but added that Darrogh’s playing was probably not strong enough for performance with orchestra. Though it struck me that she had probably subdued her playing for the environment she was in.

Finally, Charlotte Fetherston played movements 1 and 2 of Walton’s Viola Concerto. She and Rafaella Garlick-Grice were the only two who played from memory and Houstoun commented on the professional expectation of memorising. He admired her confidence and the high intelligence and intensity that she brought to the music.

It was the performance that I gave my own audience vote to, as I was impressed by her musicality, the coherence of her long phrases that in lesser hands can quite misfire. Fetherston’s musicianship is superb, her tonal variety – she played close to the bridge a good deal, attenuating her tone where it counted – and her physical size and demeanour – why should that matter? – suggested the epitome of a violist. She was splendidly supported by Richard Mapp. Like Houstoun, I noted intonation lapses, but unlike him, did not feel that they vitiated what I thought was a very fine musical performance. I suspect that aspect might have led him to give the prize to Nowicki rather than her.

However, Fetherston is one to watch; really, of course, all six are to be watched.

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