Wellington Chamber Orchestra – Psathas, Lilburn, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams

Conductor : Michael Joel; Soloist: Catherine McKay (piano)

PSATHAS – Luminous;   LILBURN –  Overture “Aotearoa”;  BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major;     VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – A London Symphony

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington; Sunday, 28th June, 2009

This was a richly-conceived and engagingly-presented concert from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, the music covering a kaleidoscopic range of repertoire, with the character of each separate work explored and brought to the fore for the listener’s delight. Things are seldom what they seem, as the saying goes – and it may have appeared to the average audience member that the concert would be something of a “separate halves” affair, with the “lighter” and therefore “easier” works placed in the first half, followed after the interval by a lengthy and hugely demanding single symphonic work. In fact, the programme had varying kinds of technical and interpretative challenges for the musicians all the way through the afternoon, most of which were triumphantly surmounted, even if there were occasionally moments of not-quite-together ensemble. Right at the end, the orchestra rose magnificently to the challenge of the finale of the Vaughan Williams symphony, throwing everything into the music’s impassioned utterances, and then achieving with their conductor Michael Joel (and leader Ann Goodbehere’s lovely final solo) an evocative and compelling stillness and beauty throughout the epilogue. In a sense it was appropriate for the concert to end this way, because establishing and sustaining a specific mood, especially in the slower music, was one of the things that the orchestra did extremely well at various times throughout the afternoon’s music-making.

The opening item, John Psathas’s Luminous, was recreated by conductor and players with breath-catching beauty, underlining that dichotomy of stasis and osmotic movement with firm, well-focused but still diaphanous tones, and a magical “other-world” ambience caught at the moment of withdrawal of a full orchestral triple-forte. The musicians nicely brought out the composer’s concentrated suffusion of the textures with light and atmosphere, very Ligeti-like in places, and building to the full weight of an orchestral climax with sound judgement, the close ambience of the hall allowing us to enjoy the full-textured differences between the smoky brasses and the more translucent strings. From outer (or perhaps “inner”) spaces we were taken out of our heads and out-of-doors in Lilburn’s Overture “Aotearoa”, the striking opening as plangently delivered as I’ve ever heard it by the bright, long-breathed flutes, contrasted beautifully with the other wind timbres, secure strings and nicely “terraced” brass, exchanging rhythmic figures with strings. The tricky dotted-rhythm motto theme of the work was occasionally a stumbling-block, the strings in particular not quite certain as to how much “snap” to generate in places, which put ensemble “out” in places. There was also an occasional rawness of tone, now and then a bit intrusive, but mostly helping to capture the bracing ruggedness of the writing, very much at the service of the music’s intentions – and better the occasional roughness than something lacking in spirit, which this performance never was. Though lacking finesse in places the playing plainly and forcefully brought out the music’s essential character.

Readings of Beethoven’s G Major Piano Concerto seem either to declaim the notes as if intoning a sacred ritual, or trip a kind of light fantastic, carrying little ballast – this performance was of the latter, light-footed variety, the orchestra kept very much on its toes by Michael Joel’s edge-of-the-seat tempi for the opening tutti. Catherine McKay’s silvery playing was delightfully poised throughout, her rhythmic trajectories giving the notes plenty of phrasing-space while keeping up the music’s basic momentum, something which the orchestra found difficult to successfully emulate in places. The orchestra by contrast, seemed tenser, the playing even slightly “accelerando” in places, so that some of the “tumbling passagework” sequences took a while to find complete accord between soloist and band. Despite the lightness of touch, certain places where Beethoven hints at more esoteric, even metaphysical realms, received full due – the piano’s rapt modulation into distant harmonic realms mid-movement nicely highlighted the rolling concertante arpeggiations that followed, though I confess I wanted from Catherine McKay more of a contrast with the big G Major-related chords from the magically elfin passage that follows immediately after. The cadenza was the longer, more conventional of Beethoven’s, beautifully shaped by the soloist, and, despite a miscalculation by the oboe, nicely augmented by the winds at the end. The slow movement’s first string declamations were terse, abrupt and to the point, provoking a rather more assertive reply from the pianist than one usually experiences, more emotion-laden than ethereal and distant. As for the finale, what the strings lacked in rhythmic poise at the start they made up for in sensitivity of tone – and the whole orchestra made a splendid showing in the tutti passages in between the soloists’s fleet-fingered counter-statements. I thought the violas made lovely sounds during their “moment”, just before the build-up to the reprise of the opening; and the winds and strings worked well in accord throughout the myriad modulations leading up to the cadenza, the “stamping beginning” one, to which Catherine McKay gave plenty of dash and élan. Finally, what a joy to hear the horns right at the end sound the hunting-call with such confidence and relish, bringing the work to an exuberant close.

I’ve already mentioned the orchestra’s energy and commitment regarding the final movement of the Vaughan Williams symphony (such a lovely work!). Michael Joel and the players coaxed the first movement’s beginnings into life and brought about a vibrant sunrise, with a wealth of instrumental incident too numerous to recount in detail – though one remembers things like the tuba’s wonderfully rhythmic raspings leading into the allegro, and some great shouts of exuberance from the other brass in places, along with the entirely memorable “Thomas Tallis” string ambience at the beginning of the becalmed central section of the movement – lovely playing from the front desk strings. As with the Lilburn Overture, some of the jaunty syncopations in the exposed string phrases were ragged-sounding, though the section rose to the occasion magnificently in tutti at the movement’s conclusion. The slow movement I thought outstanding, the conductor encouraging playing from all sections redolent with the most wonderfully “charged” ambience, from the lovely cor anglais solo at the beginning to the dying viola phrase at the end. The wind trill that began the scherzo was scalp-prickling in its sheer joie de vivre, though the rhythmic complexities of this movement took their toll in places like the short fugato, where entries went off like out-of-control skyrockets! – such unsolicited excitement was only momentary, and generally the calm and poise of the harp and flute leading stepwise into the gloomy shadowlands of the coda spoke volumes for the playing of the orchestra as a whole throughout. All told, an exciting and warm-hearted concert to remember.

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