BERNSTEIN – On The Town: Three Dance Episodes
BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor
(with Michael Houstoun – piano)
BRITTEN – Les Illuminations
(with Benjamin Fifita Makisi – tenor)
BRAHMS – Variations on a Theme of Haydn
Vector Wellington Orchestra
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Wellington Town Hall, Saturday 25th July 2009
You could tell that it was going to be a night for the orchestra, whatever else happened, from the moment Marc Taddei gave the signal to begin Leonard Bernstein’s “On The Town” with the opening of the first of the work’s Three Dance Episodes, an Allegro pesante whose crackling pace set the pulses racing. The Wellington Orchestra players revelled in the music’s boisterous spirits, managing to inflect the dynamics and point the syncopations at a rate of knots that would have, one suspects, kept even the New York Philharmonic on its toes. A bluesy muted trumpet solo introduced the second Episode, a kind of “Lass that Loved a Sailor” sequence whose music blossomed into being from melancholy beginnings, strings singing their hearts out at the climax and winds spicing the romantic outpourings with piquant harmonies, the cor anglais at the movement’s end nicely picking up the remnants of feeling from the opening after the more heart-on-sleeve emotions had run their course. The final “Times Square 1944” movement took us into the feisty world of big bands, snappy, raunchy brass, underscored by a jazzy piano obbligato, and with sudden, pulse-quickening lurches into new sleaze-mode scenarios, Debbie Rawson’s eloquent saxophone work characterising the terrific support the winds in general gave to the brass throughout. It all sounded like the work of an orchestra on top of its game, my only quibble being the somewhat bizarre placement of the Beethoven C Minor Piano Concerto immediately afterwards, a chalk-and-cheese alignment whose incongruity was admittedly played down by Marc Taddei’s customary welcome to the audience being given after the Bernstein and as the piano was being rolled into place.
So, there was a sufficient “let’s start again” ambience by the time Michael Houstoun took the stage for the Beethoven concerto, a work that of course marks a threshold in the series of piano-and-orchestra works by the composer – a world of deep and thoughtful expression taking the classical style into more romantic and subjective realms. The orchestra’s urgent, tightly-woven exposition set the scene for Houstoun’s commanding entry, the pianist’s finely-judged masculine-and-feminine exchanges at the outset drawing the parameters of the musical argument to follow, and which the subtle interplay between soloist and orchestra proceeded to explore. I particularly liked Houstoun’s way with the second subject, lyrical and flexible, but also tensile enough to be readily drawn back into the purposeful, even confrontational C Minor world of serious life-questioning business that the music addresses. Neither pianist nor orchestra packed their punches in both assertive and reflective episodes, a tremendous tutti leading to the hushed, almost ghostly development, one with a very “Fifth Symphony Scherzo” feel to it, Houstoun’s withdrawn, almost disembodied tones sounding in awe of the stalking timpani notes and the muttering string figures. The cadenza boldly addressed the issues, Houstoun laying down the music’s law with real commitment, evincing an almost transcendent orchestral response, hard-headed timpani sticks giving the sounds an almost spectral feeling, one which the piano’s downward arabesques matched perfectly, leading to a no-nonsense, hard-hitting statement of mutual assertion and strength of feeling at the end.
Houstoun’s concentration was almost palpable in the stillness and strength of the slow movement’s opening notes, while the orchestra’s ready response was warm and conciliatory but extremely focused, carrying no excess. Throughout the interaction between piano and other instruments was ear-catching, bassoon and flute eloquently dialoguing with the soloist, and the strings perfectly complementing the piano at the opening’s reprise, augmenting with such surety what the solo instrument does. Again, the strings had such a lovely “veiled” tone after the short cadenza’s rapt conclusion, a mood that the ever-so-slight “fluff” on the horn didn’t manage to disturb – such poise and quiet rapture from everybody. After this, I thought the finale found Houston and Taddei in wonderful accord, the pianist dancing along the tightrope with fleet fingerwork and nicely-weighted sonority. At first I thought the winds a bit reticent, but a nicely-breathed, quite “reedy” clarinet solo from Janina Paolo re-established that essential feeling of dialogue on equal terms, giving the string fugato a proper foil, and sparking off a commanding response from Houstoun, and an equally strong set of sequences leading to the joyous coda, whose rumbustious energy set the seal on what I thought was a great performance of the work.
A work that in its own way matched the visionary aspects of the concerto followed after the break, Benjamin Britten’s “Les Illuminations”, a song-cycle featuring settings of poems by Arthur Rimbaud, extravagant, almost surreal visions of wonderment and excitement. Britten was drawn to French poetry and language, and the evocations of these verses found a ready response from the young composer, with extraordinarily sensitive and imaginative results. Most people would associate this music with a voice of the likes of Peter Pears or Robert Tear; but the work was actually written for a soprano, Sophie Wyss, who gave the first performance in London in 1940. Tenor Benjamin Fifita Makisi threw himself unflinchingly into the work from the outset, responding excitingly to the fierce fanfare-like antiphonal figures played by violas and violins. Makisi had sufficient vocal heft to declaim Rimbaud’s fulsome descriptions of cosmopolitean splendour in the following “Villes”, bringing off the chromatic downward slides in the vocal line with some relish, though he found it difficult to “float” his voice with enough rapturous wonderment in “Phrase”, describing the ropes stretching from steeple to steeple. In general Makisi was happiest with the strongly-focused moments, the marvellous “schwung” of the waltz-like “Antique” with its lump-in-the-throat melodic progressions, and the exuberant declamations of “Marine” with its skyrocketing whoops of pleasure.
At times I thought his voice needed to “free up” somewhat, being unable to escape a kind of “earthbound” quality which prevented episodes like the “Interlude” from truly taking wing. Fortunately the orchestral strings played like angels throughout, focused and incisive in the ringingly declamatory moments, muscular and energetic in rumbustious episodes such as those from “Villes”, and full-throated, warm and rich in the many “singing” passages, like the one already referred to from “Antique”, and responsive to the kaleidoscopic shifts of colour, timbre and intensity continually demanded by the music. The final “Depart” was beautifully done by singer, conductor and players, capturing a valedictory sense of “Enough seen” and an enduring enrichment of experience.
After this the Brahms “St Anthony” Variations for me didn’t really clinch the evening, partly because anything would have been a hard act to follow after the Britten, and partly because Marc Taddei’s treatment of the work was simply too stop-start for the sections to knit together satisfactorily. Taddei did get wonderful orchestral playing, the “village-band” effect at the start with perky, rustic winds and abrupt phrase-endings bringing out the dance-like aspects, with some lovely work from the horns, the “skipping” variation with its attractive syncopations and the following “hunting-horn” episode bringing out excellent work from all sections of the orchestra. But the pauses between the variations seemed to get longer as the work progressed, and the finale, marked “Andante” was moved along so quickly we seemed to be in the midst of the final resounding statement of the main theme before we knew where we were, with the result that it all seemed to pass by too hurriedly – more a vigorous lunch-hour round-the-bays constitutional than a celebratory processional, sadly lacking warmth and heart. Not perhaps the most satisfying finale to the concert that one hoped for, but fortunately there were other moments aplenty which would serve as highlights one could play and enjoy in one’s head, all over again.