NZSM Orchestra and Kenneth Young – no holds barred

Simon Dickson – Partial Aspects (World Premiere performance)
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D
Vaughan Williams – Symphony No.6 in E Minor

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Ben Morrison (violin)
Kenneth Young (conductor)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington,  Tuesday 18th August

Enterprising programming here by Kenneth Young and the NZSM Orchestra, bringing together a new work, an established warhorse and a feisty twentieth century classic, a “something for everybody” offering which, as it turned out, criss-crossed more sensibilities than was expected, and made for a great listening experience.

The Orchestra makes a point of including whenever possible contemporary and New Zealand music in its programmes, and Simon Dickson’s piece “Partial Aspects” came with a merit sticker slapped on it, the 2009 Jenny McLeod Composition Award. Described by its composer as an amalgamation of textural atonality and quasi-tonality, the work grew from its deep, primordial beginnings into a kind of evolving “cluster-chord” whose different timbres and dynamics created an ear-catching “layered” effect, all the while changing colours and hues like a moving mirror-ball. I liked the music’s patient, osmotic growth through still more colourations and more dynamic interjections, which climaxed with some hugely monumental chords whose span gradually dissolved in various non-tonal refractions. After this was left a single ‘cello and glockenspiel oscillating on a two-note motif, the strings then descending to a single note an octave below, and gently exhaling a sombre conclusion. In all, I thought conductor and players did this (incredibly boyish-looking) young composer and his music proud.

Impressive youthful endeavour was again to the fore in the concert’s next item, this time from the soloist, violinist Ben Morrison, in Tchaikovsky’s oft-played Violin Concerto. Right from his very first entry, following an ardently lyrical orchestral introduction, Morrison commanded the music, playing with real feeling, and negotiating the passagework with the kind of detailing that gave one the impression that every note had been thought about, as if the instrument was an extension of his own self. Not every note was bang in tune, but the player’s characterisation of each episode in the first movement was “dug into” in a way I found entirely compelling. Kenneth Young and the orchestra were with their soloist all the way – not being a professional orchestra, the group’s sound wasn’t particularly “moulded”, which I liked, enjoying the flavoursome timbral strands in both sectional and tutti passages. In the slow movement Morrison was at his best with the rich, full-throated writing – the other side of the interpretative coin, the music’s inward, almost “hurt” quality, he will increasingly find in this work as he matures as an artist. The finale had its moments of imprecision between soloist and orchestra – the first “Russian Sailors’ Dance” episode came adrift momentarily, as did some of the skittery exchanges in the work’s coda – and I thought the orchestra initially lacked a bit of “oomph” in their interjections mid-movement, which they did, however, make up for towards the end. Again, as Ben Morrison gains experience, he’ll be able to more readily capture that “brandy-on-the-breath” abandonment in the music that the famous nineteenth-century Viennese critic Hanslick cited to roundly damn the work at its Viennese premiere.

There was no lack of “oomph” with the opening of the Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony, Young and the orchestra conjuring up searing, intensely confrontational bursts of sound at the outset, flooding the St.Andrew’s ambiences to bursting-point in a way that the composer would probably have enjoyed. The jog-trot rhythms of the first movement were fiercely driven – perhaps too fiercely for detail such as the saxophone’s counterpoint phrasings to have the proper grotesque effect – but the overall effect was that after the turmoil the great “tune” worked its magic and lifted us aloft splendidly. I thought Young’s tempo for the second movement was a bit quick, though what it lost the music in menace it gained in forcefulness and angularity. I wanted everything to be a bit more daring, with more extremes of dark foreboding and cataclysmic force than were the case, but the players made it work with their on-the-line commitment to phrasing and filled-out tones. Individual contributions such as made by the cor anglais at the end of the movement, and the saxophone in the throes of the anarchic scherzo told magnificently, providing the perfect foil for the hollow, apocalyptic voice of the finale. Young and his musicians realised all of the music’s bleak chill with marvellous soft playing from all concerned, the harp a ghostly angel surveying the desolation with pity and sorrow, leaving it all to stricken winds and string quartet with unspoken words at the end.

Also reviewed by Alan Wells

The NZSM concerts towards the end of the year usually show the School of Music Orchestra at its tightly-rehearsed best. A highlight of this event was the premiere of the winner of the Jenny McLeod Composition Award to an NZSM student composer. Previous holders of the fortunate position of having their work performed by a full orchestra have included Alison Grant, Alexandra Hay, Hermione Johnson, Simon Eastwood and Pieta Hextall.

This year it was Simon Dickson. “Partial Aspects” may have been so titled because, as the composer himself writes, it is “an amalgam of my recent compositional styles; a combination of textural atonality and quasi-tonality”. The first section – the aptly characterised “textural atonality” – evoked a sound-world similar to that of the shimmering “White Dwarf” for string quartet that Dickson brought to the 2008 Nelson Composers’ Workshop. With “Partial Aspects”, other – orchestral -colours were added to the string clusters and tremolandi. Dickson gradually increased tension, introducing motifs (the “quasi-tonality” style) in the woodwind, reminding one of his sensitivity to the subtleties of the solo clarinet in “On the Wind” (at Nelson in 2006). A two-note wind ostinato led into a powerful climax, after which the ostinato returned on the vibraphone to usher in the timeless feel of the beginning and the sense of a satisfying, completed compositional arc..

Ben Morrison, who was so impressive in the Mahler Seventh with the NYO in July, was soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Not afraid to use expressive nineteenth-century gliding portamenti as well as judiciously placed vibrato, Morrison soared to almost untrasonic heights in the rhapsodic first movement cadenza, and elicited a chocolate-dark, melancholy tone near the end. Nevertheless, I felt this first movement was something of a struggle for Morrison, as much a reading as a performance. It was in the captivating slow movement that he reached the emotional heart of the concerto, especially in his dialogue with the flawlessly creamy woodwinds. He seemed to gain in confidence as the work progressed, the worried concentration evident in the Allegro being replaced by an outgoing assurance in the Finale.

Vaughan Williams’ Sixth is one of his most intensely wrought – and fraught – symphonies, with only rare moments of relaxation (such as the lyrical episode for harp and strings in the first movement, which is familiar as an excerpt illustrating pastoral moods). The often dense orchestration was intriguing: with my ears still attuned to Dieter Mack and his Selisih Ensemble, it suggested a prefiguring of the tone-colour building of Mack, and the French Spectralists. The occasional use of xylophone looked forward too, perhaps, to the exotic percussion of VW’s Seventh (“Sinfonia antartica”) and Eighth Symphonies.

Listening to this orchestra, finely honed by conductor Kenneth Young, it was hard to believe that (aside from a handful of guest players) these were student musicians.

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