Odes to Joy – Wellington Orchestra with Michael Houstoun

BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat “Emperor”

ELLINGTON – Suite “The River”

RESPIGHI – The Pines of Rome

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Vector Welington Orchestra

– with players from:

RNZAF Central Band,

Pelorus Trust Wellington Brass Band,

Titan Hutt City Brass Band

Wellington Town Hall, Sunday 22nd November 2009

You’d be hard put to devise a more celebratory conclusion to a season of orchestral concerts than this one, with both Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and Respighi’s sonic blockbuster “The Pines of Rome” in the programme. Of course, Michael Houstoun’s performance of the Beethoven was the last in his presentation of the complete series of the piano concerti, giving the occasion a kind of “double-whammy” effect, and at the concert’s conclusion leaving us quite exhilarated with the energy and vitality of it all. I admit to enjoying the Duke Ellington work “The River”, even if it seemed to me to be a bit of “determined to be different” programming, interesting though the music was to hear – but perhaps I’m showing my prejudices regarding both the application of musical “novelties” to programmes and the parallel neglect of homegrown music. With only one New Zealand work (Jack Body’s “Pulse”) to its concert-programming credit throughout 2009, and one (admittedly a premiere by John Psathas) over four concerts next year, I’d be tempted to observe that the orchestra isn’t putting across much of an indication of compositional activity in this country to its concert-going public, given that scheduling one New Zealand work per season is better than having none at all.

Having gotten the gripe out of the way, I can more freely plunge into the business of reviewing Sunday’s concert, which was a great success – firstly, Michael Houstoun came, saw and conquered with his spirited rendition of Beethoven’s largest and grandest piano concerto, while the two second-half works by turns tantalised and thrilled us with their displays of different kinds of orchestral virtuosity, the sultry rhythms and colours of Duke Ellington’s dance-suite, and the full gamut of instrumental brilliance and power generated by Respighi’s Roman picture-postcards. The combination of exciting solo and orchestral playing and the inimitable Wellington Town Hall ambience made for plenty of thrills and, for me, after-glowings of satisfaction.

No-one ever plays the “Emperor” these days as I first heard it played, which was in the grandest possible manner on a recording made by Daniel Barenboim with the great Otto Klemperer at the orchestral helm – totally anachronistic, but still glorious and overwhelming! Vestiges of that formative magnificence, I confess, haunt my perceptions of other performances experienced since, and with which I constantly struggle, as with all first loves – Houstoun’s and Marc Taddei’s conception was a lean and fiery one throughout the first movement, the playing generating considerable orchestral excitement in the opening tutti, and providing an interesting foil for the soloist’s slightly more detached and Olympian manner. I liked the way Taddei encouraged the orchestra brasses, the horns occasionally rasping with scarcely-contained ebullience, and wonderfully contrasting their manner with the beautifully-phrased poetry of the wind playing. As for the strings, their warm tones and incisive playing was a joy – only in places such as immediately after the “battering exchange” between piano and orchestra mid-movement, where they share canonical phrases with the piano did I feel they lacked the numbers for their playing to “tell”. Houstoun’s playing encompassed all of these moods with both initiatives and responses that took us to the music’s four corners – incisive when needed, lucid and cogent in argument, and ruminative at certain cadence-points, he realised the composer’s “generosity of spirit” to which he made reference in a programme-note containing his own, thoughtfully-expressed views of the whole concerto series.

After the first movement I found parts of the remainder of the concerto a tad less engaging – the slow movement was very pure, with concentrated feeling and tightly-conceived lines, but for me the merest shade driven in places where I wanted the music to stand and catch its own stillness, and make listeners aware of their own breath-taking….I thought it lacked some of what the Germans call “innigkeit”, an inward intensity and concentration that banishes all other awarenesses of things.  A moment that did work beautifully was the hushed lead-in to the finale, the piano’s sudden surge of energy into the rondo-theme excitingly breaking the spell and causing exhalations of pleasure from some fellow-listeners in the hall. Houstoun had an uncharacteristic moment of lack of poise in one of the rondo episodes, but quickly recovered, enjoying the music’s exhilarations and contrasting episodes of playful teasing with the orchestra, even at one point anticipating and reaching a downbeat before Taddei and the orchestra could get there, to no great harm in the flow and ebb of it all. At the end, a well-deserved standing ovation seemed to abruptly and surprisingly come to an end, as if people were expecting something would be said from the platform by somebody, who never actually appeared. If there were flowers for Houstoun, one hopes he received them backstage, at least – his achievement in presenting the whole series of concertos with Taddei and the orchestra during the year deserved the warmest and most heartfelt acclaim.

After the interval, Marc Taddei spoke with the audience about the orchestra’s 2010 season, a schedule which I thought had been very nicely devised – a feature had been made of centenaries of pieces of music and their composers, with works connected with 1910, 1810 and 1710, as well as with the present (John Psathas’s commissioned work “Djinn”).  Of course, this configuration worked against including any New Zealand composition except a new one, which was the case with the above work (“Che sara, sara” as the song goes – but I shall return, teeth bared, snapping at the orchestra’s programming heels, in 2011!). In truth I thought the schedule showed rather more flair and imagination regarding repertoire than did the NZSO’s already-published 2010 prospectus, with mouth-watering things promised such as Elgar’s Violin Concerto played by award-winning violinist Feng Ning, and Saint-Saens’ wonderful “Organ Symphony”.

I had little idea what to expect of the Duke Ellington work “The River”, though it seemed on the face of things to resemble Smetana’s well-known “Vltava” from his “Ma Vlast”, the idea of tracing the course of a river from its source through different episodes to either a lake or a larger river or even the sea. One of the sections of the score was titled “Village Virgins”, causing some conjecture regarding how such beings could be rendered musically (Smetana’s “virginal” equivalent, not actually in “Vltava” of course, but elsewhere in “Ma Vlast”, was the war-maiden Sarka and her fellow-Amazons). In the event, the suite of seven movements featured plenty of recognisably “bluesy” rhythms and textures which could have hinted at the music’s origins, but also some full-blooded cinematoscopic orchestral all-togethers, expertly scored by “the Duke”. I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d got my sequences of what I was hearing in line with the programme’s titles, but the ballad-like opening “Spring” with its melismatic horn parts made a great impression, with lovely playing from all concerned. Another movement to impress was the “Giggling Rapids” episode, evoked by a piano solo and agile brass, with terrific percussion work from Jeremy Fitzsimmons. I also liked the section called “The Lake”, beginning with great stillness, and sensitive detailing from the winds over the top of a broadly flowing tune from the lower strings, which eventually became a kind of “Begin the Beguine” from the brass. Finally, just as the virgins were getting into the swing of things during their section, the lights began to dim, and, as the music finished everything in the hall dissolved into blackness, like the end of a scene from a movie – very atmospheric and nicely brought off. Joseph Haydn, of course, would have loved it!

The empty seats in both “organ galleries” had meanwhile been filled by bandsmen and women carrying various shining instruments, in preparation for Respighi’s work to follow – and what a performance it was! I thought the orchestra boxed, as the saying goes, pounds above its actual weight, capturing all the brilliance and  gaiety of the opening section at a scintillating tempo, but one which didn’t “flatten out” the rhythms at all, keeping everything nicely spiked and buoyant. The change to a deep, sonorous ambience for the second section was utterly compelling and dramatic, with Tom Moyer’s trumpet-playing true and sweet, if simply too close and unatmospheric (if he had been offstage it would have been a truly magical moment) and Taddei and his players building the great central archway to brilliant effect. The third section featured more beautiful solo work, this time from clarinettist Moira Hurst, summoning up the enchantment of a nightingale’s song, and setting the scene for the ghostly procession to follow, an eerie, plangently-voiced cor-anglais solo ((Madeleine Sakofsky) seeming to awaken the shades of returning armies marching upon the still-sleeping city. Taddei set a marvellously slow tempo, eschewing the virtuoso romp through this section that spoils many recorded performances by crack orchestras, and instead vividly capturing the sense of a human juggernaut inexorably approaching, and menacing in its power. By this time, the array of brass players on both sides were on their feet, ready to awaken the citizenry and salute the homecoming heroes. What sounds they were! – as the brass players from the Central RNZAF Band, the Pelorus Trust Wellington Brass Band and the Titan Hutt City Brass Band gave voice to their instruments, along with the deep tones of the Town Hall pipe organ, along with the orchestra playing at full stretch enriching the soundscape with the loudest tones I think I’ve heard in the Town Hall since a performance of the Berlioz Requiem I heard given thirty years ago. Simply overwhelming! Bravo!

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