Wellington Chamber Orchestra – family connections

ANTONIN DVORAK – Serenade for  Winds in D Minor Op.44

TABEA SQUIRE – The Suneater – for Recorders and Strings

HELMUT SADLER – Concertino for Recorders and Strings

JOSEF SUK – Symphony in E Major Op.14

Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Soloists: Members of the Recorders and Early Music Union

Conductor: Gregory Squire

St.Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 6th December, 2009

Family ties involving both composers and performers were brought into play through this concert – firstly, on the strictly compositional front, works by both Antonin Dvorak and his son-in-law Joseph Suk featured on the programme; while Wellingtonian composer Tabea Squire’s commissioned work “The Suneater – for Recorders and Strings” received skilled and committed advocacy from musicians whose ranks included both of her parents, conductor Gregory Squire and leader of the Recorders and Early Music Union, Katrin Eickhorst-Squire. I was interested in the conductor’s (and, presumably, the orchestra committee’s) decision to play Tabea Squire’s new work TWICE on the programme – while it seemed a laudable thing to do for a new piece, helping the audience to take in so much more of the work’s essence on a second hearing, one would hope that Greg Squire would want to extend such advocacy to all new music he conducts. His enthusiastic and engaging spoken introduction to the work emphasised the importance of repeated hearings to the understanding of any unfamiliar music – by way of example he amusingly quoted his first encounter as a student with Brahms’s First Symphony.

However, it was not Brahms, but his great contemporary, Dvorak, whose music opened the orchestra’s programme, the Serenade for Winds, Op.44. This was a work which obviously represented another formative musical experience for the conductor, who described the prospect of directing the piece as akin to a dream come true. Something about this piece truly engages people – the friend I happened to be sitting next to in the audience bent over and whispered to me “This is my funeral music” just as the piece was about to begin! It’s certainly a most lovable work, one which the Chamber Orchestra wind players (helped by a ‘cello and double-bass) relished with delight, digging into the dotted rhythms of the opening with great enthusiasm and managing some nice dynamic variation through the lead-back measures (lovely clarinets in thirds, nicely answered by horns) to the opening’s return. The second movement (a trifle fast for the players’ articulation at the outset) deftly pointed the contrast between the lyrical opening and the scherzo-like trio section scamperings, even if some of the instrumental solos had treacherous twists, and the tricky rhythmic dovetailings at the end of the scherzo-episode fully stretched the group’s capabilities as an ensemble.The players got a lovely colour at the slow movement’s beginning, horns, bassoons and strings laying down a rich carpet of sound on which the individual solos could be floated; and while there were smudged instrumental lines in places, ensemble was good and the overall feeling was right. A good, strong and forthright opening set the finale on its way confidently, and even if the ensemble subsequently lacked the sheer weight of tone to bring to bear to the growing excitement of the rhythms and exuberance of the fanfares at the end there were heartwarming moments, the most engaging being at the recapitulation of the work’s very opening, sturdily and strongly played.

Tabea Squire’s work for recorders and strings was inspired by Keri Hulme’s iconic novel “The Bone People”, in which story appears a “Suneater”, an idiosyncratic device made of wires, mirrors and crystal which spins when placed in the sun, and which is accidentally broken by its maker. Further inspiration for the composer came from various world mythologies that have developed “sun-eating” stories explaining the oscillations in nature between darkness and light. The music explored a range of colours and hypnotic rhythms which suggested these processes. Right from its eerie Aeolian-harp-like opening on strings, through exchanges both throaty and piping-like with various recorders, the piece unerringly evolved a strongly-wrought atmosphere, somewhat reminiscent of Holst’s “Neptune” in places. I liked the oscillations between rich strings and more astringent winds, which moved the sounds away from such remote “unknown region” ambiences and into more volatile and interactive realms. The intensely “breathy” effect of the recorders gave the last section an almost primitive feel, the instruments’ earthy,  “wrong-note” harmonies moving the sounds as a block out and away from the string ambiences, like a separation of disparate elements, each to their own realms. A second playing of the piece focused these thoughts concerning union and dissolution even more strongly, though I found it was interesting how uniquely “charged” the first performance felt, compared with the repeat, when things simply sounded “different” – everything with more focus a second time round, but less ethereal and magical in effect.

Helmut Sadler’s pleasant but largely unremarkable Concertino for Recorders and Strings filled in an entertaining quarter-hour’s listening, from the “Walk in the Black Forest” aspect of the opening movement, with its out-of-door, almost cinematographic ambiences, and rumbustious attention-seeking tones from the massed recorders, through some quasi-exotic harmonisings in attractively ritualised marches and processionals (some lovely, sensitive solo and ensemble work from the wind players) to a final agitato movement, whose slower middle section was marred by some poor wind tuning, but whose livelier sections were well-upholstered by the strings and deftly negotiated by the “group of soloists”.

The family circle aspect of the concert was completed by the orchestra’s performance of Josef Suk’s Symphony in E Major, an early work, in many ways indebted to the influence of Dvorak, who was Suk’s teacher as well as becoming his father-in-law, but with many original and beautiful touches. As this was the only full orchestral outing of the afternoon for the players they made the most of things, and gave the performance all they had. Before the performance Greg Squire spoke of the composer’s later, darker works, such as the Asrael Symphony, written in the wake of the deaths of both Suk’s father-in-law and his wife, and emphasised by comparison the relatively sunny nature of the earlier symphony. The playing was marked by some lovely solo work in places – a single horn at the start, the clarinet introducing the second subject – and Greg Squire asked for and got great rolling cascades of sound in places, strings capped by festive brass, triumphant and buoyant. Similarly, for the slow movement, my notes read “lovely solos from clarinet and oboe, rich string accompaniments, playing captures the music’s volatility – everything full-on…” The orchestra realised plenty of the scherzo’s dancing energy and spirit, with only the trio section sounding less happy due to some string-intonation lapses.  As for the finale, although too long (the composer’s exuberance getting the better of his judgement with too many episodes and climactic denouments) Greg Squire’s and his orchestra’s concentration never flagged, keeping the narrative well-paced and nicely detailed. There were some tricky exposed passages for strings that sounded uncomfortable for the players at one or two purple points, but more importantly, the epic sweep of the music was conveyed to us in as full-blooded a manner as was required.

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