Brilliant NZSO in Slav and Finnish country

Smetana: Sarka from Ma Vlast; Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Tchaikosky: Symphony No 6 ‘Pathétique’

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Hilary Hahn (violin)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 23 April, 6.30pm

I have the feeling that while the Wellington audience realizes that Hilary Hahn is quite a good violinist, many do not quite know the extent of her international renown. One doesn’t become a Gramophone magazine Artist of the Year on account of being simply competent – and that was 18 months ago. The NZSO programme booklet, at least, marked the orchestra’s awareness of her pre-eminence with an unusual double-spread biographical essay. There was a full house and I understand some were turned away: a contrast with the situation at the fine Bruckner/Strauss concert a fortnight earlier which, of course, had deserved a similar audience.

Hahn’s vehicle was the Sibelius concerto, oddly, only seven months after the orchestra’s performance of it in the Sibelius Festival with its concertmaster as soloist. That was a fine performance, but this one was superb. Not only did Hahn demonstrate every kind of spiritual energy, from dynamic power to breathless, poetic finesse in her role, but her very presence, petite and all as she is, seemed to inspire in the orchestra a boundless intensity in the tutti, and especially in the cellos and basses (both sections seem remarkably inspired by the leadership of bassist Hiroshi Ikematsu), low brass and bassoons, but also their obverse: misty, shimmering pianissimi in the opening pages and the several magical diminishings of sheer physical power, such as in the slow movement.

Even if her scarlet dress didn’t altogether endorse the emotion of the tremulous, sub-audible dawning passage at the opening, it came to represent the character of her ful-blooded playing soon enough, helped by the commanding projection of sound from her fine instrument.

She played an encore, to cleanse he palette, as it were – the Allegro assai (I think) from Bach’s 3rd solo violin sonata.

What most characterizes her playing is not just the flawless intonation, beauty of tone and the detailed nuances that colour and embroider every phrase, but the celebration of the human spirit, generosity and optimism, belief in the importance of human creativity (if such purple extravagances be allowed). Those are the spiritual messages of all great art, regardless of the specific emotions and images with which they engage.

Those thoughts recurred listening to Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, with its assumed text of despair, a reading that is hard to avoid as one leaves with the last movement in the ears. Yet that is hardly the overwhelming message of the earlier movements, though in a performance such as this where I felt both second and third movements to be in the nature of forced rejoicing, unvarying in their tempo and without much dynamic variety.

It struck me that Inkinen’s immediate start of the last movement was as much to deny any temptation to hear the March-like 3rd movement as an affirmation of over-confidence, to reject it at once as empty bombast, as it was to stop the inevitable, unwanted applause that makes such a juxtaposition hard to bring about.

While the middle two movements are interesting, the Pathétique’s heart, unlike with many great symphonies, seems to lie in the first and last movements which seem far more complex, obscure, ambiguous and plain beautiful than the two middle movements. Their orchestration, their ebb and flow of speed and dynamics, exert a much stronger attraction to the emotions and to tantalize the intellect.

Played at the beginning, and completing this programme devoted to the music of the Slav, and near-Slav world, was the long overdue playing of one of Smetana’s symphonic poems: an imaginative stroke. It puzzles me that so many of the pieces of music that feature in writings about music and that furnish the minds of at least older audience members, from their childhood, are ignored by concert arrangers: the more popular of the Ma Vlast cycle for example, Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and MeadowsSarka is a particularly dramatic piece, perhaps not entirely successful in its shape, but susceptible, as shown here, to brilliant and arresting performance; the clarinet solos were most eloquent and there were fine passages from other players such as trombones and tuba.

Lovers of the tone poems lament that a composer of such orchestral flair didn’t attempt the symphony, or more large-scale orchestral music.

In all, this was a brilliant concert fully justifying the big audience, and the presence of this remarkable violinist.

New Zealand Youth Choir – the Wellington Connection

Wellington Members of the NZ Youth Choir

Fundraising Concert for Asia/Australia Tour

Music by Tallis, Stanford, Brahms, R.Strauss, Mendelssohn, Shearing, Rachmaninov, Penderecki, Bellini, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Carter, David Farquhar, Wehi Whanau

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

23rd April 2010

At the end of June the New Zealand Youth Choir heads off to Asia for an international tour that will include concerts in Singapore, South Korea and China, before returning to Australasia via further performance dates in Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney. During April, the Wellington members of the Choir gave a fundraising concert at St.Mary of the Angels’ Church, one which readily demonstrated not only the group’s corporate abilities, but individual choir members’ variety of musical skills. If the other “chapters” of the choir possess comparable abilities, the assembled group will, under their artistic director Karen Grylls, a musical force to be reckoned with.

Throughout the concert one had to “bend one’s ears” to pick up the microphoned voice-announcements in between each item, some of which were almost impossible to decipher in the reverberant acoustic of the venue. Fortunately the musical performances were unaffected, even if the placement of the singers in one or two instances didn’t do the performances complete justice. Generally the church’s ample acoustic served the singers and instrumentalists well, in both solo and ensemble items.

The concert began with a group of two English anthems, the well-known  If Ye Love Me by Thomas Tallis, and the setting by Charles Stanford of Psalm 119 Verse 1 Beati Quorum Via, the choir conducted by Ruth Kirkwood.Immediately one registered the soprano lines in the Tallis work as clear, beautifully-defined strands with a rich, full quality. With the Stanford motet the mens’ voices had more chance to shine, particularly the tenors, whose singing featured long-breathed lines and lovely pianissimi. Throughout the six parts the tuning was good and the tones both delicately and richly-sustained equally by the smaller groups and the full choir.

Following this was the Brahms Quartet Der Gang zum Liebchen (Way to the Beloved) Op.31 No.3. I would have brought the voices further forward for this, as Belinda Maclean’s excellent piano-playing was given too much physical prominence by the placement of the instrument, in places obscuring the close-knit vocal lines. Nevertheless, the group’s lovely singing gave pleasure, with only the softer, more delicately pointed harmonies failing to register as they ought, due to the balance. Strauss’s song Morgen worked better, with its more open textures and soprano Amanda Barclay’s clear, focused tones, sensitively accompanied, again by Belinda Maclean. The performers took us into the song’s heart, capturing all of the setting’s awareness, expectation and rapture – a lovely performance. Belinda Maclean was to demonstrate further talents with two harp solos later in the programme, her playing of what sounded like a “Willow Song” bringing out such beguiling qualities as a pliability of touch and phrasing that made every note a pleasure to listen to.

The choir’s delivery of Mendelssohn’s Drei Volkslieder did the music proud, with the first song’s gentle pastoral lilt set against the slightly sinister tread of the following piece’s minor-key mood, all tensions resolved with the carol-like finale. Imogen Thirwell’s wonderfully capricious performance of David Farquhar’s Princess Alice was another whose effect would have been more telling had the singer been placed further forward – as it was, her bright, eager voice and clear-as-a-bell diction delighted, as did her use of facial gesture to “flesh out” and punctuate the words. More word-pointing, this time from the whole choir, enlivened the George Searing number Lullaby of Birdland, with some lovely harmonisings and echoings of the lines throughout. At the other end of the “entertainment” scale were the performances of both Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse Devo, the Hymn to the Virgin from the composer’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil”), and the Sanctus from Penderecki’s Requiem, the Rachmaninov bringing out the voices’ deepest and richest tones, casting a dark and ruminative spell, and the Penderecki filled with tensions and strained beauties, the lines constantly fractured or broken for expression’s sake.

More individual performaces included baritone Josh Kidd’s bright, energetic and attractively Italienate singing of Bellini’s Vaga Luna, Isaac Stone’s droll, nicely folkish rendering of Britten’s setting of the English folksong The Foggy Foggy Dew , and Jessica Lightfoot’s rapt, dusky-toned playing of the slow movement Canzonetta from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, beautifully partnered on the piano by Evie Reiney. When one thinks about it, it stands to reason that a person’s musicality would more than likely manifest itself in a number of ways, though such demonstrations of multi-faceted technical proficiency still seemed remarkable. The focus appropriately returned to the choir for the last bracket of items, including a rhythmically-alert and glorious-toned rendition of the Negro Spiritual I‘m Gonna Sing, and a beautifully-grounded final number, the Wehi Whanau’s  Wairua Tapu, complete with body actions, music that gives one the feeling of belonging to a very specific part of the world, one that the members of this choir will undoubtedly play their part in representing with great honour and distinction.