Wellington Orchestra opens the season in fine form

Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei

Stravinsky: Danses concertantes (1942); Psathas: Djinn (with Pedro Carneiro – marimba); Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E flat ‘Eroica’

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 17 April 2010

The Wellington Orchestra’s 2010 season does not have such a conspicuous theme as the two previous seasons have had. This year the anniversaries are being celebrated: while I am personally affected by such curiosity, not everyone is urged to place everything in a historical continuum. So the first concert was about this year, and marks it with a piece by a New Zealand composer first performed at this concert which is, oddly enough, 2010. Following concerts feature music first performed in 1810, 1910 and 1710 respectively.

Marc Taddei told us that the choice of the programme pivoted on Psathas’s new work, which he wanted to set between important music from the greatest composers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

At certain points in the 20th century there may have been little argument about Stravinsky’s pre-eminence; it might not be so obvious now. Just one, and clearly idiosyncratic, measure: in my own collection of LPs and CDs, six other composers born after 1875 rate higher – Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ravel, Bartok, Vaughan Williams, with Poulenc hard on Stravinsky’s heels! 

Nor would everyone think the Danses concertantes stand alongside Beethoven’s Eroica. Stravinsky envisaged it as music for dance but few ballet companies have taken it on, and it certainly doesn’t rank with the three great ballets, or even later ones such as Apollon Musagète, Le baiser de la fée or Agon. Yet it sounds very danceable, even though it is all written in varieties of common time, two of the five sections being marches, of unmistakable Stravinsky character. The melodies and the orchestration are also unmistakeable, notwithstanding possible influence of a composer like Poulenc (though that might that have worked the other way?).

The orchestra handled the vivid dynamic and tempo changes, and balances between winds and strings, with dramatic awareness; if polish was uneven there were plenty of moments where the sonorities and the instrumental textures delighted: the familiar horn fanfares were just one. Conductor and orchestra showed a singular instinct for the score.

What the performance did was to remind me of the large number of Stravinsky’s orchestral works, quite apart from the three great ballets) that we should hear more often – the three symphonies, the Divertimento, the concertos, as well as the later ballets such as Pulcinella, Jeu de cartes and those mentioned above.  If he is the greatest composer of last century, why does he feature so rarely in the concert hall and, relative to others such as those I named, on recordings?

The main course was the premiere of John Psathas’s new orchestral score, entitled Djinn. César Franck’s symphonic poem of the same name, inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem, was, naturally, of no help in preparing one’s receptors for it.

It is a concerto for marimba and orchestra, predominantly ebullient, riotous, though often with an implicit calm, suggestions of raga, of Latin sentiment, all the while employing the orchestra, especially percussion and winds, with enormous virtuosity. Not overlooking the palette of effects from strings that created the element of mysticism that lies in the Indian supernatural being which Psathas blends, at least in his evocative note, with Greek mythology and philosophy: for two of the three movements have Greek references (Pandora, Labyrinth and Out-dreaming the Genie).

One could imagine that the Djinn, depicted by the marimba, played with almost unbelievable wizardry by Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro, was floating above or was inseminated into the entire fabric of the piece.  Not a conventional concerto by any means, not even with the ebb-tide, look-alike cadenza that ended the Labyrinth movement.  A secondary soloist in Jeremy Fitzsimons’s side drum, placed in front of the conductor; whose role hardly seemed to justify the limelight.

Without having seen the score, I can only imagine the near dismay that might have faced Marc Taddei when he first opened it, and even more, as rehearsals began. Not only the task of realizing the sounds and their relative weight and meaning, but the complex rhythms.  The outcome was a highly impressive premiere which I’m sure will tempt other orchestras.

Nevertheless, I found myself more than a little bemused and battered at the end of this phantasmagoria of riotous sound; increasingly a lover of the sublime, of sustained lyricism and spirituality: speed and massive orchestral forces have decreasing appeal for me, even when huge skill, undeniable musical impulse, an underlying scheme and a spiritual message are present. As the Emperor said (foolishly, and probably apocryphally) about Die Entführung aus dem Serail: ‘Too many notes my dear Mozart’. But I wouldn’t dare.

Just as it has become risky for a 90-piece symphony orchestra today to tackle pre-1800 music, because the ‘historically-informed’ police frown, so it might be risky for a small orchestra to tackle orchestral music from the Eroica onwards. (Not that today we are short of lighter, tighter, more transparent accounts of the Romantic masterpieces from the likes of Gardiner and Harnoncourt). The immediate impression was of less than ideal weight and bass-driven sonority; and faster speeds than of old. But such impressions are often fleeting, and when within a few minutes the impact of a genuine musical instinct in a conductor becomes evident, all is well.

That was not quite what happened, as opportunities, in the first movement and again in the Finale, for the dramatic pause, the slight rallentando before a fresh declamation, were not always grasped; though the latter had started with a fine sense of foreboding, a slightly uneasy anticipation.

In the first movement, the orchestra, which played throughout with uncommon verve and commitment, was sometimes discomforted by the speed; the slightly brisker andante of the Funeral March made sense, while the Scherzo was surprisingly effective, perhaps benefiting from the leaner body of strings.

Nevertheless, the conductor and orchestra continue to attract big – almost sell-out – audiences, which makes one wonder at the signs of reduced activity this season.

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