Dame Malvina Major and the NZSO – a concert of commitment

ANTHONY RITCHIE – French Overture

GIUSEPPE VERDI – I Vespri Siciliani “Merce dilette amiche”

GIACOMO PUCCINI – Tosca “Vissi d’arte”, Madama Butterfy “Un bel di vedremo”, Gianni Schicci “O mio babbino caro”

VINCENZO BELLINI – Norma “Casta Diva”

EDWARD ELGAR – Symphony No.1

Dame Malvina Major (soprano)

Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, 14th May, 2010

I was originally going to “roll two reviews into one”, as Dame Malvina Major was performing on consecutive days with the orchestra in Wellington; but after thoroughly enjoying the first of the two concerts I made an executive decision to write about the two events separately, so as to properly “place” the tumbling profusion of impressions that the first event alone landed upon me. What struck me most forcibly about this concert was the sheer commitment shown by all concerned to the task of getting the music across to us. From the opening strains of Anthony Ritchie’s beguiling “French Overture”, through the beautifully-delivered operatic arias bracket by Dame Malvina Major, and finally to the stirring blaze of Sir Edward Elgar’s first, epoch-making symphony, I thought the musical responses had a whole-heartedness and sense of purpose that drove to the heart of each of the works presented. Even when one could quibble with this detail here and that emphasis there, the sense of everybody’s involvement in the music-making carried the day, resulting in a most successful and heart-warming concert.

Centrestage was Dame Malvina Major, bringing to her performances of several well-known and much loved operatic arias an amalgam of stylishness and simplicity of utterance that  served the music well throughout. Backed to the hilt by stellar playing from the orchestra, expertly guided by New Zealand’s most prominent and currently successful overseas-based conductor, Tecwyn Evans, Dame Malvina successfully brought each of the operatic heroines to life on the concert platform for us. Perhaps she struggled at the very beginning of the recital to produce enough tone and heft to project the vigorous aria sung by Elena in Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, “Merce, dilete amiche”; and her rendering of Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” which followed, ideally also needed a bit more juice at its climax. But in other ways the latter was so well-focused, so detailed and heartfelt in depicting the character’s desperation, that we forgave the lack of amplitude at one or two cardinal points.

One registered the beautiful phrasing and sensitively-weighted line in Bellini’s “Casta Diva”, singing which seemed to expand naturally and unforcedly into golden outpourings at the big moments, that same elegance of vocal production shaping the lines of “O mio babbino caro” so unerringly as to melt the stoutest paternal heart. Only in the more strenuous moments of Madama Butterfly’s famous “Un bel di vedremo” did one sense a voice having to be content with less that what the music seemed to require; but the sheer musicality of Dame Malvina’s more subtle delineations of Cio-Cio San’s character revealed for us the artist that she remains.

Framing the Dame, so to speak, were two orchestral excursions, the concert beginning with Anthony Ritchie’s intriguingly-titled “French Overture”, a work which the composer wrote while on study leave in Paris in response to a commission by conductor Tecwyn Evans. Ritchie modelled his work on the form of a French baroque overture, with its slow-fast-slow scheme, as well having recourse to characteristic dotted rhythms and fugato form to strengthen the traditional connections. What struck me about the work (as with Ross Harris’s two pieces in the recent “Made in New Zealand concert) was the music’s overall surety of shape and focus throughout, allied with its splendidly-modulated use of detail, leading the ear ever-onwards in a more-or-less continuous exploration of melody, rhythm and colour. The opening brass-and-percussion flourishes set the scene splendidly, as if proclaiming a kind of historical pageant to follow, the mood of the introduction by turns stern, epic, lyrical (a beautifully soaring theme on the violins over the lower strings’ dotted rhythms), and noble (golden horn tones warming the textures).

Throughout the work I felt that forms such as fugue were being used in ways that related to what had come before, either by osmotic transition or well thought-out contrast – here the fugal impulses which seized the strings mid-work seemed to have been waiting in the wings since the beginning, and so were readily integrated into the later “workings-out” of revisited and enriched material. Thus the return of the imposing opening music’s mood is enriched with a darker, grander statement of the fugal subject, after the winds had earlier roared out a somewhat livelier version, again in tandem with or in close proximity to a soaring string tune shedding stratospheric light on a tattooing timpani rhythm. I loved the folkish “slur” on the lowest reach of the flute-and-strings tune, repeated by the lower strings when they had their turn – and the strings-and-timpani conclusion to the work, with the sounds slowly emptying out through the ether, felt profoundly satisfying.

As well as with this performance, conductor Tecwyn Evans had amply demonstrated earlier in the month his commitment to contemporary New Zealand composition with his directorship of both the NZSO/SOUNZ Readings, and the “Made In New Zealand” concert to his credit. Now, to set beside his skills as an operatic accompanist, Evans then gave notice of his abilities as a symphonic conductor with a stirring performance of one of the great late-romantic symphonies, Sir Edward Elgar’s 1908 Symphony in A-flat. Right from the beginning of the work one could sense the care with which the “great tune” was shaped and nurtured, with beguiling touches of wind counterpoint brought out in a sensitively colouristic way and the “pomp and circumstance” of its repetition on the full orchestra splendidly hurled forth, if just missing that final touch of swagger in evidence on the very greatest performances on record. Especially notable in the first movement was the conductor’s balancing of the music’s purposeful energies with its more lyrical and winsome aspects (such an intensely beguiling grace given to that repeated melismatic phrase which sits at the top of a solo violin’s upwardly striving tendrils – on each occasion a moment of real orchestral frisson, catching the sllghtly “wind-blown” effect to perfection).

Terrific playing from all concerned gave the scherzo real bite and colour (received wisdom has it that Elgar’s writing for orchestra is an exemplar for any budding composer wanting to study instrumentation). The trio section in this performance conjured up sound-worlds of evocation in line with the composer’s description of the melody as “something one hears whistled down by the river”. And the transition from this to the slow movement was a sequence to die for, as much for what it promised as what was fulfilled, the string textures warming and ripening, as the players found themselves given plenty of time to “breathe” their lines deeply and richly. A Brucknerian horn chord introduced the movement’s main theme, with its characteristic falling interval, whose sigh of contentment or regret or both is goosebump-making when played, as it was here, with sufficient heartfelt intensity. Even more heart-rending was the strings’ soaring transformation of the opening theme towards the movement’s end, the rhapsodisings melting back regretfully into a final, beautifully rapt clarinet phrase. At the risk of sounding like a musical Pooh-Bah I confess to cursing the gaucheries of that section of the audience which applauded during the silence that followed, and had to stop myself springing to my feet and “shushing!” in response to the outburst, well-meaning though the show of appreciation undoubtedly was.

Nevertheless, the finale’s brooding, rather sinister opening “got back” the atmosphere quickly and surely, the allegro urgent and strong, perhaps the tiniest bit splashy ensemble-wise, but settling to allow the violas to dig into their striding theme with plenty of outdoor vigour. Perhaps the conductor pushed the staccato theme too quickly when it first appeared (it slows down anyway as it peaks), but the ensuing bustle and tumult of “working out” were extremely exciting, and the ennobling of that same theme by the strings had all the romantic sweep one would wish for. When the symphony’s motto theme returned at the end, after fighting its way through the various agitations and galvanic irruptions, the effect was thrilling; and at the detonation of the very last chord, we in the audience were able to at last express our pent-up excitement and pleasure at witnessing such a brilliant and committed performance.

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