Fantasy and reality – New Zealand School of Music Orchestra Concert

SCHUMANN – Piano Concerto in A Minor

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No.11 The Year 1905

Diedre Irons (piano)

Kenneth Young (conductor)

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

St.Andrews on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 12th May 2010

This concert reinforced my feeling that there is a pressing need in Wellington for an alternative mid-sized venue for concerts. Ensembles such as amateur and student orchestras, whose following wouldnt perhaps stretch to filling with audience an auditorium such as the Town Hall, nevertheless deserve to play somewhere thats more acoustically grateful to orchestral sound than is St. Andrews on-the-Terrace Church. Throughout both of the orchestral concerts Ive attended at the church this year, I found myself thinking how much more musical both bands would sound if playing in an acoustic less bright, analytical and constricted than what they and their audiences have had to cope with.

Ive no wish to denigrate such a wonderful church as a concert venue for solo recitals, chamber groups and smaller vocal and instrumental ensembles, and have enjoyed many concerts there given by those kinds of forces. Like many churches, the intrinsically theatrical layout and performance ambience of St.Andrews makes it an ideal place to listen to and enjoy an enormous range of music performances, as the recent series of March Concerts which ran parallel to the International Arts Festival richly demonstrated. But try to jam a sizeable orchestra or the forces required for a major choral work into the performing space and then listen to them perform the resulting sound reflects all-too-obviously a lack of ample space for effective large-scale music-making.

As an ex-player in an amateur orchestra I often used to reflect on the phenomenon of the performances I took part in sounding considerably more mellifluous when our group performed in public, compared to the sounds we made at our rehearsals, the difference being largely a warmer and better-balanced acoustic at our regular concert venue than what we had to endure in our cramped practice rooms. A pity that both the Wellington Chamber Orchestra and the NZ School of Music Orchestra dont have the luxury of a similar sound-metamorphosis. One could reflect by way of compensation that we live in a troubled, less-than-ideal world, and making and listening to music in a less-than-ideal acoustic environment could perhaps be regarded as a metaphor for our troubled times.

The music featured on the programme for this concert mirrors some of the issues associated with troubled times the Schumann concerto is a romantic, almost escapist evocation of a world removed from irreconcilable conflict and darkness; while its pairing with the Shostakovich symphony in the concert could epitomize the chasm between an ideal and the reality of life. The latter work all too graphically depicts the constraints placed upon individual activity and happiness by a regime prepared to brutally sacrifice human life to maintain the status quo. Certainly the contrast between the two halves of the concert couldnt help but make upon listeners an enormous impression of distance traversed, and of experience both enjoyed and resolutely confronted.

The orchestra had the inestimable benefit of pianist Diedre Irons as soloist for the Schumann concerto, a work with whose performance shes been identified over the years. She certainly commanded the keyboard to thrilling effect in places, such as in the first-movement cadenza, and during those joyously abandoned moments in the work’s finale, when piano and orchestra match momentums stride-for-stride. Perhaps the immediacy of the acoustic had something to do with it, but I was surprised her playing seemed very insistently-projected in places where I was expecting more light-and-shade, more limpid and withdrawn tones, as with the first movement’s main theme (I did write in my notes at that point, “piano very full-toned – but we are all very close, and this IS a full-blooded romantic piano concerto!”). Having said this, I thought the slow movement beautifully phrased throughout by piano and orchestra alike, a highlight being the gorgeous tones of the ‘cellos in their “big tune” mid-way through the movement, which the rest of the strings joined in with and shared. The winds, while not always DEAD in tune throughout, negotiated some lovely exchanges with the piano at the very end of this movement. And all credit to both oboe and clarinet, in the first movement voicing their respective first-and second-subject themes clearly and gracefully, and to the horns for their great calls at the reprise of the finale’s main, leaping theme.

In general, I thought the musicians captured the joy of the music, if not all the poetic nuances of the writing – I was able to witness a huge wink from conductor Ken Young to his soloist after she had completed a surging flourish leading into one of those full-blooded orchestral tutti in the finale, an exchange which nicely summed up the collaborative spirit of the performance. No such joy and tumbling warmth was in evidence during the concert’s second half, featuring Shostakovich’s mighty Eleventh Symphony – whatever collaborative spirit celebrated by the music was indeed a grim, resolute affair, the symphony’s subtitle “The Year 1905” providing a clue as to the work’s intent and physical and emotional terrain. Having heard Ken Young expertly conduct a similarly harsh and confrontational work last year, the Sixth Symphony of Vaughan Williams, I was prepared to have my sensibilities similarly laid bare by the Russian composer’s all-too-palpable depictions of violent oppression and untoward human suffering.

The symphony is one of a number of Shostakovich’s works which has acquired over the years a certain negative reputation for politically-motivated bombast. True, in certain hands, these works can sound empty and over-inflated, but rarely when interpreted by Russian conductors like Mravinsky and Kondrashin, who get their players to cut through the hollow-sounding rhetoric to the nub of the matter. In a sense, everything is already in the music (as with Michelangelo’s “releasing the angel from the stone”) and the musicians simply work to set it all free. For me, this is just what Ken Young’s conducting and the playing of the student musicians (helped by a handful of NZSO players) managed to do throughout the work. The Symphony emerged as the searing, universal testament of human suffering and fortitude that its composer would have wanted it to be.

Each movement’s prevailing character was sharply etched – the hushed opening, with its ghostly brass fanfares (both trumpet and horn by turns capturing that paradoxical sense of enormity of distance in time and space, and oppressive, impending menace, the occasional split note mattering little in such an atmosphere), the flute duo’s melancholy song, and the constant suggestions from orchestral groupings of underlying suffering, despair and menace, set the scene for the nightmarish coruscations to follow. Young beautifully controlled the second movement’s swirling foretaste of the ensuing tragedy, and got the utmost out of all sections during the pitiless fugal passages and the savage three-against-two brass-and-percussion onslaught, everybody, the audience included, collapsing with exhaustion at the end, the trumpet calls having a proper “angel-of-death” ambience, with strings and winds offering little consolation.

Over portentous pizzicati the violas beautifully sang their third-movement lament, joined by violins (playing lower!) to great effect, the ensuing quasi-Wagnerian textures (shades of Siegfried and Fafner!) dissipated by conciliatory strings, Young building the intensities with his players to almost-unbearable thresholds of pain and angst, before the short-lived respite offered by the return of the viola theme. Still, nothing in the performance surpassed the players’ commitment to the “Tocsin” finale (my notes feature scribbled exclamations such as “wonderful punch and spike”, “like a series of hammer-blows”, “slashing violin lines”, “roaring, stuttering brass”, and “shattering climax”, one’s critical senses obviously too dumbstruck by the onslaught to resort at the time to anything more than cliches!). It didn’t matter that, in the final uproar, I couldn’t hear the climactic tubular bells being rung at all – there was simply no room in the crowded soundscape – it was that feeling of having witnessed musicians at full stretch playing music which activated one’s capacities for total involvement which was lastingly treasurable and made the most impression.

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