NZSM Orchestra downtown for major concert with the school’s star teachers

Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (Wagner); Our Own Demise (Pieta Hextall); The Red Violin – Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra (Corigliano); Nocturnes – II Fêtes and III Sirènes (Debussy); Francesca da Rimini (Tchaikovsky)

The New Zealand School of Music Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Margaret Medlyn (Soprano) and Martin Riseley (violin)

Wellington Town Hall

Friday 30 July 7.30pm

The Red Violin was a 1997 film by François Giraud for which John Corigliano wrote the score; it told the adventures of a haunted violin. From it the composer arranged a piece for violin and orchestra – a Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra and it proved a fine showcase for Martin Riseley. It may have been his first appearance with an orchestra in a public venue since he returned to New Zealand to take up his position as Head of Strings at the New Zealand School of Music.

It has been a few years since the university orchestra performed down-town, at the Town Hall. So this was a very significant occasion, an opportunity to hear two of the school’s most distinguished teacher-performers, with international reputations.

The second was Margaret Medlyn. 

It was a particularly interesting programme that would both challenge a student orchestra, and thoroughly engage an audience.

It was also an unorthodox programme, starting with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan. Not the purely orchestral version that many would be familiar with, but with Margaret Medlyn who emerged through the orchestra during the last minute of the Prelude to deliver a ringing, passionate performance of the apotheosis that ends the opera – the ‘Love-death’. There was power without strain, riding easily over the orchestra’s ebb and flow, until the climax, the orgasm if you like, where the orchestra did rather dominate.  I am sure it was an arresting experience for all vocal students from the school to hear one of New Zealand’s finest singers in such repertoire.

The orchestra opened after the hall was appropriately dimmed to create a quasi-theatrical scene, with those famous, unresolved harmonies carefully articulated, well balanced, and with scrupulous attention to dynamics. One could often be forgiven for thinking one was listening to an experienced professional orchestra, in this and much else in the programme.

Next came the piece that won the 2009 Jenny McLeod Composition Prize, Pieta Hextall’s Our Own Demise, for which she offered a ‘programme’ in the form of quasi-political reflection on the curtailment of freedoms through the increasing complexity of society: a latter-day yearning for the age of the noble savage?. I quickly abandoned any attempt to make connections between that and the music, though the purpose of the alternation of spacious, pure harmonies and increasingly dense and complex textures was clear enough. Early, a phase of primitive, elemental sounds –strings tapped lightly with the bow, ethereal percussion – suggested a time of innocence, perhaps a very low level of social life. Later, an apparently aleatoric episode perhaps told of societal breakdown.  Its variety of expression and texture, mood and emotion maintained interest; it was coloured by an occasional almost melodic, consoling episode from the solo violin, then a gruff phrase from double basses and tutti tremolo that suggested swarming insects.

In some ways, I felt the idea lent itself too easily to the temptation to employ too many resources too insistently and too chaotically, and that less use of musical disharmony and confusion might have produced better music. But there was no denying Hextall’s imaginative, highly accomplished piece which the orchestra had clearly worked at very conscientiously.

Then came the Corigliano: a name not as well known here as in the United States where his fairly accessible orchestral music as well as his ‘opera-buffa’ The Ghosts of Versailles, have penetrated public awareness. Ghosts was one of the very few new operas to have been staged by the Met in New York since WW2.

The form of the piece, loose variations on a chaconne (basically a slow dance in triple time) ground bass, announced its attention to musical tradition and though its sounds could have derived from no other than the current era, there were some rhapsodic, unashamedly lovely episodes from the soloist, a striking flute solo, with echoes by other woodwinds, all demonstrating admirable musicality. Later we were treated to an almost hummable tune on the viola.

In short, it is music in the Barber, the popular Copland or later Rochberg tradition, for all of whom the audience mattered.

It achieved its aim of drawing attention to Riseley’s distinction as violinist.

The second half would have been welcome in an NZSO concert: two of Debussy’s Nocturnes for orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s great symphonic poem, Francesca da Rimini. The first was a scrupulous, admirably accurate portrayal of luminous, highly coloured scenes, hardly nocturnal I always feel. Fêtes sparkled with lively rhythms and brilliant performances by wind players, and also by well-disciplined strings (students filled the ranks of both violin sections: guest professionals did no more than enrich the lower strings). Sirènes featured a small and warmly seductive vocal ensemble underpinning more colourful playing.

If the concert so far had impressed by the orchestra’s precision and balance as well as its vitality under Hamish McKeich, Francesca da Rimini revealed some shortcomings. Strings got by very well but slips in the brass suggested less adequate rehearsal. Yet there were fine solos again here, in particular from clarinet and the lovely cello passage that follows. And the final phase built to its tragic, though exciting climax with splendid energy and youthful exuberance.

I must comment on the programme notes, by Frances Moore. More than commonly literate and displaying a wide-ranging musical knowledge, her notes for each of the three standard repertoire pieces – the Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Debussy – indicated an unusual talent for describing in imaginative terms, with a comfortable familiarity with pertinent literary, philosophical and artistic questions, significant musical connections that illuminate both composer and the music.

I was relieved that, though the gallery was closed, the stalls were well filled. It was an event that deserves to become an annual fixture that should get a lot more publicity. I was disappointed to see no acknowledgement of any City Council backing which I would have expected, giving substance to the council’s readiness to boast of the city as cultural capital.

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