Time-travelling Wellington Orchestra revisits 1810 and more….

Vector Wellington Orchestra – ‘1810’

BEETHOVEN – Overture ‘Egmont’ Op.84 / SCHUMANN – Piano Concerto in A Minor Op.54

ROSSINI – Overture ‘The Barber of Seville’ / STRAVINSKY – Ballet ‘Jeu de Cartes’

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 24th July, 2010

The idea of learning one’s history through music seems an attractive one; and the Wellington Orchestra’s 2010 programme has taken pains to forge links in time between the present year and various composers and their works connected with one, two, and three hundred years ago. The latest in this year’s concert series focused upon the year 1810, though only two of the four works on the programme seemed to have an association with that year. Of the others, the Stravinsky ballet Jeu de Cartes was part of a parallel series featuring the composer’s ballet works, and Rossini’s perennially delicious Overture Il Barbiere di Siviglia was included to highlight Stravinsky’s use of one of the most prominent tunes from the work in his own ballet.

One could posibly cavil at the shortish playing time of the concert, just as some of the audience at the NZSO last Saturday night objected to the longer-than-usual presentation. Perhaps room could have been found for another work, or the Rossini replaced by something a bit more substantial length-wise. A positive aspect was that the contents of the concert made a refreshing change from the usual formulaic componentry of such concerts – overture, concerto, symphonic work – one which seldom admits any pieces which don’t fit the mould, and are thus neglected. A soprano could have been engaged and given us a couple of the orchestral songs from Beethoven’s Egmont music. Alternatively, another Stravinsky work could have been included in the concert (one which would have contrasted nicely with both the Rossini Overture and Jeu de Cartes) such as the Dumbarton Oaks chamber concerto, a piece which seldom gets played in symphony concerts because of its awkward length (about 12 minutes).

Of course, less is sometimes more, as my grandmother used to say; and what’s important is quality, more so at times than quantity. I thought this concert had sufficient quality to make it an eminently worthwhile venture. Marc Taddei, as is usually his wont, spoke with his audience before the concert started, emphasising the interactive links between the orchestra and its community, as reflected in both the attendance at concerts and the sponsorship the orchestra receives from locally-represented businesses. In hindsight the speech’s message served as a counterweight to the scenario painted by speakers at an after-concert reception, involving arts funding from Creative New Zealand for the orchestra being cut, a policy that would also affect the NZSO. It would be a pity if the Wellington Orchestra had any of its activities impaired by such a policy.

The concert started snappily and strongly with the Egmont Overture – and a rattling good performance it was, too, athletically directed by Marc Taddei, the playing notable for muscle rather than mass. This is an orchestra which consistently punches above its own weight, and this concert and the playing of things like Egmont demontrated living, dynamic proof of its quality. Only a lack of numbers in the string section disadvantages the balance in tutti passages, where the brass and winds seem to hold sway, without the strings being able to properly soar over the top and exert plenty of tone and muscle.

I was really looking forward to hearing Michael Houstoun playing the Schumann Concerto, partly because I’d enjoyed his Beethoven series with the orchestra last year so much, and partly because I was looking forward to comparing Houstoun’s with Diedre Irons’s performance which I’d heard earlier this year. Well, in a sense the occasion didn’t disappoint, because the interpretations were very different. Houstoun brought all of his familiar virtues to his interpretation, strength, directness and incredible focus, setting up a great sense of flow in the first movement  and achieving a lovely build-up to the first big orchestral tutti – the orchestral solo playing was notable, with both Merran Cooke’s oboe at the beginning and Tui Clark’s clarinet in the dreamy exchanges doing a very lyrical and sensitive job. Occasionally I thought Houstoun’s playing just a bit too abrupt – he’s not really into romantic rhetoric – and so the pianist’s big octaves statement mid-movement had muscle and fire rather than a grand declamatory air. So, in general it was an interpretation which went for drive and urgency rather than any kind of big-boned romanticism.

The slow movement was successful in bringing about a necessary contrast – the exchanges between piano and orchestra were sufficiently poised to give a sense of poetic feeling, though one sensed still a current of urgency beneath it all. What lovely ‘cellos at their big moment in the middle section of the movement! – and then, a beautifully-shaped build-up by the whole orchestra towards the last statement by the strings of this very romantic theme! These were touches of radiance in the midst of what seemed like serious business.

And serious business I thought the players made the finale – it was exciting in its way, it danced and surged, but for me it had very little of the tumbling warmth I’ve always enjoyed in this music. The speeds were very quick, and there was an element of precariousness about the exchanges between soloist and orchestra in places which added to the tension the urgency was already generating. Now call me old-fashioned if you will, but I don’t actually seek this music out as a listener for its dogged, insistent qualities, or its tensions – I’m wanting the music in this finale to evoke surgings of joy and warm-heartedness that I suspect in Schumann’s life were very precious, and savoured to the utmost when they happened for him. The “serene delight” of this music spoken about by numerous commentators was only fitfully in evidence here, and hearing Houstoun play this work left me wondering just how much he actually loved it, if at all. For me, not very much love came across in its performance overall, however impressive along the way I might have found the drive, the virtuosity, the control and the delineation of the themes.

I have to say that Houstoun got a great reception at the end – he was recalled more than once to foot-stamping ovations – so people obviously enjoyed that sense of the concerto being strongly and excitingly delivered. And I would be the first to declare that music can take as many interpretations as there are performers, if that music is delivered with sufficient conviction by those performers; and that one ought to rejoice at such variety stemming from realisations of a single work. However, Schumann’s music doesn’t “play itself”, and for me a certain dogged quality about the playing made it all just a bit one-dimensional.

The Rossini Overture, straight after the interval, was excitingly delivered, via one of Marc Taddei’s no-nonsense entrances – a brisk walk, a leap onto the podium, and a gesture plunging us straight into the music. While I enjoyed some of it immensely, I also want my Rossini to “smile”, and insinunate as much as scintillate – but there wasn’t much subtlety, though the energy was exciting enough in places.

All in all, I enjoyed the first and last items the most at the concert – Marc Taddei seems to have a “feel” for twentieth-century repertoire, as evidenced by previous forays into this repertoire with the orchestra. I thought his interpretation of Stravinsky’s wonderful Jeu de Cartes (The Game of Cards) allowed his players plenty of space to phrase and point in a way that brought it all to life, notwithstanding a couple of hesitant moments. What a feast of a score for orchestral soloists – so many solo lines, like a concerto for orchestra! Especially wonderful was the writing for brass, both solo phrases and in ensemble.

I’ve got to say that I thought the orchestra’s playing had tremendous spirit and character – there were occasional burbles in the brass, which any player will tell you is par for the course if you play such an instrument and your name isn’t Dennis Brain. The strings also had a lot to do, plenty of treacherous rhythmic dovetailing (this is Stravinsky at the height of his “neo-classical” period, revelling in rhythmic complexity and textural juxtapositions). Generally the players acquitted themselves magnificently, the odd purple patch of ensemble aside – as with the performance, earlier in the year, of Danses Concertantes, I feel they caught the “spirit” of the music and characterised the different sections vividly. Especially telling was the music for the Joker, who, throughout the work, was the disruptive “villain ” of the scenario.

The three movements are called “deals” as in a card game – and in the last deal, Stravinsky quotes from other composers’ music, in Rossini’s case directly from the Overture which we heard earlier in the second half of the programme. One could surmise that these quotations are nothing but deceptions on the part of the Joker, who, however, is defeated at the end of the game by a royal flush. Conductor and orchestra contrived to bring out all the theatricalities and chameleon-like colourings of these rites of deception, raising a ripple of mirth with the Rossini quotations, and underlining the finality of the Joker’s fate with the final, brusque quotation of the opening theme, its severity and abrupt closure splendidly conveyed, and leaving no doubt as to the hero/villain’s come-uppance.

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