Close Encounters – NZSO breaks it down
Richard Gill (conductor and presenter)
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Wellington Town Hall
Friday, August 20th (Dvorak – Symphony No.9 “From the New World”)
(Review also by Julia Wells)
Australian conductor Richard Gill runs a series of educational-cum-entertainment programmes with the Sydney Symphony, called “Discovery”, making classical music more approachable for people who perhaps haven’t had musical backgrounds or previous exposure to what’s commonly called “classical” music. He recently brought this idea to Wellington, working with the NZSO over two evenings and concentrating on two of the most popular symphonies in the whole of the classical music repertoire, Bethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony on the first night and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony the following evening. I attended the second of the two evenings, devoted to the Dvorak Symphony, and enjoyed it immensely on a number of counts, the first being that I was re-acquainted with a work I had previously heard so many times I thought I’d gotten tired of the music, and fell in love with it all over again!
Many people will recall those early television programmes featuring Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic presenting a series called “Young People’s Concerts”. Richard Gill’s brief was different in that his presentation was designed for a much greater age-range of people, perhaps more specifically adult- than child-oriented, though his out-going, easeful manner and the direct, uncomplicated style of his delivery made what he was saying readily accessible to children of about ten years and over. Of course, it’s many years since I saw and heard Bernstein’s television broadcasts, so comparisons are even more irrelevant – but without having quite the charisma of Bernstein, I thought Richard Gill a charming, personable and informative guide, one who took pains to emphasise that we were entitled to think what we liked about the music that we heard, and let our own intelligent imaginations work on the sounds and come up with their own valid impressions. For many people I’m sure this would have been something of a revelation, quite a liberating and empowering attitude with which to approach this “thing” called “classical music”.
Gill had the inestimable advantage of working with the NZSO, whose playing he praised highly at the conclusion of the evening, calling the band a “national treasure” and imploring his audience to support the orchestra “by buying lots of tickets to its concerts”. Throughout the evening the rapport between conductor and players seemed excellent, judging from the quality of the playing, a couple of ensemble slips apart, which could have been put down to the “stop-go” nature of the demonstration – when it came to the performance of entire movements, the playing was of an excellent standard throughout. I myself would have thought, however, that the music would have been better served had the orchestra played the entire symphony, for people to get the range and sweep of the whole, and for the players to be able to generate something of what was understandably lacking in the performance – a sense of line which would have resulted in greater rhythmic character in places and even better-defined episodes along the way. Overall, the conductor’s stop-go analysis of the work needed, I think, to coalesce into some kind of fruition by the end, and the concert’s format was in many ways the ideal platform on which to do this. However, opinions concerning the purpose and scope of the presentation will vary; and certainly people will have at least come away from Gill’s presentation with a better understanding of the origin and nature of this, one of the most famous of all symphonies.
The true star of the evening was probably the NZSO’s cor anglais principal, Michael Austin; and it was Richard Gill who facilitated the limelight to which he subjected this normally self-effacing player. The conductor began his analysis of the symphony with the Largo (for so many people, the ‘way into” this symphony), and asked Michael Austin to come forward and take a concerto soloist’s prominence, so that people could watch as well as hear him play. The player’s tone and his phrasing of the famous tune was exemplary, truly lump-in-the-throat stuff for at least one listener; and the orchestral accompaniment had that hushed, concentrated quality that’s so easily given scant attention, but appreciated all the more when, as was done here, broken into its constituent parts and analysed. As anybody knows who tries to play on a piano or any other instrument transcription of a well-known piece of classical music, the art of composition is often one which conceals art; and Gill was able to alert us as to the extent of Dvorak’s artistic achievement in creating those sounds that over-familiarity often leads us to take for granted.
Gill made many interesting and entertaining observations during his presentation – some of which had the orchestra players laughing out loud along with his audience – rounding out the nature and context of Dvorak’s most famous Symphony, talking about the composer’s American connections, the influence of Wagner’s music on the symphony and the ultimate faith Dvorak had in the more “classical” examples for composers set by people such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Gill touched briefly on what I thought was a very important point, one that he could have developed and cited elsewhere in the symphony, the use of recurring motifs throughout the work, a practice that, of course scholars and traditionalists of the time frowned on, as it contravened “the classical rules” – we were told that Dvorak was considered as “showing off” in doing this by the music establishment, which was a nice way of putting it. Gill talked a lot about the music’s “Czech” character, intending to put into perspective the ideas that were held for many years held about this symphony, that the tunes were American Negro or Indian melodies which the composer was either quoting or copying. A pity nothing from the work’s Scherzo was played, a brilliant demonstration of both the composer’s use of national Czech dance-forms and his fondness for cross-rhythms.
However much I thought that the overall approach to the work was a little chaotic in terms of its analysis, my own experiences of getting to know new music bore out Richard Gill’s way with his presentation – often there’s a single idea, either melodic or rhythmic, that for some reason impinges in the memory of the listener, resembling a seed around which the rest of the organism gradually takes shape. After all, the purpose of the evening’s presentation was to facilitate this very process, in fact to fulfil the conductor’s own stated dictum that “this music is abstract art – it isn’t ABOUT anything concrete, but depends entirely for its effect on the listener’s very individual reaction to the sounds used by the composer” – or words to that effect. I was sorry that I’d missed the previous evening’s analysis of the Beethoven symphony, and can only congratulate Richard Gill and the members of the NZSO for giving us such a delightful and resonating musical experience.
As if to further ‘validate” the event’s degree of communication between performers and audience, I asked eighteen year-old Julia Wells, a piano student and first-year tertiary student, who also attended the concert, for her impressions; and received the following evaluation of the experience:
“Overall I found the performance very enjoyable. There was a good balance between Richard Gill’s discussion of the music and the actual performance, although at times I felt like hearing slightly more of the actual piece. My favourite part was his demonstration of the layering of sounds in the orchestra. He brought out the difference of sound when the flute combined with the oboe and the effect of them combining with brass instruments. This was shown most clearly in the second movement, which I thought was the strongest part of the presentation. One thing I would have liked more of was contextual information – Gill’s comments on the work’s reception, and also about Wagner’s influence on Dvorak, were interesting; and I would have appreciated more information about other contemporaries and the musical context, and also about the Czech tradition Dvorak was drawing on.”
This was an NZSO Community Programme, “proudly supported” by The Community Trust of Wellington. It’s something that I think the orchestra could look at doing more often – provided the right person was found for the job. Richard Gill obviously had the necessary communicator’s touch, and the musical skills to demonstrate what he was trying to express with the orchestra. All we need, really, is somebody like him, or else an embryonic Leonard Bernstein…….