Percussionist Currie dazzles in brilliant NZSO concert

Appalachian Spring Suite (Copland), Percussion Concerto (Jennifer Higdon), I paesaggi dell’anima (Lyell Cresswell), Symphony No 6 ‘Pastoral’ (Beethoven)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley with Colin Currie (percussion)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 3 September, 6.30pm

Are Wellington audiences losing their taste for adventure? What was it that led to so many empty seats at Friday’s concert, which turned out to be one of the (if not THE) most exciting concerts of the year so far. I too had wondered about the programme, but that would certainly not have stopped me going. My main thoughts were, how would the Copland ballet score (well, most of it) stand up in the concert hall, and would I find that I had heard the Pastoral Symphony once too often?

I was at a slight disadvantage, not having heard the 2008 concert that Alexander Shelley had conducted in Wellington, and was thus not as certain about the sort of performance he would deliver.

In 2008 Shelley conducted one of the orchestra’s regional tours, and a special Wellington concert with cellist Maria Kliegel that included performances of Messiaen’s Les Offrandes Oubliées and both the suites from Daphnis et Chloé. He had made an impression then. Two years later his achievements are highly impressive, and his presence on the podium spoke of confidence but also of a concern to communicate, not to mention the energy, delicacy and vividness of the orchestra’s response to his leadership that made an immediate impact.

Appalachian Spring is enchanting ballet music, probably most people’s favourite Copland piece. But I was not expecting to be so enchanted by its exquisiteness as a concert piece (the Suite contains 80 percent of the music). That was brought about to a large extent by the performance, starting with by series of gorgeous, lyrical solos; first by clarinet, then flute, followed by shimmering cellos, evoking the day’s dawning. And a little later there were more beautiful solos from oboe, bassoon and horn, not to overlook the brilliant little xylophone episodes.

The entire orchestra was vitalized to play with a special sense of delight. It was at only classical strength for most of the programme, with double winds and string strength at 12, 10, 8, 6, 5; fewer than 60 players, but let’s confess: most orchestral music can be played wonderfully with that sized orchestra. Only the percussion concerto required a larger orchestra, with triple winds and tuba.

Copland’s music is not just endlessly varied; any competent composer can do that, but few can create the endless surprise and delight through beguiling melody, at every turn, even when one knows it all. The players found its magic with the help of a conductor whose movements, and physical grace inspired such vivid aural images, through its momentum and an awareness of its architecture.

I can’t remember my last live hearing of the Pastoral; but I should have been prepared to be surprised at the excitement and wonder that a really fine Beethoven performance can produce. The classical size of the orchestra was absolutely right; some might say it would have sounded even better in the Town Hall, but from my seat, this was pretty vivid, with particularly opulent cellos and basses, that have such an important role filling Beethoven’s aural spectrum.

Shelley is given to brisk tempos and there could be argument about the ‘ma non troppo’ of Beethoven’s first movement, but the momentum quickly came to feel perfectly right as a depiction of the ‘awakening of joyous feelings on arrival in the country’. The tempo was very consistent too: the human pulse was present more in the undulating dynamics and an imperceptible rubato.

Here again, solo woodwinds, particularly Philip Green’s clarinet, offered elegant yet earthy beauty in the Andante con moto, and the dance-like third movement was particularly enriched by cellos, bassoons and double basses giving it a roguish, peasant quality.

There is a repetitiousness in this music that exposes a lesser conductor. On Friday evening every one of the five or seven or nine repeats of a phrase sounded fresh; I never waited for a movement to finish, as I confess to feeling occasionally in the past.

The party piece was Jennifer Higdon’s percussion concerto.

I confess to not being especially attracted to percussion en masse, apart from the tuned instruments, and often feel that their over-use can too easily disguise the absence of real musical creativity. The same goes for any music that relies greatly on heavy, complex scoring and massive orchestral variety. The marimba, in fact, took a leading role in the huge battery of percussion spread from one side of the stage to the other, starting with four sticks in a scarcely audible tremolo.

Higdon, one of the United States leading young composers, knows how to woo her players; Colin Currie may have been the star, but unusually, the orchestral players of these instruments were accorded comparable tasks that taxed their skills to the extreme as well as permitting the real musical quality of many of the percussion instruments to emerge. There, at the back of the orchestra, unfortunately invisible to scores of people in the front rows of the stalls, were Leonard Sakofsky, Bruce McKinnon, Thomas Guldborg and timpanist Laurence Reese, echoing or playing along with Currie.  (The orchestral layout bosses need to pay more attention to this weakness of the MFC).

It was a worthy tribute to the strength of the orchestra’s percussion section. But in a piece of this kind, much of the entertainment value, and let’s not be pretentious about that, rests with the sight of the percussionists, both soloist and those at the back.

Though at first hearing I took some time to identify threads of music, the last ten minutes persuaded me that the music would survive and gain appeal with further hearings. Showpiece for sure, there was also a lot of real music in there, being magnificently played.

Lyell Cresswell’s 2008 piece for string orchestra, I paesaggi dell’anima (Landscapes of the Soul), after I had set aside thoughts about the pretentious title, proved a work of extreme fastidiousness as well as robust structure. I have not always warmed to Cresswell’s cerebral scores that can seem overburdened by intellectual concepts and elaborate musical textures, but Shelley’s success in drawing an extremely refined performance from the strings was the kind of advocacy that any composer would dream of.

It was indeed a complex piece, each string section often subdivided to obtain a richly luminous, if sometimes a rather too detailed and dense harmonic fabric, but the musical ideas were often lyrical, somewhat enigmatic, even droll, enlivened by Messiaen-like twitterings, tremolos, staccato passages, all of which coalesced to create an impression that was ultimately both satisfying and intriguing.

So four very different pieces, two of them very new and one 70 years old, all flourished in most persuasive and distinguished performances.  Those ill-advised enough to have stayed away missed a great concert.