From darkness to light – soundscapes of the mind from the NZSO

BRITTEN – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”

MacMILLAN – Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

RAVEL – Pavane for a Dead Princess

R.STRAUSS – Death and Transfiguration

Colin Currie (percussion)

Alexander Shelley (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th September

I liked this programme because it broke the mould – it didn’t follow the concert format which the NZSO seems to visit more often than not, to the detriment of pieces such as Ravel’s enchanting Pavane pour une Infanta défunte (or, Pavane for a Dead Princess). The common concert layout (overture, concerto, interval,  symphonic-type work) is obviously favoured by orchestral managements because it provides variety over the course of an evening, and enables the appearance of a prominent soloist in the concerto, who will hopefully bring in the crowds. But to repeat this formula almost ad nauseam is counter-productive, as it negates in the longer term the variety that a single concert seeks to provide, as well as reducing the opportunity for concertgoers to hear “live” many delectable orchestral pieces of only moderate length. The present concert, perhaps due to its matinee status certainly had its “star soloist” in the first half, but then featured two shorter works after the interval, the aforementioned Ravel and a tone-poem by Richard Strauss, Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration).  Ravel and Strauss certainly provided a contrast, though I wonder how many people would agree with me that some music “feels” better if heard in the evening, as opposed to the morning or afternoon? – somehow, Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration seemed diminished by the daytime ambience, whereas the Ravel was perfect – perhaps more of the same composer’s music would have been preferable, the gorgeous ballet Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) immediately coming to mind as a different kind of darkness-to-light experience.

I was interested to hear Alexander Shelley conduct, being the son of one of my favourite pianists, Howard Shelley (such connections, made helpfully or otherwise, always add interest to a performer’s aura and music-making abilities). An extremely elegant-looking young man, he brought a brisk, certain focus to his music-making throughout, beginning with the first of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, a Dawn whose streaks of light across the sky and answering shimmers of reflection from the water were clearly and bracingly articulated in this performance, precise rather than long-breathed and atmospheric. Surprisingly, I fancied the strings’ off-beat syncopations weren’t as clear as I thought they might be at the outset of Sunday Morning, the rhythms taking a while to “settle”; but amends were made with the next piece Moonlight, the playing catching the piece’s deep-toned “hymn to the night” aspect splendidly and sonorously. The concluding Storm’s fury burst upon us vehemently, with properly baleful brass and wonderful tuba notes, though I felt the side-drum a bit glib-sounding (not enough “flail” to really sting); and though the “running frightened” scherzandi passages towards the end had plenty of energy, I wanted more tension in the build-up towards the apocalyptic downward cascade that concludes the piece. So, a good performance, but I thought a trifle wanting more of the knife-edge in places (perhaps more difficult to achieve during the afternoon!).

James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is, in effect, a percussion concerto, able to stand as an abstract piece of music in its own right, but illuminated from within by the composer’s intention for the work to represent “the human presence of Christ” and the accompanying liberation of humankind “from fear, anguish and oppression”. Its title forms a direct link with the 15th Century French plainchant of the same name, regularly sung by choirs during the Christian season of Advent. In fact, the composer apparently began working on the piece on the first Sunday of Advent, and completed it on Easter Sunday of the following year, dedicating the work to his parents.

This concert featured percussionist Colin Currie, like his fellow-Scot Evelyn Glennie (who premiered this work) one of the world’s foremost instrumentalists, who’s helped to develop amongst both audiences and composers a new appreciation of percussion and its expressive potential. Very much on show throughout this piece, Currie revelled in the diversity of sounds which colour the opening sequences of exchange – amid orchestral fanfares all the percussion families were introduced, the soloist underlining the variety of texture, colour and spatial depth of sound by physical movement whose fluidity and energy defined the spaces between the instruments and suggested a journey paralleling the course of the music. Then there’s a “heartbeat” section, where pulses of varying metricality play, propelling and colouring the music, the soloist’s patternings punctuated with sharp, coruscating comments from the orchestra. After building towards frenetic rhythmic passages which suggested we’d reached the “Dance” section of the work, Colin Currie was able to show us a more deeply-felt, poetic aspect to his musicianship with the central “Gaude” section (the title taken from the refrain of the plainsong) – marimba figurations gently danced over prayer-like murmurings from the orchestra, as if revealing for listeners the spiritual calm at the centre of a believer’s universe.

There was more dancing, brilliantly characterised by a virtuoso stint from the soloist on the vibraphone, great chorale-like fanfares from the brass, and antiphonal percussion effects, with the timpanist matching the soloist and the orchestral musicians producing triangles, spreading the scintillations throughout the soundscape (a pity about the noisy children in the gallery!). And what wonderful resonances Currie achieved with the tubular bells at the end, the resonances seeming to last for an eternity (I didn’t think the sounds of burbling children at that point entirely inappropriate – wasn’t it Christ who said “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”, or words to that effect? – but some people who spoke to me during the interval were very angry about the disturbance!).

Fortunately, not one extraneous post-interval warble from the auditorium spoiled the limpid beauty of Ravel’s homage to the painter Velázquez, Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (in the printed programme both attempts at reproducing the French title came unstuck). The composer’s point about the music being an evocation of a dance rather than a funeral lament was nicely realised by conductor and players. Before the Strauss work, Death and Transfiguration, Alexander Shelley spoke to the audience concerning the programme of the music, explaining the composer’s intentions and tracing the music’s course throughout – so we were fully prepared for the fray, as it were, though some of the audience would have been at last year’s performance of the same work by the Wellington Orchestra, so it wouldn’t exactly have been an unknown quantity. On that occasion I thought the Wellington Orchestra surpassed themselves, with committed, full-toned and fiery playing under Marc Taddei’s direction; so I was interested to hear what the NZSO would make of it, albeit in a different venue and with another conductor.

Only with the first arrival of the “Transfigured” theme did I markedly prefer the earlier performance – somehow (and probably aided by a more ample and resonant acoustic in the Town Hall) Taddei and his orchestra managed to “fashion” the theme from those preparatory gesturings more convincingly and organically, as if it was all the time growing into the shape and form of its first appearance; whereas with Shelley and the NZSO the warmth and radiance of it all seemed like a new idea, fetched up from somewhere else. Perhaps it was that Taddei’s reading seemed longer-breathed than Shelley’s, just that bit more boldly and deeply conceived; though in other respects, the NZSO’s playing for Shelly sounded truly resplendent in all departments, the winds in particular covering themselves with glory. The performance certainly had a sheen and burnished splendour of its own, the NZSO’s greater weight and refinement of tone imparting, if not the whole truth, a Brucknerian radiance at the very end that was well worth the waiting for.

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