NZSO Soloists in interesting but problematic programme

Sibelius: Impromptu
Ibert: Pièce
Arthur Foote: A Night Piece
Grieg: Two Norwegian Airs
Aulis Sallinen: Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March
Telemann: Don Quixote Overture no.10 in G major (Burlesque de Don Quixote)
Mendelssohn: Symphony for Strings no.10 in B minor

NZSO String section, Bridget Douglas (flute), Vesa-Matti Leppänen (director)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 30 September, 7.30pm

It is an interesting innovation to have sections of the NZSO featured in their own concerts; this year, the string players (or 18 of them) and next year it will be the turns of the woodwind players and the brass players. Vessa-Matti Leppänen has chosen the music for all these concerts.

Since the sad demise of the NZSO Chamber Orchestra (co-founded, and directed, by Donald Armstrong), we have not heard regular string orchestra playing, apart from baroque groups.  I would say that with this group there is not yet the warm timbre of a string orchestra that has played together for years, but nevertheless the players made a fine sound, and played almost impeccably.

There were 18 players, and they stood to play (which they will not be used to), except, of course, the three cellists.  There were as well ten violinists, three viola players and two double bassists.  The personnel of the group provided additional interest, since it was the first concert for the new principal cellist, Andrew Joyce.  Not only was the new cellist having his first outing, but trialling the position of principal viola was his wife Julia, who is none other than Julia McCarthy who only a few years ago, was a talented violin student at Victoria University’s School of Music, and member of the National Youth Orchestra.  Studying overseas has seen her switch to viola as her chief instrument, and also acquire a musician husband.

Vessa-Matti told us that this concert should be relaxing, but not send us to sleep.  I  began to have my doubts, despite the excellence of the playing.  Certainly there was much music of a muted, even dreamy quality.  While it was very good to hear unfamiliar music for strings, I found rather an over-emphasis on dark Scandinavian music, which some described as gloomy, and others as lugubrious.

The poor attendance at the concert probably showed that a lot of people enjoy the big sound and the variety of a symphony orchestra, and a much smaller string group like this doesn’t ‘do it’ for them.

The opening work was described by the director as ‘happy Sibelius’, but despite the still, calm opening, bouncy use of spiccato, and a lively waltz in the middle section, it was mainly melancholy, as the programme note described the final section.  Originally written for piano, early in his career, the work was soon arranged for string orchestra by the composer.  The instruments played with mutes, giving a lovely sustained, mellow tone. 

After this came a surprise item: a short work of Ibert’s from 1936, named simply Pièce.  This was introduced and played by principal flutist Bridget Douglas, who wore a beautiful silver dress, matching her instrument well.  As she said, this work was reminiscent of Debussy’s well-know Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune.   A slow and meditative opening was followed by a livelier section, reminiscent of birds, and then it was back to a slower, more contemplative mood.

Arthur Foote, who died in 1937, wrote A Night Piece in 1918.  It was written of it that it ‘has no concern to shake the world…’ but that the composer had ‘a sensitive response to beauty which has enabled him to capture a distillation of sheer sensuous delight.’  Here again, the word ‘melancholic’ is used in the programme note, along with ‘a fresh and exotic elegance’.  It was not in any sense avant-garde music, but a charming, subtle, beautifully played piece for flute and string orchestra.

Both the Ibert work and this one were played by the soloist without score, and with quite ravishing tone and technique.  True to title, the piece was certainly nocturnal in mode and character, being dreamy and lyrical.

Continuing in Scandinavian vein we had Grieg’s Two Norwegian Airs; firstly, ‘In Folk Style’ and next ‘Cow Call and Peasant Dance’.  Following the opening there was a long viola and cello section, the two instruments conversing with each other in a mellow way.  Then the violins joined in, initially on the lower strings.  Parts of this piece were quite dreamy and melancholy; this meant that all the three pieces so far heard (apart from the Ibert solo) were rather similar in mood.

The second of the two Airs featured very musical cow calls (without any lowing response from the animals) followed by a lively dance.

Aulis Sallinen, composer and conductor visited New Zealand a number of years ago, on a conducting exchange with Sir William Southgate, who conducted in Finland.  As a result, Sallinen (as reported by Leppänen in a radio interview a couple of days before the concert) has written a New Zealand Symphony.

His piece was based on a traditional folk funeral melody, which had been voted in Finland as the most depressing and dark tune ever!  Whether Peltoniemi Hintrik was a real person, I have been unable to discover.  Perhaps he was a figure of folk tradition, like Peer Gynt in Norway.

The first statement of this theme was extremely bare, played by solo violin and solo cello, in octaves.  This gave a steely cold sound.  Then one viola and viola and one second violin joined in, playing pizzicato, before the other players entered, at which point all appeared to be at cross-purposes.  The techniques included strumming, and pizzicato deliberately played with the finger-nails, to produce a hard sound.

Later, in a more dynamic mood, sections of the music involved discords resolving, interspersed with unison playing, i.e. discord then concord.  The ending of the work was quite folksy.  Despite the ‘funeral’ title, there was humour in the music.

Now for something completely different.  The Telemann work was fun, and quite dissonant in places.  This performance included harpsichordist Donald Nicolson; there were three fewer violinists.

Its seven movements were thoroughly descriptive of their titles, based on the famous knight’s adventures.  It was good to hear the NZSO players, despite their use of modern instruments, performing this music so well in baroque style, with little vibrato but strong accents, especially on the first beat of every bar.

The ‘Overture’ (yes, the Overture had an overture) was peaceful and happy, then very fast.  The ‘Awakening of Don Quixote’ had a quiet a sleepy mood, followed by ‘His Attack on the Windmills’ which indeed was quite a battle, vigorous and fast.  The ‘Sighs of Love for Princess Dulcinae’ were just that.  ‘Sancho Panza Swindled’ was a very jolly movement, but simple (perhaps to show the squire as simple?), and featured upwards-swooping phrases, presumably depicting the swindling.

The movement of minuet-trio-minuet describing ‘Rosinante Galloping’ and ‘The Gallop of Sancho Panza’s Mule’ had appropriate rhythm (though the galloping seemed a bit slow to me – perhaps in Spain in the Don’s day horses galloped at a more leisurely pace than now?).   The mule was quieter and slower, the trio being set for a quartet of the four section leaders, before the return to the minuet.

‘Don Quixote at Rest’ seemed to belie its title; more straight-forward music, but at a fast pace becoming ever faster.  This was a humorous finale, with spiccato from violas, cellos and basses.

The final work on the programme was Mendelssohn’s tenth String Symphony, written when he was only 14 years old.  It is a delightful, relatively uncomplicated piece, well crafted and well played here.  It is not brilliant, but astonishing for someone of the composer’s age at the time. 

There was a good weighty sound despite the relatively small group of players.  It was not as delicate as the Scandinavian music, but nonetheless, there were some lovely pianissimos, and some fine themes.  Brian Shillito’s solo viola passage was beautifully played.

There was an enthusiastic response from the audience.  Leppänen had done a good job of preparation of the musicians; I am not so sure about his programme choices.  It is good to have a varied and different programme, and this was an interesting exercise, but not one I would want to take in too often.

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