‘1910’ – Firebird
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919 version)
Elgar: Violin Concerto, Op.61
The Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei with violinist Feng Ning
Wellington Town Hall
Saturday, 11 September, 7.30pm
The concert ended, somewhat unusually, with the violin concerto – but as the longest work, it was sensibly placed after the interval. The concert began unusually, too, with the orchestra playing itself ‘Happy Birthday’ in a short and amusing orchestration by Stravinsky, created for the conductor Pierre Monteux’s 80th birthday. This was for the orchestra’s 60th birthday since its founding as the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra. It has had several name changes since then, and become a full symphony orchestra.
In his pre-concert talk, Marc Taddei said that Barber’s famous elegy-like piece (originally written for string quartet) had at first been criticised as not very American. While it has become widely used for public occasions of grief and mourning, it is surely always now thought of as American. The work was first played in the orchestral version by the NBC Orchestra with Toscanini conducting, in 1938.
On Saturday it was particularly significant, being the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Marc Taddei dedicated the performance to the memory of Dr Allan Thomas, Wellington musician, musicologist, university lecturer, and broadcaster, who died a few days earlier.
The ‘1910’ theme was borne out by that being the birth-date of the composer; while the other two works were composed in that year, although in the case of the Stravinsky, it was the 1919 version that was being performed.
There is something about the cadences and falling lines of melody in this work which give a feeling of sadness and melancholy. There is sustained tension through its long phrases – one feels one can hardly breathe. It was given a particularly slow performance, with wonderful controlled dynamics, especially the pianississimos, and splendid tone.
The Firebird was also the subject of a dedication – to Elsa Jensen, violinist, who was present and who had been a member of the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra. This exciting and delightful work is always a joy to hear. The vast amount of percussion used, and the use of particular techniques, such as the strings playing subtle and ethereal harmonics, make for constant interest.
The Introduction movement of this performance was rather slower than I’ve heard it before, but this enabled much detail to be heard, especially from the wind sections of the orchestra.
Among the many joys was the harp and piano playing (Jenny Newth and Donald Nicolson), and Moira Hurst’s clarinet. The hall was nearly full to hear this enchanting and exhilarating music, which Taddei conducted without the music score, as he did for the Barber also. The performance was not quite perfect, but for me it was very nearly so.
Elgar’s violin concerto is a demanding work, and thus not heard as often as his cello concerto. It was therefore not surprising that a soloist as young as Feng Ning (winner of the 2005 Michael Hill violin competition in Queenstown and Auckland) used the score. Taddei had told us that he considered the concerto the greatest of Elgar’s compositions, but that it was Germanic rather than English, with influences from Richard Strauss, and that it was possibly the hardest concerto in the repertoire, with double and triple stopping for the soloist to negotiate. Despite all these factors, he thought Elgar the most nostalgic of all composers.
Feng Ning has a wonderfully warm and sweet tone. This was a worthy performance of a massive work. A brilliant first movement began with a very crisp opening, followed by a broad sweep approach, yet with great rhythmic precision. Delicious woodwind was a feature. The soloist had a luscious sound, full yet delicate. Nevertheless, this reading of the work was not as romantic as that on the Elgar/ Menuhin recording I have.
There is a nice connection between that well-known 1932 recording of the concerto by the London Symphony Orchestra with Elgar himself conducting, and the 16 year-old Yehudi Menuhin as soloist, since Feng Ning attended a master-class with Menuhin. After the great man had heard Ning play he offered no comment, but gave the young violinist a hug.
The adagio movement was quite magical, the soloist thoroughly in command of this taxing and difficult music; all nuances were in place.
The last movement had a wonderful sense of stillness and of the slow passage of time, in the quiet parts. The concerto uses no percussion, only timpani, so there was little of the bombast one can associate with Elgar. The orchestra was somewhat overshadowed by the soloist in this movement, but nevertheless, played splendidly.
The orchestra joined the large audience in giving much applause to the soloist. Applause between movements may irritate some of us, but it is good news. It means that there are people present who do not normally attend symphony concerts.
The concert ended with the release of yellow and black balloons from a net suspended from the ceiling of the hall. We need not only to congratulate the oldest of the regional orchestras, but to hope and to lobby to ensure that this fine orchestra, with its community functions throughout the southern North Island and the northern South Island can continue its role, and withstand government pressures on Creative New Zealand to cut its funding.
A Radio New Zealand Concert interview with the orchestra’s manager, Diana Marsh, the day before the concert revealed that changes to the funding were to be made by Creative New Zealand without consultation with this orchestra or the other regional orchestras. She explained that the orchestra arranges its yearly timetable around the ballet company’s and the opera company’s scheduled performances as well as those of the Orpheus Choir which require an orchestra. Around that it arranges its own orchestral concerts, featuring top line soloists and concerts particularly for children. These are held not only in Wellington, but in cities and towns where the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra seldom or never goes, e.g. Masterton (where this same programme was played the night before this concert), Nelson, Palmerston North. Its role is therefore to take music to ‘the provinces’ and to provide live music for opera, ballet, and choral concerts, as much as it is to give symphony concerts in Wellington city.
If all the coughers at Saturday’s concerts were to join (as I have) the Friends of the Vector Wellington Orchestra organisation, then the coffers of the orchestra would not only be well filled, but it would demonstrate that people care about this orchestra’s continued existence.