A musical machine plus Bartók and Sibelius from NZSM Orchestra

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Young with Vivian Stephens (violin)

Johannes Contag: Starting the Robot; Sibelius: Violin Concerto, Op 47; Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Friday 8 October, 7.30pm

From now and into the fourth term, concerts by performance students at the New Zealand School of Music crop up in a variety of venues across the city. They are in part to fulfil the course requirements and in part to make the city aware of gifted young musicians being schooled there.

The orchestra itself consists of most of the students of orchestral instruments; they numbered about 55 of the members of the orchestra, though it is appropriate to note that there are several sections with few or no students and that have to be filled by guests, mainly from the NZSO. Lacking are any oboes – a surprise, and there are insufficient violists, cellists and double bassists, and horn players.

But accepting that those sections were equipped with professionals, the splendid playing by the great majority of sections was the work of students, driven in the most colourful and lively way by Kenneth Young.

The concert opened with a new piece by a student composer, Johannes Contag, that took its character from the sounds and the metaphysical nature of the machine – the thing created by man and whose operation is controlled less and less by man. I found it entertaining, as it was very effectively driven by rhythmic pulses suggesting an accelerating and then slowing of a piston-driven machine.  Melodic ideas were less significant but the structure, imposed from the outside, created a satisfying entity. The performance gave it an excellent presentation.

Sibelius’s Violin Concerto has such attractive qualities, and offers such rewarding work for the soloist that it’s hard not to delight in it. The soloist, Vivian Stephens, had played it to win the School of Music’s concerto competition a few months ago. His performance on a fine, warm instrument, was most impressive, exhibiting a mature command, at least in the first two movements, of both technicalities and musical texture and phrasing that created beautiful and varied sounds that were very satisfying: he negotiated the first movement cadenza with great skill.

In the third movement there were early signs of slightly less confidence, and a memory lapse later on, But he recovered admirably and conductor and violinist brought it, overbearing acoustic and all, to an splendid finish.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is a big challenge for a non-professional orchestra, exposing all instruments very deliberately. The first movement is the most substantial, a complex pattern that makes ever-changing demands on many sections, slowly building from tentative flute passages through beguiling bluesy brass chords to a state of exhilaration.

The ‘game of pairs’ that is the second movement, predominantly light of texture, offered evidence of the orchestra’s quality without too much overweight bass: muted trumpets, clarinets… The quality of string playing was clear in the Elegia, from the notable double basses, through piccolo and timpani. 

In the Intermezzo I am usually puzzled by Bartók’s mocking of the tune in Shostakovich’s 7th symphony, failing to recognise the Russian’s purpose in that work. Far from belittling Shostakovich, I feel it diminishes Bartók’s own work, once one is aware of the connection. However, the orchestra followed the movement’s curious pathway unerringly. The last movement is an extended dance-driven Presto, though not really so fast till the accelerating, attacking tutti passages towards the end.  

It was a brilliant performance that deserved to be in a more accommodating acoustic space.

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