Christmas presents from the NZSO….

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wellington Christmas Concert 2010

Works by Britten, Mozart, Respighi, Handel, Corelli, Reger, Adam, Nicolai, Rutter

Aivale Cole (soprano)

Choir and Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Paul Goodwin (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 9th December, 2010

Musically, this was a heart-warming “something for everybody” concert, presenting tried and true favorites from, for example, Messiah (fascinating to compare performances with what was heard less than a week previously from the Orpheus Choir and the Wellington Orchestra) along with relative concert-hall rarities like Benjamin Britten’s Men of Goodwill and Otto Nicolai’s Christmas Overture. Almost as rare was Respighi’s beautiful L’adorazione dei Magi, the second of the composer’s Three Botticelli Pictures. Another composer whose works rarely make concert-hall appearances in this part of the world is Max Reger, represented here by two Nativity settings for choir and orchestra.

Despite the musical interest of the program, and the excellence of the performances from soloist Aivale Cole, and the choir and orchestra under Paul Goodwin, I thought the event could have been made a bit more festive or Christmassy. True, the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul Choir and Choristers’ Santa-red robes did give a certain ritualistic air to the proceedings, and Aivale Cole’s spectacular dress with its energetic swirls of resplendent colour-energy was certainly eye-catching. But apart from these visual stimulations, there was nothing done or staged to proclaim the event had any more significance than just another concert. I actually felt sorry for the NZSO players, having to “deck the halls” in public not long after returning from an exhausting whirlwind European tour during which they obviously gave their all, wowing the critics and the audiences alike. One would have thought the orchestra had done enough for the year, and could deservedly rest on its laurels for a bit before facing the new challenges of 2011. But, presumably because it’s the “expected” thing to put on a Christmas concert, the musicians, or at least most of them, were there at the party, giving enjoyable and well-played performances of a mixture of interesting and standard repertoire.

What might have made a difference would have been somebody associated with or representing the orchestra actually welcoming the audience to the concert (and I don’t mean via one of those deadeningly impersonal recorded voice-overs which the orchestra uses to announce each event – was it David Pawsey who in the old days used to come out onto the platform at the beginning, and very sweetly ask us to make sure our cell-phones were turned off?). It’s the kind of thing that conductor Mark Taddei for one carries off with great élan when introducing Wellington Orchestra concerts – if somewhat gauche in effect when overdone, it’s nevertheless great to mark a festive occasion with something out of the ordinary like this. Alternatively, being a capital city, Wellington has no shortage of well-known “personalities” whose talents could be thus commandeered  (the city has a new Mayor, of course, who might have been thrilled to be asked to introduce something at the concert). And though it’s a bit of a hoary idea (but no more so than performing the “Halleluiah” Chorus on such an occasion, I might add), the items could have been introduced by one or two or more of these personalities reading something appropriately seasonal either from Scripture, or from literature. These are very basic “impulse” ideas, but doing something along these lines would have helped engender some extra atmosphere befitting the occasion.

Fortunately, the performances carried a certain sound and sense of seasonal celebration to convey an idea of Christmas, beginning with the Benjamin Britten rarity which I disappointingly missed, thanks to an unfortunate car-parking contretemps! Luckily, a reviewer colleague present described it all for me as “engaging and rumbustious, with a jolly fugal finale, played here by the orchestra with plenty of energy and feeling”. I do wish I’d heard it – apparently it was music Britten wrote for a broadcast of a Christmas speech in 1947 made by King George VI, though without the fugue on that occasion, due to time constraints. Britten never had the work published – whether he didn’t think much of it, or was too taken up with other projects, one can’t be sure – but Men of Goodwill had to wait until several years after the composer’s death before the score was made available by Faber Music.

Soprano Aivale Cole looked and sounded magnificent, even though her first offering, Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, was truncated – contrary to the programme’s indication, she performed only the work’s opening section (my colleague thought she hadn’t sufficiently “warmed up” for the rest, hence the unscheduled departure from the platform). Next was Respighi’s adorable, orchestra-only L’adorazione dei Magi, an enchanting work, featuring orchestral winds performing miracles of rustic evocation, the strings initially held back, then allowed to interact with the winds to create a sense of wonderment and exultation at the Saviour’s birth. While very much a stylistic jump from this to Handel, Aivale Cole’s re-appearance for “Rejoice Greatly” from Messiah certainly continued the Nativity sequence, even if the singer found some of the downward figurations of the opening a bit breathless and intonation-testing – after the central “He is the Righteous Saviour’,  the reprise of the opening found her voice more settled and confident-sounding. Throughout, Cole’s wonderful diction and “ownership” of the words I found a constant delight, though she changed the unidiomatic “He shall Fe-EED his flock” to “He sha-AALL feed his flock”, about which one couldn’t really complain, especially as we even got some modest decoration of the line at the reprise of “Come unto him”. The Wellington Cathedral Choir and Choristers’ first appearance was at the end of this sequence, with a swift, lithe performance of “His yoke is easy”, the interpretation missing a bit of the ending’s irony with the word “light”, but still all beautifully sensitive and finely-graded.

Corelli’s Christmas Concerto began the second half, the opening terse and snappy, but with a lovely gravity of utterance in the slower section that followed. Donald Armstrong’s and Andrew Thomson’s duo violin work was just one of the outstanding features of a performance whose stylish textures, phrasings and rhythms helped bring the work’s pictorial qualities to life – a gorgeous “Nativity” processional sequence, for example, breathed such sweet and serene air as to make the contrasting allegro section properly “bite” before returning to the opening serenities. In both of Max Reger’s Christmas hymn settings the youthful freshness of the choir’s voices also made an incredibly sweet impression, the second of the two settings in particular allowing both men’s and women’s voices individual sequences, and contrasting the strands excitingly with the vigor of the full choir in the choruses. Otto Nicolai, best known as the composer of the opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, chimed in with a substantial overture-like piece, Christmas Overture, written for what seemed like a very large orchestra, whose size proved the choir’s undoing at the very end. But Paul Goodwin and the players captured the Schumannesque beginning of the work to perfection, with cathedral-like archways of sound, leading to episodes by turns agitated and suffused with the radiance of the chorale “Vom Himmel hoch”, the choir joining the festivities towards the conclusion, but sadly proving too “voice-light” and insufficient in number to make much impression alongside Nicolai’s full orchestral scoring.

Other highlights included Aivale Cole’s expansive and lyrical O Holy Night, whose second verse, sung in Samoan, featured a glorious high note at the end which brought the singer screams of approval at the end – and deservedly so. Again the sweet, youthful choral voices were like balm to the ears in John Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol and the same composer’s arrangement of Away in a Manger; while a swift, excitable “Halleluiah” Chorus set one and (almost)all up and on their feet in the traditional manner – a good thing, too, because at the end everybody simply walked off the stage and the applause stopped, and that was it, no recalls, flowers, kisses or anything like that – just as if it was the end of another day in the life of an orchestra…….

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