Wellington Chamber Orchestra, with pianist Claire Harris, plays Beethoven and Sibelius

Conductor:  Michael Joel with Claire Harris (piano)

Louise Webster: Learning to Nudge the Wind; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor; Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D, Op 43

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 5 December 2.30pm

The last of the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s 2010 concerts followed the normal pattern: Concerto in the first half, symphony in the second and something smaller, perhaps new or unusual to fill out the first half. Often scorned, it’s a recipe that survives because it works pretty well; after all it does not proscribe playing an obscure concerto and an avant-garde symphonic piece of some substance in the second half.

This concert began with a new piece that conductor Michael Joel had premiered in Auckland a few months ago with the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra. It could be described as a symphonic poem but could hardly be heard as a latter-day descriptive piece such as Strauss or Sibelius might have written.

Though her real job is in medicine, Louise Webster’s orchestral writing is by no means amateur. Though Auckland-based, she had childhood experiences in Wellington and had retained memories of the dramatic weather. She created a well-structured piece that was skilful and colourful, made excellent use of wind instruments to depict a violent storm, and strings for calmer interludes. Fading marimba notes suggested lightly falling raindrops. After a short pause a second tumultuous episode followed, creating a shapely structure that was emotionally satisfying; the calm phase at the end left a lingering feeling of unease.

An amateur orchestra can often bring off a work of this kind with reasonable conviction, because the audience has no template in mind and for the most part, its impact can be strong in spite of a less than immaculate performance. That was certainly the case here.

But it’s much more difficult to satisfy listeners in a thoroughly familiar work such as a Beethoven concerto. So the introduction of the concerto was a reminder of the character of the orchestra; the sound rather unvaried and loud, with little elasticity of rhythm. When the soloist entered her playing too seemed to be without much freedom, though she demonstrated her grasp of the music by drawing attention to the inner lines of the piano part. But the prevailing fortissimo in the orchestra may well have driven her to play under greater tension than she would have in a more accommodating environment.

The second movement was a different story; it was taken quite slowly and the piano’s spirit became meditative and thoughtful. Though there were several very good players in the section, the orchestral winds, in particular, seem disinclined to play softly.

One of the features that improved the sound generally was the placing of the orchestra on the floor of the church, in front of the steps leading to the sanctuary, It meant the brass and the timpani were not confined within the smaller space which amplifies their volume. The balance of the timpani, in front of the chamber organ, with other players was natural and very comfortably integrated.

The slow movement leads straight into the finale without pause. Straight away I was struck by the speed that Michael Joel adopted, which seemed at times to be faster than the Claire Harris wanted, for there were several moments when she seemed to be attempting to restrain the headlong pace. The slower sections of the Rondo however were quite admirable, the strings using light bow strokes along with well controlled staccato playing from the wind sections.

The larger orchestra, with triple woodwinds, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, plus tuba, was as prescribed for the Sibelius symphony; however, trumpets and trombones were placed at the back of the sanctuary and the usual problem of loudness emerged again (thank goodness the timpani remained on the floor). But the orchestra acquitted itself very well in this work; the impact at full throttle was often rather exciting, while there were some sensitive and attractive passages, particularly in the slow movement. It began with very seductive sounds from timpani, then plucked basses and cellos. If there were brass excesses again later in the slow movement, and in the scherzo and finale, they were outweighed by much fine string playing – I thought the cellos were particularly attractive. And after the entry of the famous ostinato-type tune that dominates the finale, Joel guided the build-up excellently, leaving the impression of a much more professional orchestra that harboured its forces to unleash an emotionally powerful climax at the end. The audience was thrilled and demanded the conductor’s return several times.

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