NZSO Soloists wind players delight

R. Strauss: Serenade in E flat major, Op.7
Josef Bohuslav Forster: Quintet in D major, Op.95
Beethoven: Octet, Op.103
Franz Krommer: Partita in B flat major, Op.78
R. Strauss: Suite in B flat, Op.4

‘Wind Power’: NZSO wind soloists, with Gordon Hunt, oboe and conductor

Michael Fowler Centre. Saturday 19 February 2011, 8pm

It was delightful to hear unusual music from the wind ensemble made up of players from the wind sections of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  Flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons (including contra-bassoon) and French horns all had their spot in the limelight.  To hear ensembles varying in size from five to thirteen players was also a novelty. This was quite a light programme, suitable for a warm summer evening.

Yet while this concert was not symphonic, it also was not chamber music in the ordinary sense.  Some of the music played was designed for performance outdoors, while some would be more suitably performed in a smaller venue than the Michael Fowler Centre.

The mixture of well-known and lesser-known composers was interesting, but it would have been more so if, instead of two works by Richard Strauss, there had been some other work from a different period.  Or we could have had an airing of some New Zealand composer’s music for small wind ensemble  Ken Wilson’s quintet, for example.  My colleague Peter Mechen discovered that there are 47 wind ensemble works by New Zealand composers.

Strauss’s Serenade features beautiful sonorities.  The opening is Mozartian, and there are many memorable melodies.   The work employed 13 players: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, one contra-bassoon and four horns.  It was conducted by Gordon Hunt.  Quite light in tone, the piece could have been the overture to an opera.

Forster was not a familiar name to me; his dates of 1859 to 1951 make him an almost exact contemporary of Strauss, but his music is quite dissimilar.  The four movements produced delightful timbres and interweaving parts.  The ensemble was excellent in this quintet  one player each of the instruments employed in the previous item, with the exception of the contrabassoon.

This was not profound music, but entertaining, and skilfully set to provide good balance and contrast between treble and bass instruments.  A sprightly opening allegro, an uncomplicated and folksy third movement scherzo and a jolly ending were features.

Beethoven came next  not his Septet, although only seven chairs and music stands were provided, making bassoonist David Angus feeling he was optional extra, when he had to hustle up the necessary furniture, so as to provide the Octet with its full complement: two oboes (one was Gordon Hunt in both this and the Krommer after the interval), two clarinets, 2 bassoons and two horns.

This was uncomplicated music written to accompany meals; in other words, tafelmusik (table music).  It was tuneful, cheerful and charming, and was performed superbly.  The third movement, minuet and trio, featured lovely pianissimos; one hopes the diners’ conversation and their wielding of cutlery were not too loud for them to appreciate them.

The presto Finale was fast and lively, and quite taxing on the instruments.  It would have been even more so on the wind instruments of Beethoven’s day.

Following the interval there was a surprise additional item.  Gordon Hunt played a solo oboe piece, written for him by British composer Andrew Jackman.  Google reveals little about this composer: he was born in 1946 and died in 2003, and featured mainly in the popular music scene.  This composition was highly entertaining, indeed amusing.  It was called ‘Circus’, and its three sections (played continuously) were Ringmaster, Elephants, Clowns and Acrobats, as Gordon Hunt explained prior to his performance.  The last section was the longest, and was marked by obvious ‘wrong’ notes  apparently the clowns would not learn to play their parts properly.

Hunt proved to be an immaculate and amazingly flexible musician on this instrument, not the easiest to play well.  He demonstrated the great range an expert player can coax from the instrument, and was able to communicate the humorous, piquant fun of the piece.  His breath control was, well, breath-taking.

Franz Krommer was a contemporary of Beethoven, and if the Partita was anything to go by, his music is well worth hearing.  It was scored for 9 players: two oboes, two clarinets, 2 bassoons and contra-bassoon, and two horns.  The work opened with a charming dance-like allegro. The third movement adagio was most attractive, with its melodies and harmonies, especially those for oboe. Here and elsewhere one was aware of the astonishing variety of tone that Gordon Hunt achieved on his oboe.

The presto Finale was notable for the clarinet writing.  It was lively, even bucolic.  However, by this stage I was beginning to tire somewhat of the sonorities and timbres of the wind instruments, and could have used some strings to provide contrast and subtlety.

The final item was a Suite by Richard Strauss, for 13 players; the same configuration as in the first Strauss work.  It was conducted by Gordon Hunt.  I did not find this as attractive a work as the opening Serenade.  It was certainly more complex and intricate than that piece, and more of a concert work.  Horns were prominent, but all the instruments’ tonalities were splendidly exploited.

After quite a lengthy Praeludium, the second movement was a gorgeous Romanze, with many dynamic changes.   As happened a few times elsewhere in the concert, initial entries were not always absolutely together.  However, it would be difficult to find any other failing in the playing of this or any other of the works.

The fourth movement was dense and not, for the most part, melodic.  Perhaps its exuberant mood made up for this.
The worst thing about the concert was the small size of the audience.  Do people not like chamber music or wind music?  Was the programme too unfamiliar?  Perhaps a Mozart Serenade or some other more familiar work might have attracted more people.  Though the NZSO has ceased providing senior rush tickets, there are concessions for Gold Card holders, and also for those aged 30 and under, so one hopes that many more people will be attracted to the rest of the year’s concerts.

Though not large, the audience greeted the music enthusiastically.

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