VECTOR WELLINGTON ORCHESTRA – whatever the weather……

Vector Wellington Orchestra Summer Concert

Soloists: Aivale Cole (soprano) / Benjamin Makisi (tenor)

Footnote Dance Company

Kate Mead (Radio New Zealand Concert) – presenter

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 6th March, 2011

As comedian Michael Flanders, of “At the Drop of a Hat” fame, might have said, “If the gods had intended us to listen to music outdoors, they would never have given us weather!”. Such was the case on the weekend, when, to the intense disappointment of all concerned, the Vector Wellington Orchestra’s annual family concert sortie to the grounds of Government House had to be relocated to the Michael Fowler Centre. The smaller indoor venue meant that many ticketholders had to get their money refunded, although those of us who were lucky enough to have a transferable seat found ourselves still able to collect our picnic hamper, whose contents we sampled while pretending to be enjoying a beautiful day, sitting on dry grass, in the sun or under trees, watching the rest of the company doing the same. The ritual enabled something of the occasion to be salvaged (everything incredibly well-organised, I thought), while the wonderful music-making generated by singers, orchestra and conductor did the rest. So, despite the privations, it was a great success.

Again the Wellington orchestra’s management was able to demonstrate that, when something special was required to fit an occasion, it was delivered with aplomb (by contrast with some of the promotional efforts from the “other” orchestra in town, whose energies seem hardly to spill over from concert platform activities), inviting the Governor-General and the Wellington Mayor to speak at the concert, and properly “place” the event , albeit in its amended form. There might, actually, have been one speech too many, at the start, with the event’s raison d’être – the music – being, as it were, kept waiting in the wings a little too long. But the show’s compere, Kate Mead, of Radio New Zealand Concert, quickly put us at our ease and prepared each item with whimsical descriptions of the music’s contexts, and “humanizing” figures like the all-too-fallible Antonio Vivaldi of the “Four Seasons” fame, with stories of his being censored by his superiors for his “unpriestly” activities (some things never change…..).

Concerts such as these tend to go for the “instant appeal” repertoire, of which, naturally, there’s a marvellous store, especially in opera – interesting, really, that so many people regard the latter as a relatively “closed-book” kind of art-form, yet hugely enjoy the “great moments” upon contact. But also, making a world of difference here, were the singers, soprano Aivale Cole and tenor Benjamin Makisi, both in fine voice and having a wonderful theatrical ease and spontaneity on the stage, separately and together. As for the support from orchestra and conductor, the accompaniments were of a piece, by turns full-throated and exquisitely atmospheric – a particular joy was Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”, with Makisi’s nicely-focused tones borne aloft on diaphanous veils of floating instrumental sound, everything deliciously delicate and wind-blown. Perhaps the orchestra’s reduced numbers helped, here (I counted just four ‘cellists, for example), of a scale comparable with that of the average orchestral band in the “pit” of an opera house. What these players achieved with conductor Marc Taddei in places was spell-binding, considering they were in the same space as the singers, rather than in the recesses of “the womb of Gaia” (as Wagner called the orchestral pit). Admittedly, the reduced sound-scale didn’t help things like Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”, which seriously lacked “grunt” during the final Galop, but fortunately this wasn’t typical.

It was a nice idea to run the three “La Boheme” exerpts together from Act One (again, the “big moments” – two arias and a duet, with the only unimportant casualties being the interjections of the offstage Bohemians), allowing Cole and Makisi plenty of theatrical as well as musical expression – while they were both impressive, I thought Cole freer, more easeful vocally, and still with something in reserve, even with the cries of “Amor!” at the end – fortunately, the largely non-opera-going audience broke off their premature applause to allow the singers these final off-stage vocal ecstasies! Earlier, Aivale Cole had demonstrated her versatility in Gareth Farr’s “Aoraki”, contributing a soaring vocal line to the largely traditional ambiences of karanga, were and putatara, supported by a typically rhythmic orchestral background. Apart from one audible Michael Laws-like comment from an audience member at the very end, not far from where I was sitting, this work got an enthusiastic reception, as did the same composer’s “Sea Gongs”, later in the program. Well, as American baseball coach Connie Mack once said, “You can’t win ’em all!”.

Dancers from the Footnote Dance Company contributed to two items. They performed rather more effectively to Tchaikovsky’s lovely Waltz from the opera “Eugen Onegin”, where the ‘ballroom swirling” was nicely captured, than for Vivaldi’s “Summer” from the “Four Seasons” (a brilliantly-played solo from concertmaster Matthew Ross), their movements I thought somewhat out-of-sync. with the music in places. The orchestra generated much more fire with Berlioz’s “Le Carnival Romain” (a nicely-phrased cor-anglais solo) than with Ponchielli, the players inspired by Taddei to produce surges of tone and flashes of brilliance as required. Again, the singers shone, Aivale Cole capturing the magic of a couple more famous operatic moments, Catalani’s Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from “La Wally”,  and “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca”; while Benjamin Makisi brought the caddish aspect of the Duke of Mantua from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” to life, tickling the sensibilities of the audience to perfection with his insinuations. And if Cole didn’t quite “nail” the fiendishly difficult penultimate note of the same composer’s “Sempre libera” from “La Traviata”, she could take comfort from knowing that many famous sopranos have also failed to totally convince at that point.  The “Brindisi” (Drinking Song) from the same opera brought the full-throated best out of both singers, a few impromptu waltz-steps from Cole and Makisi throughout the “chorus bits” again delighting the audience, and bringing an immediacy to the music’s context.

It remained for the old warhorse, Tchaikovsky’s Overture “1812”, to round the music off, which was done in quite spectacular, if unintentional fashion, when the second bass-drum player (brought in to simulate the cannon-fire at the piece’s climax) lost his grip on the drumstick at his first thunderous whack, sending it spinning across the back of the orchestral platform, to the risible delight of the audience! Wisely, I think, Marc Taddei had removed the repetitions of some of the music’s material in the middle of the piece, so that the actual battle came sooner than was expected. What astonished me was the weight of tone that the orchestra produced in places, so that nowhere did we feel sonically compromised or sold short in excitement. And the hapless percussionist who had lost his stick made up for the couple of entries he had missed while retrieving his implement by thundering away with extra vim and vigor at the height of the victory celebrations, earning himself a special accolade for his efforts at the music’s conclusion!

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