Wellington Orchestra set for another triumphant year: a superb concert

Debussy: Nocturnes; Mozart: Piano Concerto No 23 in A, K 488 (with Diedre Irons); Borodin: Symphony No 2 in B minor

Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 16 April, 7.30pm

Perhaps it was the controversial issues involving Creative New Zealand’s funding of the orchestra, as well as the interesting character of the concert that drew a pretty full house at the Town Hall. Both were excellent reasons for being there.

In brief, not to denigrate the achievements of the orchestra with conductor Taddei in the past few years, this was a stunningly successful concert, with playing that in energy, subtlety, freedom of expression and instrumental virtuosity might even have bettered what we often hear from the NZSO.

The centerpiece was no doubt the Borodin symphony. I can’t remember when I last heard it played live; it is regarded by many as one of the greatest symphonies of the 19th century after Beethoven. In any case, it must be one of the most neglected real masterpieces in the symphony repertoire.

After the interval it found both orchestra and conductor totally ready for a performance that exuded huge confidence, familiarity (Taddei had no score before him) and where it mattered, a fine sense of heroism, folklorish colour and abandonment. The orchestra took great pains with distinctive phases of the music, giving full value to the arrival of a sudden stillness, galloping passages, accelerations and rallentandi, emphatic brass ejaculations. The second movement took liberties with the traditional notions of that sort of movement, with its variety of style and tone, evoking the Russian magical world. The third movement teases the audience with an expectation of a big ‘Kismet’-like tune, but it is the richer and more engrossing for its melodic restraint. Here there was plenty of opportunity for the orchestra’s quality in every department to be heard. The last movement follows without pause, no hint of any loss of momentum, this was a performance of huge confidence, possible only when conductor and his players have got it totally under their belts.

Taddei had noted in his short introduction that the performance now was appropriate since the orchestra is to accompany the ballet Petroushka later in the year; and he suggested strong influences in it from the Borodin symphony.

But the first half was no less successful.

A performance of Debussy’s first large-scale orchestral work opened the concert. The beginning of Nuages, with beautifully modulated winds and, soon, its lovely cor anglais solo, said everything about the maturity and sheer refinement of the orchestra. It was obviously a thoroughly studied achievement; not only were the winds elegant and subtle, but the gleam of the string sections that introduced the second part, Fêtes, might have surprised an audience in Vienna’s Musikverein. The muted trumpets in the middle created a mystical, remote magic; Debussy’s orchestra sounded sometimes is if the Ravel of Daphnis et Chloé, a decade later, had been helping with the orchestration.

During Fêtes, it had occurred to me to wonder about the singers for the next part: where were they? Perhaps off-stage? Perhaps replaced by a synthesizer? As Sirènes began they materialized from behind the woodwinds, in front of the brass (I was sitting in the stalls – not a good place if you’re a musician spotter). The women of Cantoris were magical, exemplary; a delicate harp seemed to bring the singers’ gentle lyricism into focus.

And perhaps as an aside, Thomas Guldborg is one hell ’v a timpanist.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23, in A, was in the pre-interval slot.

In truth, its orchestral introduction seemed a bit routine, and Diedre Irons’s first phrases were just a little uneasy. But it settled into a performance that was robust and enjoyed a sense of freedom; yet the cadenza at the movement’s end seemed to have little to say.

The slow movement of the C major concerto, K 467 (‘Elvira Madigan’), is perhaps the most famous, but this one is really more beautiful, and the gloriously easy pace that was adopted by soloist and orchestra allowed all the time we wanted to wallow in its beauties, the ebb and flow of the piano’s dynamics, the love shown for every phrase, delicious clarinet scales, delicately planted string suggestions. But the orchestra’s contribution, while exquisite, is almost casual; it’s really little more than an adagio for piano, and Irons made it her own with all the sensitivity and insight of which she can be mistress.

The same flowing ease carried things through the joyous last movement, again, not too quick, with the orchestra now making a more significant contribution.

It’s music that seems so perfect, so inevitable in its shape and its melodies and their endlessly inventive transformations, that it must always have existed. What could the world have been like before 1786?

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