Brilliant Shostakovich from violinist Riseley and NZSM Orchestra

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young with Martin Riseley (violin)

Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture (Tchaikovsky); From Peter Grimes – Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes (Britten); Violin Concerto No 1, Op 99 (Shostakovich)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 14 May 2011, 7.30pm

In the past year the School of Music seems to have made a distinct move towards offering the city a lot more music in the public sphere. Once upon a time, performances by students and staff were held mainly in the Adam Concert Room in the furthest reaches of Victoria University’s Kelburn campus; and those by the Conservatorium of Music of Massey University were at one stage in the former Fever Hospital at the back of Newtown and later at the main campus at the top of Taranaki Street. Neither was within easy reach.

One of the benefits of the merger of the two schools (and the benefits are not very conspicuous) is a wider range of performance opportunities mow happening downtown. For the full range see the school’s website called Dawn Chorus (

Occasionally, as on Saturday evening, we get a full-scale orchestral concert of the sort offered by one of our professional orchestras. Later in the year there will probably be another major orchestral concert in the Wellington Town Hall, with a performance by the winner of the school’s concerto competition, which takes place in the Adam Concert Room next Wednesday, 25 May.

This began with the Romeo and Juliet overture. Under the energetic baton of Kenneth Young it was a highly energetic performance, often given to extreme dynamic experiences that in the limited space and hard acoustic of the church was a bit too audible. The opening phase was not remarkable but the arrival of the dramatic Allegro Giusto phase marking the feud between the two families, allowed the orchestra to display its emotional energy and the following exciting, syncopated passage from around bar 140 created a special frisson as if brass and the racing quavers in the strings were not quite together.

Though it is fair to record that some of the brilliance of the brass – specifically horns and trumpets – may have been enhanced by guest players from the NZSO and the Wellington Orchestra, the overall impact flowed from student players who comprised all the players in most sections. The quite thrilling climax in the scene that perhaps depicts Tybalt’s death, was the real thing, with Fraser Bremner impressive on timpani. No less moving were the long passages of affecting lyrical melody representing the lovers.

Excerpts from Peter Grimes followed: the Four Sea Interludes, but also, to begin, the Passacaglia from Act 2. Most striking early on was the fine viola solo – I presume, John Roxburgh – over timpani, pizzicato cellos and basses. It captured, as intended, the uneasy and menacing mood of the opera, and even though not as immediately arresting as the other four pieces, deserves to be treated in this way. Throughout the other pieces violas and cellos often had further strong contributions; the whole ‘suite’ was most impressive, even though in the final section, Storm, the confusion of sound may have been carried a little further than the score provided.

The most awaited event was the performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, which seems not to have reached the ranks of much performed masterpieces of the 20th century: it’s not as familiar as the Sibelius, Elgar, the two Prokofievs, Berg, Bartok, Barber, Khachaturian, Korngold… (But perhaps that’s personal experience). If you’re into this sort of thing, Google the 50 best known violin concertos from 20th century: interesting, as it usually stimulates exploration.

The performance was a privilege. For such a big work, the orchestral forces are quite modest. Horns the only brass, apart from a brief tuba entry later. Written after the Zhdanov denunciation in 1947 of ‘formalism’ and other evils, it was not performed till 1955, after Stalin’s death in 1953. So the concerto has all the signs of Shostakovich’s fears of reprisals or worse, even though Shostakovich, with Oistrakh, had made modifications to it in the interim.

The opening movement departs strongly from the normal sanguinity of a first movement: Nocturne, which makes no mark in terms of melody, but tells the audience straight away that the composer is serious, that what he’s saying is important and he wants to make an impact emotionally through its sombre, painful beauty. The orchestra had the necessary weight and Riseley’s playing was a balance between tonal beauty and tough-minded rigour.

The Shostakovich of the sardonic Fifth Symphony emerged in the Scherzo, with dark brilliance. An even bleaker movement follows with the Pasacaglia, opening in chilling spirit with elephantine timpani, cellos and basses, soon joined by horns. The violin’s entry here brings a sudden lightening of mood though bass instruments don’t allow you to ignore the realities out there. It dies away, slowly leading a tortured path to the remarkable cadenza which demands all the virtuosity available to Oistrakh, for whom it was written, but also handles the variety of emotions that the earlier movements have explored. It leads straight into the Burlesca in which Shostakovich seems to be exploiting his familiar vein of false jollity with its brash orchestral colouring and wind interjections. The entire work was splendidly guided by Kenneth Young, maintaining a steady pulse, hitting the exciting tempo increase in the Coda, and keeping orchestral balance successfully in this sometimes difficult acoustic.

This was a remarkably feat, great credit to soloist, conductor and orchestra.

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