NZSO Soloists – becoming as sounding brass

BRASS SPLENDOUR from the NZSO Soloists

ELGAR (arr. Wick) – Severn Suite Op.87 / GRIEG (arr. Emerson) – Funeral March in memory of Rikard Nordraak

HANDEL (arr.Maunder) – Music for the Royal Fireworks / GABRIELI – Sacrae Symphoniae: Canzon 10

BRUCKNER (arr.Rose) – 2 Motets / R.STRAUSS (arr. Maunder)- Festmusik der Stadt Wien

NZSO players:

Michael Kirgan, Cheryl Hollinger, Mark Carter, Thomas Moyer (trumpets)

Peter Sharman, David Moonan (horns)  / David Bremner, Peter Maunder (trombones)

Andrew Jarvis (tuba) / Bruce McKinnon, Leonard Sakofsky, Thomas Guldborg (percussion) / Laurence Reese (timpani)

Guest players:

Andrew Bain (horn, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) / Elizabeth Simpson (horn, Ottawa National Arts Centre Orchestra)

Tom Coyle (trombone, Queensland Symphony Orchestra) / Scott Kinmont (trombone, Sydney Symphony Orchestra)

Town Hall, Wellington

Thursday 28th July, 2011

The irony of former Principal Horn Ed Allen’s retirement from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra virtually on the eve of the Orchestral Brass Soloists’ Tour wasn’t lost on the writer of a section of the concert program, the part entitled “Musical Chairs”. Replacing Ed Allen for the four-concert tour was Andrew Bain, (sporting the title “Guest Principal Horn”), in fact Principal Horn of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. But there’s more – compounding the musical “exchange rate” were three other “guest musicians” featured on the “Brass Splendour” tour – the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Tom Doyle sat in for NZSO Principal Bass Trombone Graeme Browne (on leave), while Canadian Elizabeth Simpson (from the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa) swapped places with NZSO Sub-Principal Horn Heather Thompson, who’s enjoying a Canadian summer playing Fourth Horn with the Ottawa NACO. As well, Sydney Symphony Orchestra Associate Principal Trombone Scott Kinmont was invited to join the tour. I’m put in mind of what comedian and raconteur Michael Flanders once said, introducing a performance of his and Donald Swann’s show “At The Drop of A Hat” – “Right! – double bookings sorted out, are they?” However, despite these changes having been rung, the ensemble looked and sounded confident and stylish as its members filed onto the Wellington Town Hall stage and began the concert.

Elgar’s Severn Suite was first up, an arrangement for brass ensemble by Dennis Wick. The original brass band version, sketched out by Elgar and orchestrated by one Henry Geehl (over which result there was trouble between arranger and composer) was dedicated to George Bernard Shaw, who declared that the music “would ensure my immortality when all my plays are dead and damned and forgotten”. Amusingly, Shaw suggested to Elgar that he ought to use bandsmen’s language in the score instead of the usual Italian: – “For instance, remember that a Minuet is a dance and not a bloody hymn; or, steady up for artillery attack; or now – like Hell!” Shaw claimed his suggestions would help some of the modest beginner players.

Perhaps this ensemble’s members had read Shaw’s advice to Elgar as well – because they tore into the opening “Worcester Castle” almost unceremoniously, leaving behind any notions of Elgarian “nobilmente” in favor of urgency and energy – too much so, for me, though plenty of others would have found it exciting. I thought the lack of pomp and grandeur at the beginning made an insufficient tempo contrast with the following “Tournament” which was where the true excitement needed to happen. As it was, the drum-taps beginning the “Tournament” episode didn’t have the sense of pent-up expectation they ought to have generated, largely because a lot of rhythmic impetus had already been spent by the playing throughout the opening. I wondered whether this was a factor in the noticeable proportion of mis-hit notes we heard early on, the players certainly taking some time to “warm up”. As well, I wondered whether for this particular work the ensemble actually needed the guiding hand of a conductor, someone who could have helped bring out the “swagger” of the off-beat rhythms, so difficult for an undirected group to bring off. In fact, at one point during the “Minuet”, I did notice trombonist David Bremner (I think it was) making conducting gestures, lending the group a pre-arranged hand, no doubt. By the time the opening music had returned (still a shade too fast for me – Elgar’s music has to have, I think, a certain “stride” in which both energy and solid girth have a part to play, with every footfall cogently advancing the argument in its own way) the playing had settled and the attack and intonation were more secure.

Things came together wonderfully for the players’ heartfelt rendition of a Grieg rarity, Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak. (Nordraak and Grieg were fellow-composers, the former inspiring the latter to make as his life’s work the cause of Norwegian music). Giving the music time for the tones to amply fill both physical and temporal spaces, the ensemble literally rose to the occasion in delivering a full-blooded,percussion-supported climax to a sequence that began with such wonderfully hushed, expectant melancholy at the outset. The players brought out the different instruments’ timbres, in particular making much of the contrasts in softer passages between trumpets and horns, and enjoyed the major key change in the “Trio” section of the music, Grieg interrupting the more cheerful, if piquant mood with a great horn outburst at the music’s heart, extremely forthright, but both brazen and noble by turns. This being a new work for me, I was impressed at the range, depth and darkness of emotion wrought by the composer, and thrilled and moved by the performance.

Trombonist Peter Maunder certainly had been busy for this concert, rearranging a lot of music for this particular ensemble, including Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (the programme’s playing order said Richard Strauss’s Festmusik der Stadt Wien would follow the Grieg, but the Strauss and Handel items were swapped around). So it was Handel in Peter Maunder’s skilful realization, the playing here seeming to me influenced in style and sharp focus by the “authentic” school of Baroque performance – admirable in terms of clean, lean lines and sharply-defined rhythms, but somehow lacking a real sense of “occasion”. It’ll be considered heresy of me to say so, but I’ve always loved Hamilton Harty’s full-orchestra arrangements of this music, simply because they always sound so grand and ceremonial. On the other hand, I’ve also dearly loved for years my old Pye recording of Charles Mackerras’ “ultra-authentic” recreation of one of those first London performances of this music, with every available wind player in London at the time seemingly brought into the fray. Neither of these examples have much to do on paper with what we heard in concert, except that, expert though the playing was, I simply wanted, I think, more out-and-out performance flair and panache (again, a conductor might have helped) – more grandeur in places, and energy in others, more abandonment on the part of the percussion, more space in and around the music (almost anything goes with Baroque realizations, judging by how readily the composers borrowed their own and each others’ music for whatever purpose which suited).

As if putting my thoughts and feelings into “demonstration mode” the first item after the interval provided all the “frisson” of spectacle one associates with ceremonial brass, one of Giovanni Garbrieli’s joyous Sacrae Symphoniae, the Canzon 10. With the players exploiting the antiphonal potentialities of the playing-space by standing in two rows at the top of each half of the “organ gallery”, the Hall was, literally, saturated with resplendently produced sounds, readily evoking old-world ritual and sensibility – we in the audience loved it (because of my relative unfamiliarity with much of Gabrieli’s music I felt at one with those caught up by Sir Thomas Beecham’s well-known remark pertaining to English audiences, who “don’t know much about music, but like the noise it makes”). More unfamiliar music of a beguiling aspect was to follow, unscheduled as per program, but readily welcomed by an intrigued audience – two of Anton Bruckner’s Motets, played by four trombones – in a way, the antithesis of the Gabrieli we had just heard, but at the same time the beautiful solemnity of the sounds (gorgeous playing) presenting the perfect foil for the Italian’s fulsome brilliance.

Exuberance and excitability marked the opening of Richard Strauss’s Festmusik der Stadt Wien (another splendid arrangement for the ensemble by Peter Maunder), the music then characteristically going on to a more nostalgic vein, with evocative modulations (nice trumpet work in thirds and sixths – definitely the former, the latter being a keen listener’s guess!) the sound of an “Imperial Vienna” provenance. With the players really hitting their straps by this stage of the evening, there was page after page of “on-to-it” music-making, the whole casting a refulgent glow, leading up to a grand Straussian build-up and a vigorous coda, filled with virtuoso writing for the instrumental combinations, before the music touched our hearts with parting-shot nostalgic promptings of imaginings of a world forever disappeared. What we expected to have been a rousing finish to an evening was then delightfully augmented by “something completely different” – firstly, the spectacle of Lenny Sakofsky being pushed to centre-stage, sitting amidst a drum-kit configuration of “splendiferous magnitude” (in fact it seemed as though he might at any moment have kick-started the monster with a roar and a cloud of blue smoke and disappeared up the aisle and out the Town Hall doors!), and then the mellifluous strains of Duke Ellington’s Do nothing’ till you hear from me, the players “swinging” with what seemed to me like total identification with the idiom.

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