Showcase for winner of NZSM concerto contest

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young

Bruckner: two motets arranged for trombones: ‘Locus Iste’ and ‘Vexilla regis’
Grayson Gilmour: Existence – Aether !
Milhaud: Saudades do Brasil
Pierre Max Dubois: Concerto for Alto Saxophone and orchestra (soloist Reuben Chin)
Beethoven: Symphony No 2 in D

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 12 August, 6.30pm

This outing by the orchestra of the New Zealand School of Music (NZSM) was the opportunity to celebrate the winner of the school’s annual concerto competition. Curiously, nowhere in the programme was that fact recorded, even in the short biographical note about the saxophonist. The final round of the competition took place in the Adam Concert Room on 25 May when the four finalists played with piano accompaniment (see Middle C review of that date).

The timing of the present concert was perhaps a little unfortunate as half the school’s instrumentalists were involved in the orchestra that accompanied the NZSM’s production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the beginning of the month. I assume most of the best players had been employed there; while there were times when that might have been evident, that fact that two very accomplished orchestras could be put together also served to demonstrate the depth of talent available. *(see below)

I must here make a disclosure. I had mistaken the starting time of the concert and missed the first 40 minutes; happily Radio New Zealand Concert recorded the concert and I am grateful for their supplying me with a recording of the performances.

It opened with a most attractive arrangement (unnamed) for trombones of two motets by Bruckner. Whether that was inspired simply by the presence of five excellent trombonists or by some other reason, it was a very engaging way to open things. Perhaps no instruments are better adapted to suggest the warmth and organic richness of the human voice; the sounds supplied a deeply meditative quality to these beautiful pieces, leaving me with not a scrap of dissatisfaction at the absence of voices. Articulation and ensemble were admirable.

It was followed by a piece by 25 year old Grayson Gilmour. I hadn’t heard of him and so enlightened myself in the way of the 21st century, to be somewhat engaged by his zippy, zany website with a range of video and audio clips; pop style sounds, images and vocabulary, with drollerie and a heart. Though he allowed himself to write a rather pretentious programme note invoking musical exoterica (Dérive – viz. Boulez). Gilmour’s piece, Existence – Aether 1 (are there other parts?), is remote from the precise, hard-edged sound world of Boulez however, and he employs the word not in the French – Boulez – sense of ‘deriving from’, for example, earlier pieces of music, but to mean exploring, discovering, drifting. The latter word certainly characterizes the actual music, a post-modern, dreamy character that makes an immediate appeal through slowly evolving sequences, carefully orchestrated over long-held flute or string notes. Nothing in the website references discloses any tertiary music study, or mentions pieces such as this. Is he perhaps an interesting example of the irrelevance, up to a point, of academic study in the evolution of a real composer?

Interesting, if this is the case, that the School of Music’s orchestra should choose it in favour of a piece by one of their many student composers.*

The orchestra’s qualities were more tested in the nine pieces from Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil (there are twelve altogether). Milhaud is famous among other things, for his ’polytonal’ phase and these pieces represent that, following his years at the French Embassy in Rio de Janeiro. They are polytonal in a cheerful manner, but here was the rub. If one is to avoid the impression of reckless and joyous dissonance, rather more precision and tonal finesse is probably needed; the more brassy moments were a bit blousy, while the calm pieces were successful. It might have been auto-suggestion, but the orchestra seemed to gain in idiomatic confidence as it went along and by the second-to-last piece, Laranjeiras, there was a real confidence which engaged most sections of the orchestra, I recalled, apart from the May concert where Ruben Chin won the school competition, that the name Dubois as composer had featured in a students’ concert at St Andrew’s in 2010: I looked it up and found it was his À l’Espagnole. (Searching on the  internet, you also find another: Théodore Dubois, well known to organists).

A contemporary of Boulez perhaps, but Pierre Max Dubois’s inclination and that of many others who did not fall in with the alienating rites of Darmstadt, led him to writing music that was accessible to the generality of music lovers. Its accents were still contemporary but they had not been cut so totally adrift from tradition. This concerto, for saxophone and strings, is a delightful example of good music of the mid 20th century.

The concerto is colourful and varied, its three movements used in the way the three movements had been used for three centuries; and the playing was filled with energy and dance and subtlety; though the outer movements have jazz accents, it is by no means a jazz-inspired work. Its ancestry is distinctly that of Ibert, Milhaud and further back perhaps to Chabrier; thus the saxophone’s sound removes it entirely from the jazz world.

The second half was devoted to Beethoven’s second symphony. While St Andrew’s is a good venue for smaller ensembles and had been a good space for the saxophone concerto, full orchestras don’t sit well there (part of the reason for problems with the Milhaud). More experienced players would have found ways to refine their sounds which were often uncomfortably loud and confused. Nevertheless, much of the playing was marked by careful dynamic control – the second movement was sensitively played; what one had to concentrate on was the energy the orchestra brought to the performance and the generally accurate playing. I was particularly interested, being able to listen later to the recording, how much of the acoustic failings of the live hearing had disappeared on the recording and I could hear more clearly the careful detailing of much of the playing, especially of the strings and, in the boisterous last movement, even in the brass. Sure, the absence of a spacious acoustic was still obvious, but the quality of the playing was much more evident.

*  We were later offered an explanation:
Grayson Gilmour is a current student of the NZSM. He completed his undergraduate degree at the NZSM, majoring in composition, about 3 years ago, and is now studying for a Bachelor of Music with Honours, studying with John Psathas and Dugal McKinnon. His work, Existence – Aether, was commissioned by the NZSM as a recipient of the Jenny McLeod prize (an annual commission for orchestra awarded by the school).