Accomplished playing from Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Lilburn: Drysdale Overture; Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 in A, K 219; Warlock: Capriol Suite; Gounod: Petite symphonie for winds; Bizet: Carmen Suite No 1

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Joel with Anna van der Zee (violin); leader Paula Carryer

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 4 December, 2.30pm

Michael Joel is a major conductor in the New Zealand orchestral, choral and opera scene, particularly in Christchurch which is where I guess I first encountered him, conducting for Canterbury Opera’s Lakmé, La Traviata and Rossini’s Le comte Ory. He has conducted the Wellington Chamber Orchestra at least once before.

Though I should be reluctant to ascribe all the credit for the impressive performances in this concert to him – for the orchestra is a very different body today from what it was a decade ago – his painstaking work was surely very important in the striking results achieved this afternoon.

Oddly enough, it was the first piece on the programme, Lilburn’s Drysdale Overture, in which the sound needed more control; it’s scored for large symphony orchestra and some of the difficulty lay in achieving balance between brass and the other sections. It was more a problem inherent in the acoustics of the church which always present problems for large instrumental ensembles and specifically for timpani and brass.

The opening chord of the overture was intentionally arresting, but it was also unduly shrill and uncomfortable. Dynamic levels continued to be a bit high, until the calmer middle section which came as a relief, with strings and woodwinds playing sensitively. I always imagine the piece as depicting a pastoral landscape, but I found myself wondering whether Joel sought to offer a tough and somewhat more brutal view of hill-country farming than is usual. Lilburn was a gifted orchestrater but perhaps in this youthful work his facility carried him away.

The Mozart concerto is music better adapted to the size of the church, and orchestrally there was much to admire. After the orchestral introduction which signalled a keen feeling for the moderate scale of the music and the way it can be accommodated in the space, soloist, Anna van der Zee, who plays with the NZSO, opened quietly, allowing the character of her instrument to express itself warmly. Her playing might have benefited from a more relaxed approach to the pace which didn’t always allow it to breathe a little more freely between phrases.  A fairly slow pace in the Adagio seemed to expose the orchestra uncomfortably, but the Finale produced a warm and relaxed quality; the Turkish aspects suggested a somewhat sinister character. The care taken with the structure of the concerto  was well exemplified through the undulations in dynamics and the telling pause before the recapitulation toward the end.

Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite seems to be the quintessentially amateur piece; yet it’s by no means easily realized by other than reasonably polished and careful performers. Ensemble was markedly good in the Pavane and I admired the pizzicato in the third movement. What it did, more than in the Mozart, was to demonstrate how much more the acoustic suits a purely string ensemble.

I had to revise that thought however with the charming performance of Gounod’s wind nonette, which he called a petite symphonie, modeled, not on Spohr’s famous nonette which is for a combination of strings and winds, but rather on the wind ensembles for seven or eight instruments by Mozart, Beethoven or Krommer. The first movement reminded me of the delightful Provençal-influenced music Gounod had written for Mireille, and the next movement’s aria-like tune reinforced the spirit of Gounod the opera composer; flute and oboe played beautifully. The excellent ensemble did justice to the lovely harmonies of the Finale.

The suite from Carmen had me further revising my thoughts about the impact of brass and of the generally boisterous playing of this music in the church. Scored for a full orchestra, there were very few moments when the volume was excessive, though the timpani was emphatic enough in the Prelude. There were numerous displays of fine playing by individual woodwind instruments; dynamic undulations and generally careful balance and ensemble kept this popular suite from sounding hackneyed, as the rather splendid brass contributions brought it to an end with the  toreador’s song.

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