Close Encounters of the Symphonic Kind 1: “Classical Drive:
Mozart: Symphony no.31 K.297 “Paris”; first movement
Beethoven: Symphony no.1 Op.21; first movement
Beethoven: Symphony no.7 Op.92; second movement
Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute K.620
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Walls (conductor and speaker)
Wellington Town Hall
Wednesday, 14 December 2011 at 6.30pm
The hour-long concert was devised, and proved to be, a good introduction to classical music for those who wanted a taste to see if they would like to plunge in. The concert was free, and the hall almost full.
Surely not many CEOs of orchestras are also conductors; it is probably rare for a symphony orchestra Chief Executive officer to conduct the orchestra as a swan-song to his job. Of course, Peter Walls is an experienced conductor, but mainly of smaller ensembles.
The orchestra, a smaller one than the full band, was led for these concerts by Lyndon Johnston Taylor, Assistant Concertmaster, soon to return to the United States.
The tasters to several major works by Mozart and Beethoven were introduced by Walls in amusing and informative fashion. He avoided the use of technical terms, and held the attention of the appreciative audience, telling us the reasons for the works’ composition, as well as something of their content.
The playing of the Mozart symphony was vigorous, with plenty of contrast in the gentler sections. Conductor and orchestra certainly brought out the detail, and the playing had rhythmic vitality. I enjoyed the energy of the performance.
Peter Walls demonstrated how we instinctively know harmonic sequences – but in the stress of the moment he messed up his example, ‘Away in a manger’. Nevertheless, the characters of tonic and dominant were explained well, with the image of taking off and landing a plane, cruising at altitude, encountering turbulence etc., a worthy vehicle for illustrating sonata form. (In turn, I have used sonata form to describe to people knowing music, how to write an essay.)
Beethoven’s first symphony is obviously his nearest to the period of Mozart, and its first movement had a theatrical feel about it in this performance. It was a lively performance that periodically swept me away, even though the work was very familiar. As Beethoven’s contemporary critic said, it had ‘a wealth of ideas’.
At the end, the trumpet made a great sound, adding guts to the already thoroughly committed performance.
More Beethoven came next, in the form of the second movement of the seventh symphony, first performed 13 years after the first symphony.
This movement must have appeared novel at the first hearing, opening with no violins – cellos and basses alone giving a spooky sound which was very effective. The violas enter with a theme counterpointed to that of the lower strings, then the second violins enter in like fashion, and finally the first violins do the same. After this, the sumptuous clarinet comes in with a significant melody.
Both the programme note and Peter Walls mentioned the use of this movement as theme music for the film The King’s Speech, and the ‘fusion of poignancy and determination’ which attracted the film-makers. It made me think of the vulnerability of both men, due to their handicaps: Beethoven’s deafness, and King George VI’s stammering.
Hearing just one movement of each symphony, preceded by Peter Walls’s introductions (along with short examples of motifs etc. from the orchestra) sharpened perception of Beethoven’s skill and invention more than sometimes happens when listening to a whole symphony.
The overture to The Magic Flute was a great choice for a concert such as this. As Peter Walls explained very well in his introduction, it contains humorous characters, and themes to match, and also a more serious side, including Masonic symbolism; Mozart was a member of a lodge.
This serious side, Walls spelt out, was illustrated by the unusual use of trombones in the music; they were normally employed at this period only in religious music. Here, they underlined the quasi-religious and serious aspect of Masonic tenets.
In this glorious music, the woodwind were especially notable.
The concert ended on a high note, and thanks were expressed to the Wellington Community Trust for their sponsorship of the series of two concerts (the next evening’s was to feature Schubert, Wagner and Mendelssohn in Close Encounter 2: “Romantic Longing”.
For those with a printed programme there was added value: a Glossary at the back of common Italian “Speed Words” (allegro etc.) and “Dynamics” (piano, fortissimo etc.), and a short essay “The Language of classical Music in 500 words”, by Milan Kundera.