The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Close Encounters:of the symphonic kind
Conductor and commentator: Peter Walls
Schubert: first movement of the Unfinished Symphony; Wagner: Siegfried Idyll; Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture
Wellington Town Hall
Thursday 15 December, 6.30pm
The NZSO brought its year to an end (apart from a family-oriented appearance at Te Papa on Saturday) with two ‘outreach’ concerts which gave retiring chief executive Peter Walls the chance to demonstrate both his conducting prowess and his distinctive gifts as a musical communicator, with words.
The hall was almost full, with many family groups, and lots of faces unfamiliar at regular orchestral concerts. This second concert, running little over an hour, dwelt on the emergence of Romanticism in music, where Walls drew frequent contrasts with the music of the classical period which he had discussed on the previous evening. His starting point was the famous 1808 concert that Beethoven mounted of his own works including both his 5th and 6th symphonies.
His introductory scene-setting: ‘On a cold, windy and wet evening in December’ – and he paused before saying – ‘1808’, prompted the audience, laughing, to recall the conditions outside (That amazing, four-hour concert also included the 4th Piano Concerto, parts of the Mass in C major and the Choral Fantasy, Op 80!) .
Schubert’s luck was far worse than Beethoven’s of course. He abandoned his Symphony in B Minor and never heard the two completed movements at all. Walls’s lively characterisation of the changes that the Romantic movement made to composers’ aims and expectations in music would have alerted the audience, particularly those who’d been at the earlier concert, to the greater attention to the expression of feelings as formal classical shapes, still very important, were no longer music’s main preoccupation. And though the orchestra did not play anything of Schubert’s very Mozartian 5th Symphony, Walls pointed to the big step towards Romanticism that Schubert had taken in the very few years between it and the ‘Unfinished’.
Walls used the occasion to point interestingly to other shifts that were taking place during the Romantic era: one was the elevation of the composer to a position approaching stardom, no longer merely a servant of a court or cathedral, but an admired artist who could, by the 19th century, support himself, independent of patrons (Handel and others, especially in the field of opera, had done so at least a century earlier). The atmosphere of sanctity, silence during the performance, dimmed lighting, the slow move against clapping between and during movements: all these were signs of the changes in the view of ‘serious’ music, and of composer as ‘genius’ during the 19th century.
Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll took matters a great deal further – fifty years further in fact, far more than the distance between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s symphonies. Though he talked about the derivation of the Idyll from the music Wagner was writing for the Ring cycle at the time, he was also at pains to draw attention to the four parts of the work and to illustrate the ways in which the ideas evolved. It also served to remind the audience about the orchestra’s scheduled performances next year of Die Walküre, the biggest such undertaking since Parsifal in 2006.
The last piece in the concert moved back 40 years from Wagner’s piece. Even though Mendelssohn and Wagner hardly saw eye to eye on musical aesthetics, the Hebrides Overture also served to show how classical forms could be turned to the service of musical scene-painting or narrative. The orchestra was reduced in size for these concerts (strings numbering 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 and merely double winds); not even the Wagner piece was written for a full symphony orchestra – as a charming birthday present for his wife, Cosima, it was originally scored for 13 players. Yet in the Town Hall the sound was big and rich, and while skeptics might suggest that with an orchestra of such quality these pieces played themselves, there was no doubt that under Peter Walls, the players were investing the music with full commitment and a warm Romantic spirit.
The orchestral climate
Peter Walls’s nine years as CEO have seen the orchestra’s standing domestically and internationally greatly enhanced; but there is no room for complacency. Though it was the Vector Wellington Orchestra that was the focus of the most immediate concern over likely funding threats by Creative New Zealand, more serious collateral damage to the NZSO has to be considered in the longer term. The findings of a study by an overseas orchestral consultant of New Zealand’s professional orchestral sector is awaited with some trepidation. One of the orchestra’s difficulties, a result of its extensive touring demands, is that it actually presents fewer separate programmes as distinct from concerts, than for example does the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.
Parochial pressures from two other major cities that have often argued for the dismemberment of the NZSO and distribution of the NZSO’s round $13 million of State funding to them may be quiescent at present but remain serious. The ambitions of misguided rivals ignore the fact that an orchestra with a 65-year history that is widely considered the best in the Southern Hemisphere, makes a vital contribution to New Zealand’s reputation as a civilized state that can demonstrate excellence in more spheres than (sporadically) in sport.