NZSO Soloists and a kaleidoscopic “Carmen”

KENNETH YOUNG – Portrait / TORU TAKEMITSU – Rain Tree / ARVO PÄRT – Fratres

GEORGES BIZET / RODION SHCHEDRIN – Carmen Suite for Strings and Percussion

NZSO Soloists

Vesa-Matti Leppänen (director)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 24th March

Strings and percussion put side-by-side make an intriguing ensemble combination – perhaps they’re not natural musical bedfellows to the extent that are winds and percussion or brass and percussion. But their coming-together makes, I think, for unique results, such as their capacity for generating enormous contrasts of timbre and colour. This was evident throughout the NZSO Soloists’ “Carmen Suite” concert, given that the music presented during the first half was perhaps more subtle and subdued than one might have expected from such forces.

It struck me throughout the evening that, because of the difference in sound-worlds, there was a certain tension generated by the combination, a tension of awkwardness, of having to marry these very different worlds together. Perhaps it was as much audience- as composer-generated, but I thought the chalk-and-cheese juxtapositions of “non-percussive” and “extremely percussive” created a mixture of expectation and conjecture as to how it was all going to turn out. Of course there is percussion and percussion, and in at least one of the works programmed in the concert, Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree, one could almost predict that the sounds would hardly sound “percussive” at all!

As I’ve already indicated, the three works in the first half took a gentler, more reflective stance towards the percussion section, as if, along with the strings, traditional adversaries were being brought together for some kind of truce and told to be on their best behaviour! Then in the second half, more overtly “percussive” qualities were given their head in places – though I must say that this music, Rodion Shchedrin’s reworking of themes from Bizet’s opera Carmen into a ballet suite, wasn’t as “noisy” as I had been previously led to believe. More through circumstance than by deliberate avoidance, I had never heard the work before. (Right! – I shall try to no longer use the words “percussion” and “percussive” in this review – if I can!)

The concert opened with a new work, one written especially for the NZSO Soloists and commissioned by the NZSO Friends of the Orchestra. This was Portrait, a work by Ken Young – and from the title, one might have expected the piece to be a self-portrait, or a portrait of some specific person or object. Instead, the composer told us in a program note that the work was one which merely “reflects various moods and sensations”. We were as well invited to make any associations we ourselves wished to make with the music.

It was all my fault – I was expecting the composer of his first two symphonies and that wonderfully exhilarating work Dance to give us something more along those lines. So, I spent much of the listening-time waiting for the piece to do something other than what it was doing! Still, the music I found extremely attractive, written in a late-Romantic idiom, and making striking use of the solo violin – Young employed a kind of descending motif at the opening, one whose harmonies he occasionally “bent” chromatically, in a haunting, atmospheric manner.

I was struck by the beauty of the music for the strings and harp throughout this opening section, with the solo violin like a single wanderer in a beautiful, unfamiliar sonic landscape. The music did gather up its energies during a middle episode, where the writing reminded me a bit of Bartok’s in his Concerto for Orchestra, the motifs sounding folkish and very singable. But whatever more strongly rhythmic episodes there were seemed all too ready to put aside their energies and return to more reflective modes of expression. And because I was waiting for the composer to bring more muscle and thrust into the proceedings, it took a while for me to rid myself of the disappointment that the piece never seemed really to “take off”, beautiful though many of the episodes were.

Upon reflection, and rehearing a section on the work on the radio, I’m inclined towards thinking that the music worked well despite my expectations of the time not being fulfilled. But as regards the next item on the program, Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree, I did expect a completely different kind of sound-experience – in a sense this was the case, though again I had some difficulty focusing on the music, albeit for somewhat different reasons. As I imagined it would be, Takemitsu’s piece was largely meditative, gentle and inward, with occasional irruptions of light (more of this in a moment) and scintillations of impulse. Energy in Takemitsu’s music is, of course, largely of the mind and the imagination, rather than of the blood and sinew. Three percussionists were involved, playing marimba, vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals) respectively.

What became the performance’s dominant feature (causing much discussion afterwards) was the lighting used throughout the piece. The instrumentalists were individually lit, and the illumination was alternated between the players, according to which instrument was being used – an interesting idea in theory, but in practice one I found fatally distracting. It all seemed too insistent and crude, at odds with the overall gentleness and subtlety of the piece, and an enormous distraction for this listener, at any rate – in fact I found myself absorbed in predicting when each lighting-change was going to happen and to which instrument it would be applied, instead of listening to the music!

Again, the problem is probably mine to an extent, but I would think this also a generational issue. I can imagine audience members younger than myself not batting an eyelid at what I would consider distractions, as they would have probably experienced many musical events with constant variation of lighting and other effects “augmenting” the music. Of course, Takemitsu himself was a noted “cinephile” with a number of beautifully-wrought film-scores to his credit, so his music does have a strong and established association with visual imagery. But I found the lighting changes “noisy “and “clattery” in this instance – visually more like lightning, or dramatic denouement, or explosive flashes one might associate with warfare. I might well have been prepared to accept more delicately-modulated ambient changes, of the kind suggested by the music. But, unfortunately, I still labour under the delusion that a concert is where someone goes to “listen”, and found this all too much to take, something of an impediment.

So, a somewhat muted, circumspect first half was completed by a classic Arvo Pärt work, Fratres, which was written in 1977. This began life as a work for strings and winds, but the composer subsequently arranged the music for a number of combinations of instruments. Probably the most popular version is for solo violin, strings and percussion,as was performed here, though it also makes occasional appearances as a work for violin and piano.

I thought the string-playing during this work was simply a joy to listen to. It all began with the solo violin sounding modulating arpeggiations which grew in intensification as the deep percussion sounds opened up the ground beneath one’s feet, suggesting something monumental and unearthly. The accompanying string chords had an eerie, haunting Aeolian, or wind-blown quality, with the double basses holding on to this deep-seated sound. I like the way the hymn-like music for strings seemed to address the heavenly spaces, with the solo violin also playing music of the air, while the percussion and lower strings kept the foundation sounds well grounded.

One would have thought, after all of this, that the second half of the program, featuring Russian composer Rodian Shchedrin’s Carmen Ballet  (music largely drawn from George’s Bizet’s eponymous opera), would straightway electrify our sensibilities with masses of sound – my somewhat randomly-formed impression of what we were going to hear was that it was going to be “extremely noisy”! In fact, what we got at the start was the gentlest and most evocative kind of “wake-up call” – Rodian Shchedrin begins his Suite with what sound like distant, early-morning sounds, bells sounding the famous “Habanera” theme as a gently nostalgic echo, perhaps for some people a sleepy remembrance of what they were doing the night before! But soon, the music got going in earnest, with the first Dance, an evocation of the bull-ring, flailing castanets prominent.

I thought two differences between Shchedrin and the original Bizet work gradually emerged. Firstly, it became clear that Shchedrin had his own order of events for the action of his ballet – it wasn’t a carbon copy of Bizet’s Carmen story, by any means. And so the tunes we all knew came in a somewhat unexpected order in places. What I didn’t know was that Shchedrin had interpolated a couple of numbers from Bizet’s incidental music for L’Arlesienne into his score and from another opera, The Fair Maid of Perth, along with a bit of Jules Massenet’s ballet music for Le Cid. So these things came as a surprise as well.

Secondly, Shchedrin’s strings and percussion scheme rather unexpectedly drew my attention to the enormous importance Bizet gave to the wind instruments in his opera – without them, as here, the differences were profound. So, in that sense, the strings had a great deal to make up for; and what they lacked in timbral and textural variation, they compensated for by fervently singing – they could, of course, convey all the romance and anguish of Bizet’s themes, even if those accustomed colours and “dialects” associated with some tunes, were no longer there. The NZSO strings were, I’m happy to report, well up to the task.

It was interesting, and perhaps predictable, that the official Soviet reaction (in 1969 the cultural scene in Russia still dominated by “The Party”) was extremely hostile. Shchedrin’s “tweaking” of the story for the Ballet caused outrage in some quarters – Soviet Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furseva exclaimed that the work was “insulting” and that “Carmen, the hero of the Spanish people, has been made into a whore”. It was only after the intervention of Shostakovich that a ban that had been placed on the music’s performance was lifted. Shchedrin’s story-line has Carmen in a kind of “menage a trois” with both Don Jose and Escamillo the Toreador. At the end, Carmen dances with each of her lovers in turn until Don Jose stabs her in a fit of jealousy. Presumably it was Carmen’s apparent “free-range” sexual activities which raised the ire of the Soviet Thought-Police.

Given these scenarios, I was surprised and delighted at the extent to which the music had moments of real fun, of a somewhat irreverent feeling, a “tongue-in-cheek” aspect that peeked out occasionally from between the score’s pages. For example, Shchedrin gets the players to hum the Toreador’s Song at one point, and subsequently asks the percussionists to play kazoos, to everybody’s delight at the concert. Touches like this leavened the intensity of the mix, to the enterprise’s advantage.

So, it was all very entertaining, superbly delivered, exciting and with lots of diverting touches. Perhaps Shchedrin’s work is too quirky in itself to be an enduring masterpiece – but it’s certainly a work that, ultimately, reminds one of what a great piece the original Carmen continues to be!



























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