Highly enterprising concert from School of Music Orchestra

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young

Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat by Beethoven (with Diedre Irons – piano); The Walk to the Paradise Garden from Delius’s opera A Village Romeo and Juliet; Symphony in Three Movements by Stravinsky

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday 3 April, 7.30pm

The church of St Andrew’s (on the Terrace) was pretty full for this first concert of the year by the orchestra of the New Zealand School of Music. Loyalty by many fellow students and families of the players explained a good many of the audience, but the attractions of the programme would have accounted for a good many too.

The concerto came first. And I steeled myself in preparation for the big and often unruly sound I expected to encounter, in the light of previous experiences of orchestras performing in this acoustic.

The concerto opened, as it should, with the mighty rhetorical exclamations from piano and orchestra. No problem: everything was in its place, no undue burden of bass instruments, with Diedre taking command resolutely, boldly, yet with nicely judged rubato, little accelerations on the rising flourishes and careful dynamic undulations, with timpani making its discreet impact (it was tucked against the wall on the right, behind the chamber organ).

The strings were both numerous enough to balance the winds – 36 were listed in the programme – and produced a quality of sound, both dense enough and sufficiently satiny, to deal with Diedre’s muscular and energetic piano; and the winds, now adorned with a couple of oboes which the school has lacked in recent years (though one of the two listed was replaced by NZSO principal oboe Robert Orr), and at least one very good player in each section. The principal flute in the concerto (JeeWon Um I think) produced a particularly beautiful tone and clarinets played with distinction.

But more important than individual detail was the effect of Kenneth Young’s discipline and his sensitivity to the dramatic pacing and expressivity that this remarkable piece calls for. It is all too easy to allow this testament to Beethoven’s self-confidence and optimism for mankind to be overstated in performance, but here, and naturally in the slow movement, there was plenty of room for hesitancy and pause, and Diedre’s ability to refine her manner to find interesting nuances in repetitive motifs kept the performance delightfully alive. The final breathless phrases between piano and controlled timpani (Reuben Jelleyman) exemplified the refinement of the entire performance.

After the interval there were two hugely different 20th century works. Delius, as well as Debussy, celebrates his 150th birthday this year, and the familiar Walk to the Paradise Garden from his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet revealed the players’ widespread talents and Young’s grasp of Delius elusive idiom (the opera has no more to do with Shakespeare than has Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth; it’s based on a German novelle of 1856 by Swiss writer Gottfried Keller. Incidentally, you’ll catch a production of the opera if you’re in Ireland later this year: the Wexford Opera Festival is staging it).

It is probably the ideal introduction to Delius, particularly for those who, like me, have found his music too discursive or formless, for it’s both beautifully written, using a large orchestra with great subtlety and charm, and is furnished with beguiling lyricism and musical ideas that are interestingly developed.

It could have been chosen to allow the strengths of the wind sections to be heard, for that is where much of its beauty lies. Robert Orr’s oboe took the rapturous early solo, but the baton soon passed to clarinets and flutes and the two harps; and the climax is reached with the involvement of two trumpets and three trombones, four horns and the entire woodwind section. The playing was near immaculate, and the performance persuasively confirmed Delius as the great composer that many major conductors and critics from Thomas Beecham on have claimed.

Stravinsky’s so-called symphonies are, apart from the youthful one in E flat, somewhat unorthodox and individually very different from one another. There are three ‘symphonies’ and a couple of other works that use the word symphony in their titles: the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Symphony of Psalms. The Symphony in Three Movements was compiled from bits of music discarded from abortive film scores towards the end of World War II and its opening is loud and bellicose, in goose-stepping 4/4 time. No chamber symphony this one, it employs large numbers of brass including four horns, the two harps plus piano (splendidly played by Ben Booker), a piccolo, a bass clarinet and contrabassoon (played by guests, respectively, Hayden Sinclair and Hayley Roud); in addition to timpani, now played by Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa, a bass drum thudded behind the trombones and trumpets at the back of the sanctuary.

Stravinsky’s fingerprints are all over the work, from The Rite of Spring to the Symphonies for Wind Instruments and the Dumbarton Oakes Concerto.  It might have been thought a tough assignment for a student orchestra, even though its language is diatonic, but perhaps because of the scene-painting and the unmissable references to war and to Nazism in particular, the performance flourished through the kind of energy that students can bring to it as they come to know a piece for the first time.