Hutt Valley Orchestra – “What did you say they were playing?….!”

RACHMANINOV – Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor

MASCAGNI – Cavalleria Rusticana (Concert Performance)

Melanie Lina (piano)

Hutt Valley Orchestra

Brett Stewart (conductor)

(Cast of Cavalleria Rusticana: Ruth Armishaw (Turidda) / Sharon Yearsley (Santuzza)

Kieran Rayner (Alfio) / Jody Orgias (Mama Lucia) / Alison Hodge (Lola) / Chorus)

Expressions Art and Entertainment Centre

Upper Hutt

Saturday 5th May 2012

I must confess to surprise upon hearing about the Hutt Valley Orchestra’s proposed Sounds Expressions concert – the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto? And Cavalleria Rusticana? – the whole of it? Perhaps my response was due in part to my experiences as a player in an amateur orchestra in Palmerston North during the 1990s, though I must say we also attempted things of reasonable difficulty, like the Borodin Second Symphony and the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, and had a lot of fun, and made splendidly outlandish and occasionally reasonably musical noises.

I had heard pianist Melanie Lina being interviewed on RNZ Concert, and liked what she had said about performing the Rachmaninov Concerto, and was impressed by the quiet confidence she exuded about it all. So I was intrigued, but thought that, however good the soloist might be, the work would still be quite a challenge for the orchestra, in fact, any orchestra. Again, I was basing these reactions upon what I knew of amateur orchestral playing, and wondered whether the Hutt Orchestra (whose work I didn’t know at all – in fact, I didn’t even know they existed!) was going to be up to the task – and then, after the Rachmaninov, there was Mascagni’s “Cav”, for goodness’ sakes!

It turned out to be an evening of surprises, involving a full gamut of reactions, a process whose exact order had considerable bearing on my own responses to the evening’s music-making. It was very much a concert of two halves – first up was the Rachmaninov Concerto, one which soloist Melanie Lina began confidently and nearly always securely, with steady, if rather muted support from the orchestra. I noticed from the outset that the orchestral winds seemed to find it difficult to actually “sound” their notes, though the violins were a little better – though somewhat “seedy” the first orchestral tutti had recognizable shape and form. And conductor Brent Stewart seemed to make all the right gestures and work collaboratively with his soloist throughout.

The only problem was that Stewart seemed to have considerable difficulty getting any actual tone from many of the players, who appeared for long stretches as if they were “cowed” by the music. It was left to Melanie Lima to make her own performance of the work for much of the time, because despite the conductor’s best endeavors, she got precious little help from the orchestra, save for one or two details, such as a sensitive horn solo answering one of the piano’s phrases in the second subject group. The horns actually seemed in places reasonably onto things, because I picked up some nicely etched-in muted notes from them just after the pianist’s reprise of the opening theme.

During the piano-and-orchestra exchanges that followed the players kept things rhythmically together,  though the lack of any impactful tone from the orchestra made the episode a one-sided affair, the brass hardly registering at all. I found it difficult to understand why the players didn’t seem to want to “play out” more – as I said earlier, my own orchestral experiences involved at least making with my colleagues plenty of noise, quite a lot of which was musical. I wanted these players to similarly hurl themselves into the fray, take more risks, and in the right places, roar, blare, rasp and bray, but at least give the soloist something reasonably substantial in places to actually play along with or against (this is a romantic concerto, after all!). Perhaps Brent Stewart had been reading Richard Strauss’s tongue-in-cheek essay “Advice to conductors”, containing statements such as “Never look at the brass – it only encourages them”!

The soloist made a good fist of her “dying fall” music just before the cadenza – she played the shorter of the two written by the composer (though probably the more difficult, less chordal and more quicksilver an affair),achieving real grandeur at the climax.Though entering late the flute sounded its solo evocatively, as did all the winds and the horn. In fact the horns again stood out, making the beautiful “sounds of evening across the meadow” sequence (my favourite bit in the first movement) just before the final reprise of the opening, really tell, with secure chording and nicely-floated tones.

I hoped that, with more room to breathe, away from the strictures of the first movement’s driving rhythms, the orchestral tones would sound more fully during the slow movement – but apart from a nice-phrased oboe solo, the rest of the orchestra, alas, sounded fairly inert and hardly preparing of the way for the piano’s tragic downward entry, here beautifully sounded by the soloist, moving from anguish to warmth as the music proceeded. What passionate writing here! – and how involved Lina sounded! To my delight she and conductor Brent Stewart kept intact the vertiginous passage that’s often cut, the sequence thus able to fully express the music’s somewhat Bronte-ish wildness and gradual descent into loneliness. I thought Lina everywhere had the full measure of the work’s emotional contourings, setting romantic sweep next to poetic expansiveness, but always with the music’s overall shape kept in hand.

Occasionally the winds would nose their way up and out of the misted orchestral textures and make a phrase “tell”, both clarinet and oboe managing to sound some of their counter-theme against the pianist’s skittery central-section waltz-like rhythms. And the strings did conjure up enough tone to recognizably sound the final tragic outburst of the movement, just before the soloist’s dangerous-sounding flourishes heralded the finale.

The “galloping horse” motive rang out splendidly from Melanie Lina’s piano throughout the finale’s opening, the violins actually managing to sound their counter-melody against the pianist’s forthright second-subject measures. Then, in the haunting nocturnal episode that followed the orchestral tones filled out and the players made something of the music’s dark pulsings underneath the piano’s quixotic chirruping. Another section sometimes cut in performance was here restored, with swirling figurations from the piano supported by strings, and with the flutes sounding their repetitions of the piano’s nocturnal birdsong.

A pity the violas and cellos couldn’t muster up enough tonal weight to help usher in the beautiful return of the first movement’s second subject – like an old friend returning after a long absence! Happily flute and horn amply supported the piano here, just like during the “old times”. For the rest of the work, the piano took charge, driving the music towards the “big tune” at the end, Lina phrasing her lines expansively and romantically, pulling the orchestra along with her, and achieving real grandeur to finish.

The pianist was accorded a great ovation, and, I thought, deservedly so. I wondered in fact whether it was I who was at fault here, underestimating the demands made of the players by the sophisticated nature of the work’s sinuous, often somewhat elusive orchestral quality. Still, even so, I found it hard to understand the lack of sheer orchestral NOISE in places where surely the musicians would have “felt” the need to fill out tones and expand phrases naturally.

Judge of my surprise after the interval, when, right from the beginning of Mascagni’s score, the orchestra came alive! The strings dug into the melody and actually made it sing, while the winds and harp made a lovely impression, leading up to the first singer’s entry. This was Turidda (not Mascagni’s original “Turiddu”), sung by Ruth Armishaw, the character’s sex-change presumably the company’s response to the lack of an available tenor for the part. At least one hoped so, because despite one’s most liberated and politically-correct instincts, the scenario was always going to flounder spectacularly with the so-called “duel to the death” between the wronged husband and his wife’s lesbian lover at the story’s denouement – even in an age ridden with wholesale scuppering of traditional operatic presentations, this seemed a more than particularly perverse way of rearranging things.

Though obviously a concert performance, surely it would have been better to present the character as a “trouser role” in this case, a la Baroque opera, or one of the Richard Strauss stage works such as “Rosenkavalier”? Still, all credit to Ruth Armishaw, whose stylish singing certainly didn’t lack ardour – whether or not it was latent homophobia on my part, or merely my inability to make the “leap of imagination” required, I must confess I found myself ignoring her feminine attire, and responded to the strength of her commitment to the role as if she was a “Turiddu”.

Once again, the “second-half” orchestra amazed me with its energy and fullness of tone after the bells sounded, and the waltz tune took up its insinuating gait – the Italianate winds did exceedingly well, especially the piccolo. The chorus, seriously lacking weight of numbers, made up for a lack of tonal splendour with energetic and accurate singing. The brass seemed to have found their voices, and with the timpani, made telling contributions to the cadence-points. Everything had the kind of “schwung” (yes, I know, this isn’t German opera!) that one imagines one would find in the average Italian provincial opera house in this repertoire.

Sharon Yearsley (as Santuzza, the would-be lover of Turidda) and Jody Orgias (as Lucia, Turidda’s mother) made the most of their exchanges in their somewhat fraught opening scene – both alive to their characters’ dramatic possibilities and using their voices accordingly, Yearsley’s particularly heartfelt. Also right into his part, as with almost everything I’ve seen him do, was baritone Kieran Rayner as Alfio, the village carrier, his voice bristling with energy and rustic directness, unaware at this stage of his wife Lola’s affair with Turidda, and single-mindedly intent about his business.

The whole Easter Hymn sequence that followed swept us up satisfyingly and carried us along – it’s music that almost blackmails the listener emotionally, so direct is its lyrical and cumulative appeal. Everybody on the performance platform seemed totally committed and involved, at one with conductor Brent Stewart’s impressive control of the buildup to the soprano’s’ thrilling climactic note at the chorus’s end.

Wholly admirable was Sharon Yearsley’s pacing of her role, outlining the complex history of the knot of relationships between the main players in the story to Jody Orgias’s patient and responsive Mama Lucia, then pulling out the stops with Turidda’s entry. With two women singing the impassioned encounter between them that followed, the scenario seemed almost to transcend time and place and take on the power of an opera seria scene from a work by Handel – great singing from both Armishaw and Yearsley, nicely interrupted by the flirtatious Lola (Alison Hodge oozing charm and insouciance with her Waltz-Song), but rising again to a furious climax as Turidda rejects Santuzza and follows Lola, voices and orchestra again delivering plenty of raw power.

More goings-on bubbled up with Alfio’s arrival, Yearsley and Kieran Rayner making the most of their dramatic exchange, as the hapless Alfio was told by Santuzza of his wife Lola’s renewed involvement with Turidda. Not surprisingly, at one point Yearsley almost faltered, but rallied splendidly – throughout, the orchestra surpassed itself. with splendidly baleful tones. What an emotional contrast provided by the famous Intermezzo! – the violins struggled a little at first, but were more securely-toned when doubled by the lower strings for the “big” melody – the whole nicely shaped by Brent Stewart, and marked by some sensitive harp playing.

The few bars of waltz music that follows always makes the hairs at the back of my neck stand up, for some reason, and this performance made no exception – Ruth Armishaw, chorus and orchestra tore into the Drinking Song with gusto, despite a few scratchy ensemble moments, and caught the excitement of the last few bars with a will. The baleful brass accompanying Alfio’s entry, and the subsequent viola solo  (so darkly poised) helped create real menace, even if the ‘cellos couldn’t advance the feeling with the same surety.

Plenty of support was forthcoming from the strings for Turidda in her impassioned “farewell” aria, and the orchestral energies continued right to the end – here was the “noise” that was wanted so badly earlier in the concert. Throughout the fateful offstage cries announcing Turidda’s murder and the subsequent whiplash chords, the sounds struck home splendidly.

So, very much a “tale of two halves” here, I felt, as far as the orchestra was concerned. Perhaps most of the rehearsal time was taken up with the opera (in which case it certainly showed) – but there again, perhaps it was the music. Mascagni would have had a fair idea of what the average Italian opera orchestra could play and tellingly deliver – raw emotion taking precedence over subtlety and shades of expression – and so his music would have probably been an easier proposition, especially for non-professionals, than that of Rachmaninov’s. Whatever the case, all credit to pianist Melanie Lina for her marvellous exposition of a redoubtably difficult work, both technically and interpretatively – I hope we see her back in the Wellington region before too long – and to the concert’s second-half singers, players and conductor for a thoroughly invigorating “slice of Italian verismo life” (with intriguing variations) – hugely enjoyable.









One thought on “Hutt Valley Orchestra – “What did you say they were playing?….!”

  1. Samantha says:

    Without the piano in the 2nd half, they were able to move the strings almost 2 metres forward. Expressions is not suitable for an orchestra, the curtains and roof cavity sucks away the sound.

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