New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Saxophone : Deborah Rawson
Conductor: Kenneth Young
Sam Logan – Lost Island / Maurice Ravel – Suite “Ma Mère L’Oye”
Claude Debussy – Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra
Witold Lutoslawski – Concerto for Orchestra
Tuesday, 29th May, 2012
Every NZSM Orchestra concert I go to seems to surpass the previous one in some respect or other, to the extent that I now expect to encounter on each new concert occasion a stimulating and innovative programme and a high standard of performance skills from all concerned. This latest one was certainly no exception, with conductor Ken Young at the orchestral helm securing from the students (and some of their NZSO tutors, swelling the band’s numbers) plenty of impressively-wrought playing, which shaped up well to the programme’s considerable demands.
As well as playing skills, also on show was a new piece evocatively titled Lost Island, written by an NZSM student, Sam Logan, a recipient of the David Farquhar Prize in Composition. Describing his work as “an episode of escapism”, Sam Logan freely acknowledged in his program note the piece’s debt to the composers he likes – one would think, for a young composer eager to learn, an excellent springboard for creativity, especially as this was a “first” for him in writing for a full orchestra.
In seven or so minutes, his work progressed confidently through a number of atmospheric episodes – to begin with, an attractively languid opening nicely launched and floated exotic fragments of melody, the music gradually building in intensity towards a full-blooded roar and a quixotic change of key (brass glissandi and heavy percussion contrasting their voicings with a lovely violin solo). Then, with rhythms nudging the textures more and more insistently, the Lost Island scenario came into focus, bringing tropical-flavoured pulsings not unlike Gershwin with a dash of Jamaican Rhumba, all of which sounded easy on the ear and great fun to play.
Haunting chimes sounding over string tremolandi gave the music a mysterious “Shangri-la” aspect, with an ascending motif prominent, one which worked through trenchant orchestral textures and determined ostinati, creating waves of attractively La Mer-ish sea-swellings (uh-oh! – a tautology?) – but I thought at some stage the episode needed a bit of thematic interest or character to sharpen the listener’s focus (a solo instrumental line? – perhaps more from the violin, whose voice was heard to great advantage earlier). So, hardly a distinctive voice, but there was some well-crafted orchestral writing from the young composer, to go with discernible character in some of the sections of the piece, enough for its hearing to be an enjoyable audience experience.
Further delight was to be had from the performance of Ravel’s suite from his ballet Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), our anticipations sharpened by the entrance onto the platform of additional players, among them a contra-bassoonist (very visible!). This music is, of course, both a gift and a challenge for any orchestra, simple figurations tempered with exacting refinements throughout. We got a piquant blend of winds throughout the Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane, dynamics not perhaps perfectly gradated, but each player’s sounds winningly wholehearted. More finely-honed was Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb), with lovely strings and melancholy oboe to begin with, and a meltingly beautiful cor anglais solo – the strings gave us a fine surge of emotion at the climax, as did the cor anglais’s return; while Kate Oswin’s violin cheekily led the chorus of birds mocking the lost wanderer.
Laidronette, Empress of the Pagodas, one of Ravel’s happiest creations, here splashed and scintillated with joy, the winds in fine fettle, and the horns resonant and atmospheric. The xylophone’s pentatonic tinklings, tentative the first time round, were brilliantly nailed by the player on the repeat, ably supported by the rest of the percussion at the climax. No greater contrast could be imagined than with Beauty and the Beast, clarinet and strings depicting the girl’s loveliness, set against the grotesquerie of the contrabasson’s rasping tones (great playing by Hayley Roud), backed up by suitably growly percussion! The strings admirably portrayed Beauty’s initial disquiet and confusion, before Kate Oswin’s silken-sweet violin tones brought about the Beast’s magical transformation.
The suite’s final number,The Enchanted Garden, completed the magic, the strings encouraged to play with plenty of warmth by Ken Young right at the start, and the solo violin again lovely, if not always steady, joining in with the great rocking rhythms, horns chiming, strings singing and percussion sizzling, in celebration of the day’s sun-drenched awakening of a garden’s beauties.
This was the first time I had heard the Debussy Saxophone Rhapsody, and was highly entertained by the account of its history and its composer’s dilatory attempts at composing the piece, as set out by the program note. Its title suggests precisely what the piece sounds like – not a concerto, but a rhapsody with a prominent solo instrument part. And Deborah Rawson played it exactly like that, her tones always beautifully rounded, but often meditative, blending in with the orchestral discourse rather than seeking to dominate or over-ride the textures.
It all sounded like a civilized discourse between equals, though a more robust and forthright episode towards the end brought forth more energy and rhythmic intensity. Whether or not the composer was himself properly convinced of the work’s efficacy is open to conjecture – certainly Debussy’s coyness regarding his relinquishing of the work’s orchestral sketches for publication suggests an equivocal attitude – but Deborah Rawson and the orchestra certainly gave the piece every chance to shimmer and glow with this finely-played performance.
I had not heard the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra in concert since, I think, 1972, which was when Vaclav Smetacek directed a performance with the then NZBC Symphony in the Wellington Town Hall. The piece knocked me sideways then, and did so again here, Kenneth Young inspiring his student players to dig into the textures and relish the earthiness of the orchestral writing throughout the first movement. We got searing strings, soulful winds and pin-point brass fronting up with trenchant rhythms and rolling maelstroms of sound, contrasting with gentler, more folksy episodes involving winds and a solo violin, with the celeste sounding a kind of stricken aftermath at the end, a solo flute and clusters of strings picking over the salvageable remnants.
How well I remembered the skeletal eeriness of the second movement’s opening, everything dryly dancing and scampering, a real sense of musical sleight-of-hand, with both wisps of ghostly illusion and breaths of human warmth whisked away alike in a trice! What music, and what playing from this young orchestra! Brass interruptions led to a percussive hammering whose sounds reached breaking-point and exploded, leaving a mourning flute over grumbling strings. And in the aftermath the disquiet took up again, the dovetailing of lines at speed expertly done to the end. Exhilarating stuff!
As for the third-movement Passacaglia, launching a longer movement than the other two put together, it all proved an epic journey, beginning solemnly, with pizzicato strings bringing out a wonderful solo from the cor anglais and inspiring further wind-and-string interchanges. There were brass shouts and percussion onslaughts momentarily obliterating all other voices, ruling by force, though winds and strings reasserted themselves with a chorale-like theme, the strings sounding like a heavenly aftermath of angels. And the toccata-like irruptions from the brass – terrific playing! – spearheaded an even more brutal assault, against which the winds sang a kind of “coming through” theme, like lifelines stretching over an abyss.
Under Young’s direction the orchestral forces throughout all of these contrasting calms and storms scarcely faltered, with only a single episode of less-than-unanimous playing that I noticed – the accelerando passage towards the end in which the players took a few bars to “find” one another. The ensuing cataclysmic chorale grew magnificently out of the ferment of orchestral activity, and Young whipped the players into a final frenzy for the skitterish payoff at the end. Had I been completely new to this work I might have been writing at this point “I knowed no more that evening…..” For all concerned, a stunning achievement!