Wellington Orchestra’s musical haggis

VENI, VENI EMMANUEL – Vector Wellington Orchestra

DEBUSSY – Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire

MacMILLAN – Veni, veni, Emmanuel

MENDELSSOHN – Symphony No.3 “Scottish”

City of Wellington Pipe Band

Wellington East Girls’ Cantala Treble Choir (director – Brent Stewart)

Claire Edwardes (percussion)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 23rd June 2012

There’s no doubt about the ability of a set of bagpipes – or, more profoundly, a Highland pipe band – to make an impression on people – I was going to say “set the blood racing”, but I know some people for whom the sound of bagpipes has the opposite effect as regards the movement of blood! I love the sound in reasonably digestible doses and I’m sure most people in the Town Hall on Saturday night got a real thrill at the beginning of the Wellington Orchestra’s concert when the pipes began. Those of us sitting downstairs couldn’t see whether it was one, two or a hundred pipers – but of course, we could certainly hear the skirl of those plangent strains! It was as if the music presented at the concert was the haggis that was being piped in for all of us to enjoy.

It was a characteristic gesture on the part of the organizers of the concert and I thought it worked beautifully. Of course it was designated a “Scottish” programme, with repertoire combining the familiar (Mendelssohn) with the not-so-familiar (Debussy) and the excitingly contemporary (MacMillan). I thought this was fair enough, by dint of the last-named composer’s nationality, even if the work had almost nothing whatever to do with Scotland, being a meditation for percussion and orchestra upon the coming of Christ to the world. So, it was a concert planned and brought off with a lot of flair.

There remained the curious affair of Debussy writing a specifically Scottish work, a circumstance I’m certain I knew about but had tucked away in the recesses of my store of encyclopedic knowledge, never expecting to have to take it out and dust it off and actually look at it. The printed programme notes, which I thought were very good in the case of each of the works, told the popularly accepted story pretty comprehensively – that Debussy wrote the work in response to a commission from a certain Scottish military officer, General Meredith Reid. The latter wanted the composer to arrange and orchestrate a march using popular Scottish tunes generally associated with the General’s ancestors, the ancient Earls of Ross, who were also known as  “The Lords of the Isles”.

According to certain accounts, the General called unannounced upon the composer, at his humble lodgings, and handed him his visiting-card. Apparently, as neither could speak the other’s language, composer and general decided, via expression and gesture, to seek help in a local tavern, where an interpreter was found, and the General’s purpose made clear. Debussy set to work on the march, arranging it initially for piano for four hands – the original title of the piece was Marche des anciens Comtes de Ross  or “March of the ancient Counts of Ross”.

Perhaps it needs to be pointed out that Debussy, though still a young composer, and grateful for any commissions that came his way, wasn’t exactly a raw beginner by the time the incident took place, in 1891. The year before, he had written his most popular single piece of music – “Clair de lune” from the Suite Bergamasque for solo piano – and had completed various other works, including songs, other solo piano pieces, a Petite Suite for piano, four hands, and a Fantasie for piano and orchestra. Some accounts have “romanced” the General as well – he was, in fact John Meredith Read, an American diplomat and lawyer of Scottish descent, who had been the United States Consul-General for France for several years during the 1870s. Perhaps his French was a little rusty by the time he called on Debussy, but he surely would have been able to converse with the composer – and the story’s “translator”, the writer Alphonse Allais, would probably have been present in the tavern merely as a drinking companion.

Anyway, once Debussy had completed the four-hand keyboard version of the March, he took his time to orchestrate the piece, and didn’t finish the job until 1908. The result, if not the greatest of his works, is charming, and has more than a whiff of Scotland about it. Here, at the concert, it made a splendid overture for what was to follow; and the orchestra played the music with plenty of sensitivity and panache in the appropriate places.

Next on the programme was the work by James McMillan, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel. The Debussy piece had put all of us in an excellent humour, ready to be entertained by the spectacle of seeing an energetic percussionist dashing madly around and about the concert platform, going from instrument group to instrument group, and creating some wondrously ear-catching sounds in the process – this is what I remembered of seeing and hearing Scottish percussionist Colin Currie performing this work in Wellington almost two years ago.  But there was a surprise in store for us –  the soloist Claire Edwardes had come onto the stage and received her introductory applause, and gone over to her first “station”, when two groups of young women suddenly stood up in lines on either side of the upstairs auditorium. They began singing a plainchant version of the Hymn Veni, Veni Emmanuel, from which composer James MacMillan had received his initial inspiration for his work. The surround-effect was lovely to begin with, but then entered magical realms in verse three, where the two groups sang in close-knit canon, the result sounding like the “opening up” of some kind of enormous reverberation and enlargement of the space in which we were listening. So evocative – and so enchanting – again, indicative of flair and imagination in presenting a concert.

The choir was mentioned in the printed programme, but only if one read the acknowledgements page at the back did one pick this up – there was no indication of any such group present on the “programme list” page, the intention (so the group’s conductor, Brent Stewart, told me, afterwards) being to give the audience a surprise. It turned out that the two groups were members of the Wellington East Girls Cantala Treble Choir.  When they had finished singing, I thought the orchestra might have most dramatically begun straight away with the opening of the concerto – but instead, conductor Marc Taddei led the applause for the choir and conductor, which, of course we heartily joined in with.

Reflecting on the differences between Claire Edwardes’ performance of Veni, Veni Emmanuel and that by Colin Currie, as I remembered it, they weren’t so much in what the soloists did, but in the spaces and contexts of each occasion. Most people would, I think, agree with me that, if the same work is performed first in the Michael Fowler Centre and then in the Town Hall, it’s an utterly different experience being in the audience. Colin Currie’s performance in the Michael Fowler Centre seemed more like a ritual, more contained and prescribed, more elevated and removed from his audience. Everything seemed (was) further away, so that it was all more dreamlike, less immediate – and so was the sound, or sounds, because of a very different acoustic. Thus I was far more easily able to relate the different musical episodes to what the composer was trying to express during the earlier performance, because the distancing of everything abstracted the performing experience. I still remember, at the time, feeling that the constant movement of the soloist between stations of percussion drew the observer’s attention perhaps distractingly to what the player was doing and how he or she was doing it, rather than focusing on the sound that was being made and its expressive or symbolic effect in the overall scheme. However, at the time, there was this sense of the player’s progressing between percussion stations, suggesting some kind of journey towards a goal – so there was this ritualistic aspect, culminating in the sense of fulfillment with the tubular bells played high up at the back of the orchestra.

There was no doubting Claire Edwardes’ incredible virtuosity – an astonishing tour de force of percussion playing, no doubt about it. But in the Town Hall, in that confined space and very immediate acoustic, the soloist and what she was doing was all much more physically palpable – and her sounds very “present” – so that the element of display came across, I thought, far more strongly than any sense of larger ritual, of following some kind of poetic or spiritual ideal. Claire Edwardes had, like Evelyn Glennie (whom I saw a few years ago playing a John Psathas Percussion Concerto), a very engaging physical presence which drew our attention to everything that she was doing. For me, at any rate, the music’s programmatic significance was swamped in a series of waves of there-and-then enjoyment – a bit like the news presented as entertainment on television – somehow the actual information gets a bit lost in the razz-matazz.

The part of the work which did allow me to refocus on the composer’s spiritual expression of an idea came with the coda of the work, entitled Easter, where the heartbeats representing Christ in the human soul are pounded out between the soloist and the orchestral timpanist (the sight-lines weren’t the best and so Edwardes and timpanist Larry Reese had trouble keeping their whacks absolutely together, but the effect remained strong and telling) following which came Edwardes’ symbolic ascent to the tubular bells, which rang out hymn-like amid a scintillating sea of tintinnabulation.  Every string player softly activated a triangle suspended from his or her music-stand, while the bells rang and sank back into silence.

For performances to successfully achieve a realization of the composer’s program or scheme for an audience seems to me problematical, considering the distraction of the display element – the soloist’s movement between stations and often frenetic activity in creating the sounds was akin to what I would imagine that of a honey bee in a beehive. In both performances (more so with this latter one) I tended to get taken up with that process, fascinated by the array of skills on display and enjoying the different sounds. But I would also imagine that, as one grows more familiar with the work, its message would gradually begin to coalesce – there were certainly moments amid the beaverings and squirrelings that suggested something beyond what was going on in front of one’s eyes.

Interestingly, I had the opportunity to listen to some of the concerto’s performance via a recording, which I was able to use during an RNZ Concert review – away from the visual aspect, the sounds immediately took on a more abstracted and transcendent purpose, so that I found myself as a listener thinking of the piece’s meaning, as the composer surely had intended. Food for thought, I would think (so to speak)…..

And so to the Mendelssohn “Scottish” Symphony, which took up the second half of the program, an absolutely gorgeous piece of music – as Marc Taddei said, one of the first examples of great nineteenth century romanticism in music. I thought the first three movements of the work came across splendidly, with many fine things. The very opening of the work was beautifully played, first of all by the winds, with the oboe very prominent – for me, perhaps because of the “bagpipes” association, there’s something about the timbre of an oboe that suggests a similar ambience – and then the strings, whose tonal sheen was, I thought, utterly beguiling, and whose line was so eloquent – what beautiful playing Marc Taddei got from his orchestra! I thought the playing captured the atmosphere that Mendelssohn himself talked about when he said he found the beginnings of his “Scottish Symphony” in the ambiences of the rooms at Holyrood Palace where the lover of Mary Queen of Scots, the courtier David Rizzio was murdered by Mary’s enemies, and the chapel where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. This romantic, historical aspect which inspired the composer was brought out beautifully in the first part of this performance.

Only the finale I found somewhat problematical – and I admired what Marc Taddei and the orchestra were trying to do with it, but I don’t think it quite came off. There’s a slightly pompous and bombastic element in the work which comes to the fore in this movement with the work’s coda – a kind of grand processional, in which a version of the main theme of the opening movement is brought back, but this time in a major key. Conductor and orchestra were, I think, trying to remove its pomposity, and make it more integrated with the rest of the finale, which is an energetic Scottish dance. What happened, though, was that the finale was started at such a terrific lick that the performance almost had nowhere to go by the end, and things were steaming along to the point of everything being a bit of a gabble. I think the tempi were just too quick all through for the players to properly articulate the music – the strings had trouble pointing the “Scottish snap” at the very beginning at Marc Taddei’s tempo, and there was certainly no grandeur at all in the coda – and I think there should be some kind of sense of summing up, true, without pomposity, but with a sense of arrival. For me, here, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater – but I must say in fairness to all concerned I spoke with a friend afterwards who thought it was all tremendously exciting!

So each of us listens to these things with wonderfully subjective ears! What was also interesting was a slight hiatus at the beginning of the clarinet solo almost at the end of the work, where it seemed as though either the clarinettist Moira Hurst started her solo too early or else Marc Taddei brought her in too early – just the matter of a bar or so – she stopped, and quickly started playing again, and no harm was done. But it was significant that, whatever the case, the conductor singled her out for some extra plaudits at the conclusion of the performance – and, quite apart from the slight “blip” of the uncertain moment, the focus on the player was richly deserved.

I shouldn’t nominate favorites, as a critic – but I couldn’t help capitulating completely to the second movement, the scherzo, as played here – and with good reason. One perhaps can never play a Mendelssohn scherzo too fast, to get that fairy-like aspect, and this performance cracked along with some marvellous playing from all concerned – some wonderfully soft, bustling elfin-like delicacy in places, and then some rumbustious, give-it-all-you’ve-got hell-for-leather exuberance from the players by way of contrast, leading up to the climax. That movement alone gave me enormous pleasure.












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