Triple the pleasure and more at St.Andrew’s

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

BEETHOVEN – Triple Concerto, for violin, ‘cello, piano and orchestra Op.56

KENNETH YOUNG – Douce Tristesse

HINDEMITH – Trauermusik for viola and string orchestra

BIZET – L’Arlesienne (Suite No.2)

with Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin), Andrew Joyce (‘cello), Diedre Irons (piano) and Julia Joyce (viola)

Wellington Chamber Orchestra (leader: Liz Pritchett)

Conducted by Peter van Drimmelen

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 1st July, 2012

Some people know how to celebrate in style, and the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, by way of marking their fortieth year of giving concerts certainly popped a goodly number of musical champagne corks on this truly heartwarming occasion.

Even before conductor Peter van Drimmelen made his delightfully tangental entrance (from the side door of the church) to ascend the podium and begin the concert, there was a sense of something slightly “charged” hovering about the auditorium and amongst the audience – a buzz of excitement and expectation, undoubtedly in view of the programme and the starry line-up of musicians brought together to play some of it with the orchestra.

I was surprised at the number of concerts the conductor told us he had taken with the orchestra over the years, as it was the first occasion on which I had seen him conduct. He told us about his first concert with the orchestra, during which he played Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K.364, with his wife as the other soloist, and then, surprisingly, after a few other brief reminiscences announced his intention to make the present concert his final one with the ensemble.

So, for a couple of good reasons the concert was something of a milestone event – interestingly, though the programme proclaimed on the cover “WCO in 2012: celebrating 40 years”, nothing was made of this during the actual course of the afternoon. Perhaps the first and/or last concerts of such an anniversary year are the most appropriate occasions to mark such anniversaries, though reminders in between times (such as on the front of the programme) help keep up a sense of something special.

Thus it was that, in truly festive style, the concert began with a kind of birthday present for the orchestra, a work commissioned by Peter van Drimmelen from one of the country’s finest contemporary composers, Kenneth Young. Himself a fine conductor (occasionally of this orchestra, along with a number of others), Young has produced a number of brilliant and energetic orchestral works over the years. For this commission, however, he came up with a beautifully and lyrically-wrought piece, called Douce Tristesse (Sweet Sadness).

The composer’s brief note about his work suggested the piece was something of a valediction – his words “… looking at a familiar and fond vista for the last time….” reflected the music’s intense beauty and nostalgic longing, wrought by his adroit use of orchestral colour and texture. I would think that the players loved performing this work as it gave so many of them significant things to do, the wind players particularly in evidence throughout.

The whole orchestra responded to Peter van Drimmelen’s direction with, I thought, considerable sensitivity, the strings especially giving us some lovely soft playing in places. In fact the string-writing had a lovely “wind-blown” ambience during these moments, contrasting appropriately with more juicy lyrical moments such as their exchanges with the harp – the latter instrument was heard also in tandem with winds to beguiling effect.

I couldn’t see the player responsible for the firmly-toned horn solo (a forest of music-stands obscured a whole row of brass-playing faces!), but I could clearly appreciate the work of the orchestral leader, Liz Pritchett, with her solos, which incorporated a sweetly-floated harmonic at one stage of the piece, a lovely effect, as well as her delivering of the piece’s final few notes. At the music’s end, the composer was called to the front to acknowledge some well-earned applause for an attractive orchestral evocation.

The delicacy of Young’s sound-world was thrown into abrupt relief by the opening strains of Bizet’s second L’Arlesienne Suite, with its grandly processional-like opening, weighty and brassy, giving way to some wind interludes featuring the strains of a saxophone, to my delight. Later, the wind playing brought out all the folkish strains of the writing with great gusto.

Saxophone and clarinet gave the second movement an attractive rustic melancholy, while the flute-playing in the following Minuet, was outstanding, first in tandem with the harp and saxophone variously, and then in a beautiful concluding solo, which rightly earned the player the conductor’s and the audience’s special acknowledgement.

The concluding Farandole, taken at a terrific lick once the return of the opening march-tune had done its thing, brought out incredibly exciting playing, one of the players I spoke with afterwards confessing that the orchestra had never done it “that fast” in rehearsal!  There was great work from all concerned, with the percussion having a riotous time towards the end, and the counterpointed tunes roaring out uninhibitedly – I couldn’t help thinking that that devoted Francophile Sir Thomas Beecham would have heartily approved!

It was a concert of contrasts, with these heady festivities followed immediately afterwards by Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusic for solo viola and strings. There was actually a welcome luftpause after the Bizet while players not involved with the Hindemith got themselves off the stage, and a space for the viola soloist was configured. This was Julia Joyce, principal violist of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, a striking platform presence as well as a fine player, transfixing listeners’ ears with tones of intense focus and infinite nuance over the space of her first few notes, following a brief orchestra introduction.

Hindemith wrote the music while visiting London to play the British premiere of his Viola Concerto – after hearing of the death of King George V the composer produced within a day the Trauermusik, a piece for viola and string orchestra, and played this instead of his concerto at the concert. As well as quoting fragments of his own Mathis der Maler Symphony and the temporarily discarded concerto, Hindemith incorporated into the work the melody from a Bach chorale “Here I stand before Thy throne”, which was better-known in England as “The Old 100th”.

Julia Joyce took us unerringly into the work’s intensely lyrical sound-world (at the outset, to my ears not unlike that created by English composers – Tippett, for example, in places in his “Corelli” Fantasia”), moving from the first part’s sorrowing sounds into a brief folkish dance-like interlude, before plunging with the orchestra into another intense, more tightly-wrought, vigorous section, solo instrument and ensemble exchanging strongly-figured lines. These descended into silence, from which grew the chorale, Joyce’s heartfelt viola declamations speaking as an individual soul reaching out towards a kind of ambiently murmuring peace – well-controlled by all, and very moving.

So, onto the Beethoven Triple Concerto, with three more star soloists, two more section leaders (one actually the concertmaster) from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, plus one of New Zealand’s finest pianists. I had heard violinist Vesa Matti Leppänen and ‘cellist Andrew Joyce play together in a concerto during last year’s Brahms Festival, when they played the Double Concerto; and of course our third soloist Diedre Irons had, during the same concert series, given us the titanic B-flat Piano Concerto. With these full-scale, no-holds-barred traversals by the same musicians in mind, I was eagerly awaiting their combination in the Beethoven.

As was often the case in a classical concerto the orchestra set the scene, the playing here bright-toned, lively and spare, the light textures allowing some nice detailing  through, with noticeable ebb and flow, though the violins had an uncharacteristically scrappy moment just before the ‘cello’s first entry. What delight there was here in the discourse, firstly between the stringed instruments, and then including the piano, the orchestra all the while “playing to them” and stimulating even wider discoursings on the part of the three soloists.

From the very first ‘cello entry I loved the solo instruments’ different interactive voicings, with hardly a note, it seemed, taken for granted. Given the lead by the composer in most of the instrumental exchanges Andrew Joyce’s ‘cello set the tone, his eloquent phrasing by turns forthright and yielding, constantly “leading into” what his violinist colleague Vesa-Matti Leppänen was doing. In places the latter seemed like Horatio to the ‘cellist’s Hamlet, the violin-playing rather more upright and straightforward (a couple of awry end-of-phrase notes apart), and less inclined to expressive flights of fancy. But both players shared with pianist Diedre Irons a real sense of listening to what was going on both between them and with the orchestra. Diedre Irons’ piano-playing was a joy – bright-toned, and with plenty of tumbling warmth in her phrasing, bringing to the interactions that vital spark of energy which often sets performances alight. Thanks to these different expressions of give-and-take, the performance of the first movement sparkled with interest throughout, leading up to a coda that crackled with honest-to-goodness excitement.

Poetry and song filled the air with the slow movement’s performance – all three soloists responded to the orchestra’s rapt introduction with playing of great beauty – again, we experienced a sense of those musicians playing each others’ as well as their own music, in heart-warming accord.

The introduction to the finale felt like a gathering-up of tiny wisps of energy, each of the soloists adding his or her strand to the line, intensifying the mixture, and then spontaneously allowing the ‘cellist to impulsively take hold of the tendrils and swing into the open. At that point the performance became even more interesting, because the soloists and conductor seemed not to quite agree on a common pulse for the music. We heard the rhythmic strut of the polonaise-like gait richly pointed by the three soloists, but things were then moved along more resolutely, a shade impatiently, I thought in places, by conductor and orchestra.

Consequently, the ensemble had its not-quite-together moments, such as the strings accompanying of the ‘cello’s opening phrases – their droll chuggings were pushed along not quite in accordance with what Andrew Joyce was playing. As well, Peter van Drimmelen seemed not to want to give the loud orchestral chord that capped off a rush of concerted soloistic triplets any rhetorical space, but instead have it played “in tempo”, so that it too in the overall context had a sense of slightly undue haste. Of course, more sensation-mongering commentators would be glorying in the “creative tensions” that these discrepancies set up – but for me the orchestral tuttis didn’t quite have the sense of rhythmic enjoyment that the soloists had very obviously engendered. It was also (and more prosaically) true that any variations of pulse which either stretched out or squeezed the bar-or phrase-spaces were easily dealt with by the musicians.

An interesting hiatus occurred mid-movement when, after the three soloists had been musing on an amalgam of two-note phrases, tossing them back and forward with what seemed like great relish, and relaxing the pulse in doing so, the conductor, waiting to bring the orchestra in, actually turned around on the podium to look at them as if to say, “Well, have you three quite finished? – and can we get on, now?” All very professionally done, of course; and the music continued unabated.

Of course there was no great battle of wills, here, but it did seem that certain musical ideas weren’t quite in accord between those performing this work. I thought the big, A-minor “Polacca” episode didn’t “gell” sufficiently for those rhythms to have the proper “schwung”  Still, Beethoven survived! – and there were things which gave great delight, such as Diedre Irons’ sudden pianistic plunge into the vortex of C Minor, everything black-browed and threatening for a few moments before a reprise of the opening brought things back on an even keel.

Interestingly enough, after giving almost all the important leads to the ‘cello throughout the work, Beethoven used the violin to introduce the finale’s coda (well, perhaps “Stage One” of the coda! – as things go back to “Tempo 1” right at the end!). Here, Vesa-Matti Leppänen threw caution to the proverbial winds and his violin skipped away, leaving the orchestral strings trailing (fortunately, Andrew Joyce allowed them to catch up!) . What a wonderfully “busy” and mischievously garrulous Allegro the three soloists made of it, Diedre Irons keeping an eagle eye on the conductor and orchestra to keep things rhythmically ship-shape at the return of the polonaise-rhythm, and Peter van Drimmelen getting a splendidly buoyant orchestral response right at the end. Those final ascending figurations and pay-off chords were despatched with real élan from all concerned.

Sheer delight at the end, and plaudits for all – in sum, a wonderful concert.










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