NZSM Orchestra cover themsleves with glory in Debussy and Mahler

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune;  Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra (andante-allegro; lento e molto  espressivo; allegro molto)
Mahler:   Symphony no. 1 in D major (Introduction and allegro comodo; scherzo; à la pompes funèbres; molto appassionato)

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra, Kenneth Young (conductor); Jian Liu  (piano)

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 22 August 2012 at 7.30pm,

It was a pity that a larger audience was not present to hear this brilliant and satisfying concert.  Aside from quite a number of guest players, especially for the Mahler symphony, the orchestra was made up of students (plus a few staff) of the New Zealand School of Music.  The use of the Town Hall was sponsored by the Wellington City Council, i.e. it was free – a splendid gesture, to encourage music-making by young people.

The first impression was of the beautifully designed flier and programme, reproducing art from the Viennese Secession, notably Gustav Klimt (though not acknowledged); art from the time and place of Mahler.  However, I’m not so keen on the fashion for printing white on black – it’s harder to read, especially in the subdued lighting of a concert hall.  Programme notes by Kenneth Young were excellent, describing music in a way that gives the audience a little background, and then points to listen for, rather than exhibiting erudition.

It being Debussy’s 150th birthday, the choice of the first two works was apt – and they were broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert (though for some reason not the equally apt Mahler) for its special day for Debussy, the theme of which was ‘La Belle Epoch’.  They must have been exciting times, the late 19th century and early 20th century – the art, literature and music were all forging new pathways.

The evocative opening of the first work by a single flute was magical.  The NZSM orchestra is well supplied with players of this instrument and also of the next to enter – the harps.  How many orchestras can boast four harpists?  Horns were next to introduce this delectable work, which I have not heard live for a very long time.  The wonderful, dreamy textures were played with great attention to dynamics.  The whole three works would have been challenging and worthwhile for students to play, since there are so many solo passages.  The pizzicato ending finished off a wonderful performance.  The first flute, Andreea Junc, received a special acknowledgement.

The second Debussy work was not a familiar one, but replete with the distinctive sounds of the composer’s unique writing.  Liquid sounds emanated from the piano; rich ones from the orchestra.  Here, there was full brass, whereas Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune used only horns.  Despite the strength of this section, balance was good throughout the work; the brass came into its own with vigour at the end of the first movement, especially the trumpets.

The calm and dreamy second movement owed some of its character to the use of mutes on the strings.  Tutti passages were quite romantic, and a prominent oboe part gave piquancy.  Jian Liu’s style on the piano was exactly right.  The allegro third movement introduced rumbustiousness in places., though in the main the music was lilting and dance-like,  Contrasts were ethereal, even ecstatic.  The piano for most of  the time was part of the texture of the music, not having concerto-style solo passages or distinctive themes.  But it was always played with beautiful tone – never louder than lovely.  The work ended with a rousing flourish.

A big orchestra assembled for the Mahler, and the leadership changed from Kate Oswin to Arna Morton. Mahler rarely uses the whole orchestra in tutti, but varies the textures superbly.  The symphony’s spine-tingling opening dawn with its sustained eight-octave note from all the instruments, followed by the birds awakening and the sun rising through the light mist, against off-stage trumpet calls was very effective.  The main melody that emerges from the Introduction is a typical Mahler melody, from his Songs of a Wayfarer cycle, blissful in mood.  This jubilant theme involves the entire orchestra.  All the delightful little solo interjections were in place; the lower strings were nuanced beautifully in their miniature phrases, below the sustained notes from a few second violins.  Bird calls abounded, and then horn-calls seemed to announce a hunt, while the cellos played another folksong; with a crash, we’re into the lively ending section of the movement, with its frenetic jollity.

The Scherzo appears to be a high spirited dance, but perhaps it has a macabre sub-text, despite some beautiful melodies in its middle section, which featured fine playing, especially from the woodwind section, notably cor anglais.   There was excellent playing from percussion, too – and tuba.

The funeral march based on a slow and minor key setting of the well-known French song ‘Frère Jacques’ begins as a double bass solo (for which the section leader, Louis van der Mespel received his own acknowledgement at the end), bizarre and gloomy, unlike anything else in ‘serious’ music.  On my record cover (yes, LP) David Hall says “the juxtaposition (as in the early T.S. Eliot poems) of the magically ideal with the crassly vulgar”.

After the double bass, the bassoon joins in, then the cellos, then tuba, creating a spooky gradual build-up, with gong and timpani (two sets) under-girding the whole  most effectively.   Oboes play their other-worldly theme against pizzicato strings; a gorgeous tapestry is created, accompanied by muted first violins, assisted by flutes.

The grotesque march dies away gently, which makes the noisy opening of the last movement all the more shocking.  Two sets of trumpets can make a lot of noise.  Outsize bangers for the bass drum and considerable use of the  gong all add to the shattering effect.  But there is wonderful melody, too, that flows out from the first violins against repeated pizzicato on cellos; trombones provided brilliant back-up. The moving effect is of reconciliation, exaltation, redemption.  There are hints of ‘Frère Jacques’ in the cello part, before a big climax from the brass.

Themes from the first movement return.  Lovely phrasing of a superbly played yearning, romantic melody featured dynamics to match.  There was real bite in the violas interruption of this soporific melody.  The exciting outburst at the end, in which the seven horns stood to play, was magnificent.  This orchestra and its conductor covered themselves with glory, and did Mahler’s great first symphony proud. Colour, rhythm, irony, beauty – they were all there, enhanced by Mahler’s singular orchestration. The use of the Town Hall added immeasurably to the quality of the performance.


2 thoughts on “NZSM Orchestra cover themsleves with glory in Debussy and Mahler

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