Gendall’s Triple Concerto perplexing highlight of Wellington Orchestra concert

‘The Toy Box’

Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei

Haydn: Symphony No 60 in C (Il distratto); Triple Concerto by Chris Gendall with the NZ Trio (Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano); Debussy: ballet score – La boîte à joujoux – narrator: Jackie Clarke

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 1 September, 7.30pm

This concert was performed in the Masterton Town Hall on the previous night.

In Wellington, there was a rather smaller audience than in the past, and one can only surmise the reasons;  perhaps, the absence of a thematic link that has been so successful in the past?

Il Distratto
Haydn’s 60th symphony, (Il distratto, or the absent-minded man) was in part a satire on the incompetent composer whose command of form and taste is deficient, which was a not uncommon procedure in the classical era when matters of form were very important.

The spoofs began with the opening Allegro, with the leading motif dying out as if the hero of the story was experiencing memory loss; not once but several times. The second movement involved the juxtaposition of alien tempos. And so it goes till the last movement when bad tuning causes the whole orchestra to stop in chaos and to re-tune laboriously.

My old LP of this symphony, under Vittorio Gui, explains that Haydn actually instructed the violins to tune the G string down a tone at the start of the Finale which creates the foreign harmony of D minor when the two bottom strings play together; it is that which brings about the chaos.

The effect on the night was funny nevertheless as the retuning process is a totally unprofessional procedure; the orchestra played it with a suppressed smile that was audible, staking out the music variously, in a vein that was mock serioso or absurd, and it brought the symphony to a end, promising perhaps that the rest of the concert might carry on in the same high spirits.

Chris Gendall’s premiere
There could have been nothing more different than the next work. My earlier experience of Chris Gendall’s music had led me to considerable curiosity about a work with a title suggesting a move into the Beethovenian heartland of symphonic music. It was not that; and there was no time to make any calm, spiritual preparation for what followed.

The last piece of Gendall’s I heard was Intaglio; it too was played by the NZ Trio, both at a Mulled Wine concert at Paekakariki and at Lower Hutt (I heard both, mainly in order better to grasp Intaglio).

The NZ Trio is a leading advocate of new New Zealand music, especially of the more adventurous kind, and their contribution in this performance was quite as prominent as such a soloist group would ordinarily be. But there was little familiar in the way they interacted or used their instruments.

The relationship between trio and orchestra bore no relationship to any Beethoven-born expectations: no conventional rivalry, but a completely integrated sensation, all contributing in the ways suggested primarily by the possibilities of the instruments themselves.

Gendall was a music graduate of Victoria University and has since completed doctoral studies at Cornell University. He has been celebrated at international festivals and conferences on contemporary music, and he has been a frequent prize winner, starting with the Lilburn composition prize at Victoria University. He was Composer-in-residence at the New Zealand School of Music and is now Composer-in-residence with the Vector Wellington Orchestra which has led to this performance.

You will find four other reviews of his music on this website by using ‘search’.

The Triple Concerto
Some of those reviews, though admiring, suggested a dense and difficult character. That was indeed the case with this concerto, which is probably one of the largest and most ambitious works Gendall has undertaken. I should have made an attempt to hear it in rehearsal; to read the score of such an extraordinarily multifaceted, complex work would have been no help at all (extracts are on the SOUNZ website).

The programme booklet did not have space for notes that appear on the SOUNZ website, recording Gendall’s description of it. It might have helped define beginnings and endings of the five sections of the music, let alone to get the hang of the musical ideas, and their evolution.

Here is the link: Chris Gendall’s Thumbnail Sketch of the Triple Concerto

Perhaps the music’s character will be suggested by a quote from Gendall’s programme notes, that explains the five movements as “traversing a variety of sonic terrain, … to explore the distinction between diffused sounds and those in close proximity in rhythmic, harmonic and physical space”.  The latter was demonstrated, among other things, by disposing a number of brass players around the perimeter of the gallery, hinting fleetingly at Gabrieli-style sounds, but that proved misleading. In the event I felt the opportunity to create some kind of major stereophonic effect was not fully exploited.

If the impact of the sounds, relentlessly produced and making formidable demands on players’ accuracy and skills of all kinds,  left many in the audience bemused or confused, the work nevertheless displayed an accomplishment and aural imagination that would probably gain it attention in international contemporary music circles. For it demonstrates a most impressive command of compositional techniques and command of orchestration that would amaze Berlioz or Rimsky-Korsakov, but which are the material of today’s version of the avant-garde.

But just as the old-fashioned virtuoso aimed to overwhelm his listeners by putting all his skills on show, so in a show-piece of avant-gardism, technical brilliance, the impulse to demonstrate a command of an astonishing array of composerly skills, leaves this listener feeling bewildered, first through the sheer multiplicity of sounds and their transformations, and secondly from an overwhelming sense of the music’s complex intellectual character; which can leave a feeling of dismay and frustration at one’s inability to grasp and hence enjoy the music. Does the music have a heart?  Are there human emotions at work there? Is there a soul? The answer may be, Yes, but there can be a problem if some glimmering of those things cannot be perceived.

Little music of this kind is actually performed in normal orchestral concerts for ordinary music-lovers, however. On the other hand, performance of new music in the exclusive environment of the contemporary music concert or festival is a defeatist response, for the ordinary music lover has not in the past found digestible material there, and they stay away.  One fruitful solution can be a ten minute exploration of some of the key elements of a new piece in the concert itself, before the piece is played.

One can say, as many listeners do, that composers would do themselves and their potential audiences a favour by refraining from employing all the extremely advanced notions, concepts and techniques they might command, for the sake of engaging with their listeners.

La boîte à joujoux
Debussy’s La boîte à joujoux is one of his least known extended pieces. I’d not heard it before. Though written in 1913 while Debussy was alive, it was not produced as a ballet till 1919, when he was dead, at the Théâtre lyrique du vaudeville in Paris.

It was written for his own daughter, nicknamed Chouchou (c.f. Joujoux), based on a scenario by painter André Hellé, but left in 1913 as a piano four-hands score, with only 93 measures orchestrated. The orchestration was completed by composer/conductor André Caplet, after its first performance as a ballet was delayed by the war.  This performance, without dancers, needed a means of telling the story and Dave Armstrong adapted a spoken narrative drawn from a scenario (was it the original by Hellé or something prepared later for a possible concert performance such as this one?).

But even though delivered vividly by actress Jackie Clarke, in a manner that was charming and entertaining (though her voice was often overwhelmed by passages of orchestral tutti), it didn’t really change it from a rather childish confection.

The music itself was rather slight, though tuneful and pleasant, especially that for the Pretty Doll, but it’s clearly not a neglected masterpiece which explains, I suppose, why it has not become familiar, and has not even inspired the extraction of a suite.

However, Marc Taddei had inspired the orchestra to play as if it was a delightful, undervalued treasure; what more can you ask?

So here was a programme that had some hurdles to clear, some of which were just a little too high to achieve a uniformly polished, flawless concert. Nevertheless, though this was not an unmixed triumph in terms of the box office and audience response, its exotic and eclectic character made its impact, and reflecting on it over the next two days was to recall it all with increasing satisfaction, and certainly a sense of discovery.


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