Orchestral rarities in impressive performances from Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Donald Maurice with Inbal Megiddo (cello)

Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man; Barber: Cello Concerto; Ives: Symphony No 2

Church of St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 16 September, 2.30pm

What an ambitious programme for an essentially amateur orchestra! Thinking back a decade or so, it would seem that the orchestra has gained greatly in the average level of skill. This was an astonishing concert.

The polish and confidence were evident at once in the performance of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s nothing that a practised group of bandsmen couldn’t do very well, but the augmented brass section of the WCO did rather more than just play the notes. There was a real feel of muscular workers’ unity in the sonorous brilliance of the playing and strains of the ‘Internationale’ were not far away.

But it was both the other major works that stamped the concert with a mark of bravery and self-confidence.  I’ve never heard the Barber cello concerto live before and as it unfolded I really doubted that I’d heard it at all.

The cello concerto is a world away from the lyrical violin concerto, though not so far as to meet with the commendation of the school of Boulez, Maderna and Stockhausen.

It is a neglected work and I imagine the reason is partly its great difficulty, and partly its somewhat remoteness of tone, and its scarcity of much immediate melodic charm. Yet it was apparently considered by Barber to be one of his most successful scores.

I came across a review of the 1951 performance conducted by Barber with cellist Zara Nelsova which declared:  “Given suitable advocacy it could be a highly popular work and deserves to have a much stronger foothold on the repertoire than it at present enjoys. The work possesses an astonishing freshness, lyricism and a natural charm which grows stronger over the years. There are few modern concertos that have such a marvellous main tune as does the opening of this Concerto, and Barber’s scoring is beautifully transparent and full of colour.”

However, in the following 60 years it has not had many performances.

I must first, however, say how impressed I was to read the programme notes, unusually fluent, literate, well-informed, wide-ranging over much more than merely the mechanics and background to the music. They were by Ben Booker.

If Haydn and Mozart and just about every composer till the 20th century, could write as if the terrible and endless wars that surrounded them did not exist, it became impossible for any art form to ignore war after World War II which may explain the angularity and ‘nightmarish’ (Booker’s word) quality of the opening.

I’ve heard Inbal Megiddo play in several, varied situations, but this was the first time in a concerto; and in a very tough concerto. The writing for the cello might be challenging, but it struck me as lying well, if not very comfortably, for the instrument, much in the middle of the cello’s range, though much quite high too.

The opening reminded me a little of the start of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, which could only have been coincidental for Barber’s was written earlier. But perhaps it points to a similar view of what constitutes music in the late 20th century. Both eschewed the avant-garde, and the sound that Barber sought seemed to be the essential cello sound.

Most eyes and ears are on the soloist in a concerto, and Megiddo’s playing, powerful and brilliant, kept attention focused where it had to be. Her end-of-first-movement cadenza was a truly professional, virtuosic affair.

A prominent and nicely played oboe signalled the meditative, yet lyrical second movement, which made more conspicuous use of trumpets, horns and trombone – the brass played very well.

The third movement followed the normal course, though any joyousness is very tempered by a certain brutal brilliance as the cello persists with highly detailed decorative passages, all lending an air of frenzy and disturbance rather than an optimistic conclusion.

Though no one could claim the orchestra played immaculately, rehearsals under Donald Maurice had clearly been thorough enough to ensure that there were few conspicuous stumbles and for the orchestra to deliver plenty of rhythmic energy, and generally very good ensemble.

The Ives symphony was also a rarity – all his four symphonies are rarities in live performance, and I don’t recall any by the NZSO. I didn’t know this one. Its opening could have been an immature and eccentric work by Schumann or Bruckner; but such seekings for comparisons are futile. The mind has to be empty of expectations for this music.

It is in five movements. There is no mistaking the Ives trademark quotations from both classics and American folk and gospel music which, to me, still sounds eccentric: I ask myself, Why does Ives feel that this technique makes good music?

Of course there is no compulsion for a turn-of-the-century composer to write in a manner that establishes his place in the chronological sequence, in the middle of the careers of Mahler or Elgar, Debussy or Janacek, Schoenberg or Rachmaninov, Puccini or Strauss, Falla or Ravel, and so on, but in doing that he has risked being considered a permanent iconoclast and loaner, which has been Ives’s fate – but is it a fate?

There were times when the music sounded simply naïve, and not able to be set alongside the composers I’ve mentioned above. But one smiles at the composer’s studied wit nevertheless. Given all that, the performance, handling quite deftly the myriad facets of his music – sentimental, quixotic, droll, long-breathed, bombastic, satiric, imitative of so many kinds of music – was remarkably competent and satisfying,



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