Viva Viola at Lower Hutt campaigns for full recognition with both hits and misses

Viola Viva: The Next Generation (John Roxburgh, Alexa Thomson, Megan Ward and Vincent Hardaker)

Music by Bach, Handel, Bizet and Saint-Saëns

St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 26 September, 12.15pm

I find that I heard other embodiments of this ensemble last year, and a solo performance by Megan Ward in June. Previous experiences entertained me more than this one did, though there were things, such as the arrangement of Handel’s Fireworks Music, that I thought came off splendidly.

Almost all music for a group like this must be arrangements, and so there is the risk of running foul of the strong feeling in the more severe quarters of the classical music world that such things are bastards, disreputable, to be deplored. Most generalisations are dishonest and foolish and so is that. All arrangements must be taken on their merits and listened to objectively, and with one’s emotional antennae switched on.

I entered just after the Overture to the Royal Fireworks Music had begun and loved the depth of sonority achieved by these instruments; while their sound was quite different from that of woodwinds and brass, it produced a similar effect, of celebration and energy, adorned with plenty of variety, notably when the pensive middle section came. In La Paix (the peace the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession – succession of deceased despotic European monarchs was a bountiful source of conflict and profligate slaughter in the 18th century) I found myself wanting a little more sustained tone, but the entire three movements generally made a persuasive case for the enterprise.

The disposition of players changed democratically with each new piece, allowing each to be heard in the more prominent parts. I’ve always been fond of the Minuetto from Bizet’s incidental music for Daudet’s play, L’arlésienne; it seemed to have been much more played in the 1950s when my musical affections were at their most susceptible. But I couldn’t find it in my heart to fall for this arrangement the colours of which seem to matter more than they did in the Handel; the middle section – say, the Trio – sounded rather cloddish.

The Bach Fugue in C major – oddly truncated from its Prelude – seemed to do them no favours for it was so brief that I found it hard to become involved with, and the playing, capable as it was, simply did not persuade me. Perhaps its performance needs careful rethinking and really thoughtful repetition.

The next piece was an arrangement of ‘Lascia ch’io panga’ from Handel’s Rinaldo. Again I had misgivings about is success as a translation, and didn’t feel that it has bedded into its new habitation.

The last offering was Saint-Saëns’s tone poem Danse Macabre. John Roxburgh took his turn leading this, playing a good deal of the devilish bravura which was fit for a Paganini, or at least a Wieniawski as it might have been when it was written in 1873. It actually began life as a song setting of an eponymous poem by Henry Cazalis, and the composer did separate arrangements for piano solo and small orchestra before coming to its orchestral full dress.

So there is plenty of authority for adaptations here, and this one worked well, though one must be forgiven for missing the special effects such as xylophone. Its great popularity has, naturally, caused it to be dismissed by the more severe of music critics, but it is nevertheless a major work of its kind, one of the first after Liszt’s invention of the symphonic poem with its literary, artistic or philosophical references.

The players did well with the sul ponticello effects, and other departures from routine techniques. If intonation and ensemble were occasionally a fraction under perfect, its atmosphere was splendidly conjured right through to the beautifully protracted dying phrases, and the tonal quality both individually and in choruses, was often excellent, beguiling the ear.

This ensemble, and the personal variations on it that seem to occur, strike me as having a good future both in the specialised viola world and in the sphere of general classical music.


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