Nicola Benedetti and the NZSO show their class

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents                                                                                               FORBIDDEN LOVE

YOUNG – Dance / BERNSTEIN – Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”

TCHAIKOVSKY – Violin Concerto / Francesca da Rimini

Nicola Benedetti (violin)

Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 13th October 2012

This NZSO concert was a show made up of various classy acts – perhaps the sum of its parts were greater than the whole, but those classy parts alone made it all memorable, if not perfect.

One of these classy acts was violinist Nicola Benedetti’s – she gave a beautifully warm and richly-toned performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Another was conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s inspired music-making with the orchestra throughout almost every moment of the evening. The latter were perfect partners for Benedetti in the concerto, and readily captured the warm nostalgia and heady exuberance of Kenneth Young’s Dance at the concert’s beginning. As for Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the energy and brilliance of the playing was staggering, sounding as if the NZSO had been a pit orchestra for years in one of the Broadway music-theatres.

Only Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini didn’t for me exert its usual grip, though the winds and strings played their hearts out to wondrous effect throughout the work’s lyrical middle section, describing the awakening of attraction and deepening of love between the ill-fated, adulterous couple. I thought that, immediately after the Bernstein work, with its wonderful “instant-wow” quality, its tremendous exuberance, colour and visceral engagement, most nineteenth-century romantic music would sound terribly old-fashioned (as here), rhetorical and bombastic. We were being asked to suddenly take our sensibilities back a century, and to my ears the juxtaposition didn’t work, and especially in the case of poor old Francesca.

Had the order of the pieces been reversed, things would have been quite different – without the very twentieth-century jazzy excitement and cool sophistication of the West Side Story music in our ears, we could have more readily gone back to Tchaikovsky’s (and further back to Dante’s) worlds of sensibility and been more properly and deeply moved by the horror and pity of Francesca’s and her lover’s plight. The darkness of Tchaikovsky’s opening sequence, an evocation in music of the inscription over the Gates of Hell – “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, and the ceaseless buffeting of the roaring tempests which engulf the damned souls who sinned adulterously, would have had sufficient ambient room for the music to establish itself on its own ground and properly take us there. The work is, I believe, a masterpiece of nineteenth-century romantic tone-painting – but it needed to be played in a more appropriate context than here, where it seemed a bit like a “tack-on”.

I would have had an all-Tchaikovsky first half had I been programming the concert (what better context than that for a composer’s music?), and in the second half would have ended the evening with Ken Young’s beautiful and brilliant work. I did wonder to what extent the orchestra management might have been influenced in their choice of program order by having extra players involved in the Bernstein work (extra percussion and brass players), not wanting them to be sitting around waiting for their turn to play. Interestingly, I thought the brass and percussion players who did remain for Francesca, after playing so brilliantly and with such wonderful energy during the Bernstein, came across as a bit flat and lacklustre in the vigorous parts of the Tchaikovsky – there were a couple of wrong percussion entries in the latter work, which suggested that the musicians had, in fact, given their all during the “West Side Story” Dances.

I don’t think any change in order would have impaired the “Forbidden Love” idea of the program’s theme. As to that, such promotions I think tend not to be taken too seriously by people with a real interest in music, and therefore don’t really “impinge” deeply – I do recognize their value in attracting people who might be new to or unfamiliar with classical music and who like the feeling of having some kind of unifying idea to go with a single concert. Having said that, immediately after the concert I bumped into a friend (who would readily align with the “not really familiar with classical music” description) who asked me first up what the event’s title “Forbidden Love” had to do with the music that was played! – “res ipsa loquitur” (the thing speaks for itself), as my Latin teacher used to say.

As I’ve already indicated, apart from the order of saying the music and its performance were pretty wonderful – Ken Young’s Dance began with beautiful wind solos (what a gorgeous tone Michael Austin’s cor anglais has!) and the most luscious of violin solos played by concertmaster Donald Armstrong with just the right strain of nostalgic feeling  flecked here and there with astringent impulses. These awakened the music’s rhythmic undercurrents, which rose up to throw back the floodgates of joyous abandonment, suffusing our sensibilities with crackling energies. I always think of Messiaen in places in this music, and wonder to what extent Young’s own conducting of performances of that composer’s Turangalila Symphony influenced the outcomes of this piece. It’s by no means a carbon copy, but the uninhibited spirit of it all reminds me of both Joie du sang des etoiles and the finale from Messiaen’s wonderfully outlandish work.

Nicola Benedetti came, saw and conquered – from her very first note there was a beautiful and distinctive tone served up for us, rich and supple, and able to be fined down when required and still be heard. She played the work very sweetly and romantically, preferring to keep the line smooth rather than really point the dotted rhythms – her articulation was seamless in places, but always characterful and filled with nuancing, never bland and all-purpose – and she also had this quicksilver ability with the faster music, which really energized those passages that needed a higher voltage. Her performance of the finale wasn’t of the kind which evoked some sort of peasant folk-fiddle with all of the wild abandonment and raw, rough-edged excitement of that kind of playing; but it was exciting in a more aristocratic, finely-honed sort of way. You would be hard put to equate critic Eduard Hanslick’s famous put-down of the music after its Vienna premiere with what we heard Nicola Benedetti do – Hanslick complained that “the violin is not played, it is yanked, torn, beaten black and blue – we see savage, vulgar faces, we hear violent curses, we smell bad brandy – for the first time we are able to image music that stinks to the ear!” I somehow think Hanslick wasn’t terribly sympathetic to Tchaikovsky’s music.

Another thing that Benedetti did was open up the cuts which have plagued this work over the years and especially on record – they’re mostly in the finale, and they’re pretty pointless, a remnant of an age of cavalier treatment of music by violinists who actually thought they were “improving” the composer’s work. All these cuts did was make the music slightly shorter and throw the balance out between the orchestra and soloist during the finale’s opening – I think Tchaikovsky knew what he was doing in the first place (though like many composers, anxious for people to like their work, he possibly agreed to the incisions made by those first performers at the time). Anyway, Benedetti, as do most modern virtuosi (but not all!) restored these several passages of figurations for the soloist, and played them brilliantly.

As for the orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the playing was exciting, committed and brilliant, beautifully sounded and nobly proportioned, finding that balance between elegance and excitement that makes the music work. It was no wonder that, at the first movement’s exciting conclusion, the audience simply couldn’t help itself and burst into spontaneous applause, all seeming very natural and emotion-driven, so that no-one could possibly make a fuss of the “Oh, no, you don’t do that sort of thing at a concert!” variety. It would have seemed very unnatural to have sat there and done nothing in response to such fabulous music-making.

So, immediately after the interval we were taken to the world of the Jets and the Sharks and the hopeless love of two people torn apart by racial strife, all realized brilliantly and colourfully in Leonard Bernstein’s music – a set of Symphonic Dances from his 1957 Broadway show West Side Story. Right from the beginning Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s direction of the music had what sounded to my ears like an authentic rhythmic swagger, a mixture of “cool” and intensely physical, which underlined every moment of the score, even the quieter, lyrical moments. The original show has, of course a strong dance-drama aspect anyway, enabling some sequences to be lifted straight from the stage action – though some of the dances were complete “makeovers” by the original orchestrators, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, of famous tunes like “Somewhere” and “Maria”.

Harth-Bedoya and his players produced veritable oceans of galvanic energy, here, which caught all of us up in its excitement. It demonstrated what musicians such as those in the NZSO could produce when encouraged, or when avenues  slightly outside the paradigm of classical performance were explored, to everybody’s advantage – with, of course, the proviso that one needed to be careful how one arranged programs with entirely different types of music in them. I loved the energy and exuberance the players brought to the Mambo, complete with finger-clicking and shouts of “Mambo” – so exhilarating.

Despite my reservations concerning the concert’s last item, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca, already discussed above, the performance generated enough visceral excitement right at the end to provoke enthusiastic shouts and plenty of applause – incidentally, I’ve always felt a bit ashamed regarding my enjoyment of the all-too-obvious orchestral thrills at the end of this work in the concert-hall, considering the pity and horror of the subject-matter (Dante, in his Divine Comedy writes, at the conclusion of Francesca’s tale of adulterous love, murder and eternal torment, “While the one spirit thus spoke the other’s crying / wailed on me with a sound so lamentable / I swooned for pity like as I were dying / and, as a dead man falling, down I fell.”). Shouldn’t one perhaps feel similarly horror-struck by it all at the end, instead of leaping to one’s feet cheering and applauding virtuoso orchestral playing?  But let’s be reasonable about this – if somebody’s at fault here, it’s probably Tchaikovsky!











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