Wellington Orchestra with its end-of-year winnings musically and in survival

The Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei with Michael Houstoun (piano)

Symphony No 44 in E minor ,‘Trauer’ (Haydn); Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 (Rachmaninov); Symphony No 4 in C (Schmidt)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 17 November, 7.30pm

The last concert of the 2012 series by the Wellington Orchestra attracted a very big house. If the major attraction was Houstoun and the Rachmaninov, there would have been a lot of empty seats after the interval, which is sometimes the case when a little known piece is to fill the second half. From the almost unchanged audience after the interval, I have to assume that a lot of people were curious to discover what Franz Schmidt sounded like (presumably knowing only the enchanting Intermezzo from his opera Notre Dame).

The first half was in minor keys: Haydn’s pithy, sombre Trauer symphony, in minor, the one before the ‘Farewell’, opened the concert; and it was followed by Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto in C minor. Characteristically in the 18th century works in minor keys were outnumbered about five to one by the major key. The Haydn began with strong chords that announced serious matters, but almost at once took up a spirited, crisp tune, driven along with confident rhythms. The orchestra was pared down to roughly the size that Haydn would have used at the Esterhazy Court, and Taddei demonstrated a commitment to and a flair with Haydn that produced a gripping performance. The Menuetto, as second movement, was surprisingly lively in pace, yet thoughtful, drawing attention here to the singular perfection in the balance between strings and winds and timpani. The third movement, Adagio, exposed a composer who might have been nearing 40 but whose genius still had more than three decades in which to develop, with the London symphonies and the great masses of the turn of the 18th century. Haydn’s spirit of endless melody here was played with both clarity and as much emotional exposure as a composer of the period could have legitimately produced.

There was a strange spirit in the atmosphere as Michael Houstoun entered to play what is perhaps the most popular of all piano concertos. There was nothing too seductive or haunted with the opening chords, not too slow or portentous; both piano and orchestra were in accord in handling the emotions implicit in both the first and the slow movements with a rationality that emphasised form and the intellectual qualities of the music. The approach allowed for the big climax towards the end of the movement to emerge in strong contrast to what had gone before, all the more impressive in its balance, with all departments sounding clear but none obtrusive.

The slow movement brought several sections and individuals into prominence, Moira Hurst’s clarinet in particular, in the meandering patterns she wove with the piano. While there were moments when the word listless rather than simply Adagio sostenuto came into my head, but I soon realised such moments were cleverly calculated to maintain tension. And its beauty was enhanced through its emotional restraint.

The time to loosen the reins came with the Allegro scherzando, with a cadenza that was a sure-footed as it was exciting, as conductor and pianist allowed the emotionally shifting episodes steadily to rise in temperature. There may heave been moments when orchestra and pianist became slightly separated but it was a small price to pay for a performance in which the orchestra framed the efforts of the pianist so as to gain the maximum excitement from a peroration in which Houstoun hurled caution to the winds and made inevitable the shouting and standing ovation that erupted even before the orchestra’s last notes had died away.

Franz Schmidt bursts on the New Zealand concert scene
In the Anglo-Saxon (as well as the Latin and Slavonic) worlds, Franz Schmidt’s music has remained unknown, yet it has hardly ever been absent from the programmes of Austrian orchestras.

I was impressed that, in spite of some evidence that Taddei had long cherished the hope of conducting Schmidt’s 4th Symphony, he refrained from speaking to us about it. He simply took up his baton and signalled to trumpeter Barrett Hocking to begin. The music stand and score were absent, and Taddei conducted the entire 50 minutes of the performance from memory, flawlessly, exhibiting every sign of a deep faith in this, one of the very last of the late Romantic symphonies.

Writings about Schmidt and this symphony in particular usually mention alleged influences from composers like Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, perhaps Schumann or Reger. It doesn’t help much. I suspect it is only in the past century that such absurd emphasis has been placed on ‘originality’, taken to imply criticism of music that shows signs of its inevitable forebears. That has had the disastrous effect of persuading composers to engage in experiments rather than musically-based composing; experiments with technique, style and form that became requirements for a serious composing career; and the recipe for alienating audiences.

Schmidt obviously belongs in the tradition represented by the above names, but his voice is his own. But he did not stand altogether aloof from the experiments of his contemporaries and friends such as Schoenberg, and devices such as polyrhythms, complex chromaticism, atonality. Nor can he be consigned to either of the competing camps that divided late 19th century Austria – Brahms v. Wagner – for he is clearly an inheritor from both and of them and their disciples. He does not indulge in programme music, or overt self-analysis or employ music as a neurosis therapy.

One anonymous website reviewer has written perceptively:
“So, think about a grand Bruckner symphony but with Viennese Romantic charm instead of the mysticism, less brass, more strings and woodwinds, lush Straussian (or Korngoldian, if you prefer) orchestration , a good amount of severe Regerian counterpoint, and you’ll get a rough idea of a Schmidt symphony. This may sound like a mixed bag or like dry, academic stuff, but instead Schmidt’s works are entirely personal and well-integrated: they are full of personal ideas and wonderful (may I dare to say catchy?) melodies, and his skills in the use of a big orchestra are splendid throughout.”

It begins and ends with the same trumpet theme, and is much given to cyclical shapes; which must make the task of memorising extremely difficult. Although referred to as melodic, melodies are not, at least on 3rd or 4th hearing, becoming etched in the mind; though the wonderful cello solo in the Adagio (superbly played by Jane Young) may well become a force that compels repeat hearings. There’s also a rapturous violin solo from Matthew Ross later in the slow movement.  And yet, the absence of strong melodies generally may well be one of the elements that compels attention and maintains the listener’s emotional commitment; modulation is constant and destabilising, and thus arousing a need for resolution and the return to a home key.

After the quarter-hour-long Adagio, the short Scherzo is an acerbic cleanser; there was no sign of fatigue after the mesmerising slow movement; in fact, the orchestra’s energy and complete command, as if it was as familiar to them as Beethoven’s Fifth, filled me with awe.  It was pretty much the end of jocularity, for the last movement had only a short brisk passage in the middle; it was mainly peaceful or elegiac, building, not to a Tchaikovsky climax, but slowly subsiding in resignation bathed by beautiful orchestral sonorities.

Free programmes
Programmes were given free by the ushers: a most admirable procedure which I have urged over the years, usually to no effect.  Small-scale concerts such as chamber music usually provide plain programmes, free, whose emphasis is readable information. For a short time New Zealand Opera provided free programmes too. The underlying hope must be that audiences will become better informed about musical history and the nature of large-scale musical structures. Now that the education system has virtually abandoned giving students at secondary level any serious musical exposure as a core subject, what is written in programmes might be the only opportunity many people have to enlarge their understanding and appreciation of music.

NZSO and opera programmes are very expensive; given the cost of writing and producing programmes it is sad that so few benefit from them. This is a short-sighted policy.

So this last concert for 2012 was something of a triumph, ending a year that has been very worrying for Wellington’s orchestra, threatened by an ill-conceived funding restructuring by the Arts Council which seems to have been quietly set aside. Partly driven by the poorly-understood pattern of orchestral operations and responsibilities that has evolved over many years, it has been a case where balance-sheet driven logic and tidiness might have proved disastrous to the country’s musical well-being, and have saved no money in the long run.

The great audience at this concert was a heart-warming endorsement from the people of Wellington.



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