Worlds Old and New, from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra


PRUDEN – Westland: A Back-Country Overture

MENDELSSOHN – Violin Concerto in E Minor  / Symphony No.1

RITCHIE – Remember Parihaka

Michael Joel (conductor)

Kate Oswin (violin)

Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 2nd December, 2012

There’s nothing quite like an encounter (preferably “live”) with an unfamiliar piece of music that rocks one’s socks off! This happened for me right at the beginning of this Wellington Chamber Orchestra concert, with Larry Pruden’s Westland: A Back-Country Overture, a work I’d not heard before. True, the rather cramped St.Andrew’s venue heightened the music’s (and the playing’s!) raw impact, not altogether helpfully; but there was no denying the impression made by all these factors of orchestral writing which brought out the South Island’s rugged landscape grandeur in this music.

Right from the very beginning, vibrant and spacious Vaughan-Williams-like opening chords and figurations blew out the building’s walls, opened up the textures, and suffused our senses with all the trappings of the great New Zealand Outdoors. The playing had both energy and vision, giving the music’s alternating episodes plenty of room to establish their different characters and place themselves accordingly, cheeky wind episodes rubbing shoulders with gracefully melodic strings and epic gestures from the brass and percussion. The fallible orchestral moments tended to be in the quieter, more exposed sections of the score, where a few vagaries of pitch and some mis-hits sun-spotted what were generally sterling efforts by the winds and brass throughout.

Ultimately, the performance by conductor Michael Joel and his players caught what seemed to be for me the music’s essentials – a big-boned kind of “wild places” character festooned with detail and artfully shaped to make the most of contrasts of mood, reflecting in turn human response ranging from excitement and awe to quiet contemplation of beauty.

Pruden’s music made quite a contrast with the Mendelssohn that followed – no less than the E Minor Violin Concerto, played by Kate Oswin, whose playing of this work I had previously encountered in sections, with piano accompaniment.  I thought her performance on this occasion sweet-toned, accurately pitched in all but the most demanding places, and graced with moments of what came across as deep feeling alternated with a true sense of the music’s classical proportions. Michael Joel’s accompaniment featured orchestral playing of whole-hearted commitment, and strongly-realised melodic and rhythmic expression, supporting the soloist at every turn.

For her part, Kate Oswin’s approach to melodic lines and vigorous passage work sang and danced with the orchestra’s throughout – not all of her exposed lines were pitched absolutely truly, but she would make amends a few moments afterwards with some particularly felicitous detail.  An example was in the cadenza, when she teetered precariously going up to one of those high notes which the composer uses so affectingly to cap off several phrases, only to then give us a top note of the utmost beauty at the climax of the following ascent. I liked also the way she “dug into” the phrases leading up to the coda, her concentration and energy surviving a mis-hit high note, and carrying the day with great conviction through the music’s agitations and into the bassoon-led slow movement.

Strangely, a slight lack of poise seemed to unsettle the violinist’s opening phrase here, but she quickly settled down, and subsequently handled the reprise of the opening far more mellifluously. Altogether, the slow movement was a delight, the orchestra again and again reminding us of the same composer’s “Scottish” Symphony by dint of the music’s ebb and flow of like-textured intensities. By contrast, the finale’s opening brought out the fairy-like delicacies of the music, beautifully realized, with stunning fingerwork from the soloist and charming detailing from the winds. The movement’s counter-subject which flowed beneath the music’s impish scampering at the reprise of the opening was here realized with fine judgement, and Kate Oswin and the players caught the music’s growing excitement as the ending approached, with plenty of élan and a sense of a journey being completed.

Enterprisingly, the orchestra had programmed two New Zealand works for this concert, the second being Anthony Ritchie’s Remember Parihaka. As with the Pruden work this was music of considerable evocation, if more emotional and psychological than physical and pictorial. Ritchie wrote the work in response to his feelings about the incidents which took place during the 1880s at Parihaka, in Taranaki, when the iwi and followers of the paramount chief Te Whiti were forced off tribal lands at gunpoint by soldiers acting on Government orders, in response to European settlement demands. Te Whiti and many of his followers were subsequently imprisoned for their “passive resistance” to the Crown in this matter.

Though there was a raw quality to the wind-playing in the piece’s early stages, the tuning a shade or two awry during the more forceful moments, the ambience wasn’t inappropriate to the music’s theme of unease and burgeoning conflict. Different strands of feeling were represented by chanting winds, supported by thrumming strings, as opposed to the sounds of a folk-fiddle accompanied by a field-drum. MIchael Joel and his players brought these opposing strands together in conflict with great skill, the orchestral string playing in particular impressing with its power and incisiveness. The players also realized the numbness and unease of the aftermath (helped by a beautifully-presented horn-solo), the strings allowing their ambient tones to gradually dissolve and disappear. A very satisfying performance.

So to the concert’s final work, the Mendelssohn First Symphony, its place in the composer’s output (rather like Bizet’s similarly early C Major work) deceptive, as parts of the work are extremely demanding to bring off well. This was something of a curate’s egg of a performance, with the somewhat relentless technical demands of the music producing in places a rawness of sound that seemed at odds with the work’s classically-conceived lines. I was reminded of a phrase from JC Beaglehole’s notorious review of the National Orchestra’s first-ever concert in 1947 – “the playing was notable for enthusiasm and vigour rather than refinement”. The first movement was sturdy, no-nonsense “sturm-und-drang” stuff that took no prisoners, and the strings seemed to be struggling in places to keep their tone amid the rushing plethora of notes. It was all somewhat dour, I fear.

Better was the Andante, with great work by the winds at the outset (a lovely second subject, nicely-phrased). Though the ‘cellos had trouble keeping their tone in places when playing high in their register, the rest of the strings warmly came to the rescue. Some doubtful tuning took the shine off some of the close-knit wind harmonies towards the end. However, I liked the big, black scherzo, with the strings revelling in the music’s  physicality, the players bending their backs to the task in realizing these swirling, energetic sounds. Though their sounds were a bit raw in places (and they also had to put up with a strange repeated extraneous noise outside the church, completely unmusical in effect!) the players fronted up wholeheartedly to the trio’s long, lyrical wind lines and sinuous string figurations.

The finale fared better than the work’s opening movement, the orchestra’s vigorous, enthusiastic playing driving the music forward, while allowing some felicitous detailing – some poised pizzicato playing, and a lovely clarinet solo. I thought the strings made a good fist of each of the fugal passages before the end, and I suspect the celebratory joy which came across at the music’s sudden change to the major key for the brief coda was infused with as much relief on the players’ part – certainly not an easy work to bring off!

This was the final concert of the Orchestra’s fortieth anniversary season – I would guess that orchestra members and associates can look back on what has been presented and achieved during 2012 with several degrees of satisfaction. And since the band occasionally presents repertoire that no other local band has tackled of late (eg. the Larry Pruden work we heard today) the value of what it does is greatly enhanced and appreciated all the more. I look forward to another year’s stimulating music-making from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra throughout 2013.

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