Orchestra Wellington presents:
GERSHWIN – An American in Paris
BERNSTEIN – Three Meditations from “Mass”
MARGETIC – Music for Wind, Brass and Percussion
ELLINGTON – Night Creature
Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Mark Donlon (piano) / John Rae (drumset) / Miguel Arnedo-Gomez (bongos) / Patrick Bleakley (bass)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Town Hall, Wellington
Sunday, 26th May 2013
The only clue I had to what we might be in for, during the course of the oncoming Orchestra Wellington’s concert with the overall name “Night Creature”, was George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, which I knew reasonably well.
I had not heard any of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” – though I remember reading a review of the composer’s own recording many years ago, one whose description of the work’s full-on theatrical, somewhat confrontational style put me off ever wanting to get to know it. Such an attitude on my part was bound to catch up with me, sooner or later…..
Duke Ellington’s was a name I knew far better than his music – my Take the “A” train days of listening almost exclusively to swing I still recall with great pleasure, but of course Ellington’s was a creative spirit which explored realms far removed from swing. His three-movement suite Night Creature resulted from a 1955 commission by conductor Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air (the old NBC Symphony), and used a quartet of saxophones and a jazz combo, emulating a kind of baroque concerto grosso arrangement – intriguing, to say the very least.
As for New Zealand-based composer Karlo Margetic, and the Bartok-like title of his new piece Music for wind, brass and percussion, I had heard some of his music before and remembered enjoying the experience, most recently a work for Piano Trio called Lightbox, premiered in 2012 by the NZ Trio.
So, the evening’s music promised a tantalizing assemblage, one whose parts I was determined I would give every chance to make a positive impression – even the Bernstein! In the event (thanks partly to the stellar playing of ‘cellist Andrew Joyce) Bernstein’s Three Meditations from “Mass” provided some of the most beautiful and heartfelt-sounding moments of the concert.
Having thought such dismissive thoughts about the piece I was pleased to find myself enjoying the music thoroughly. It all began with xylophone-like chimes, and an anguished, questioning ‘cello solo, the themes and ideas of the opening between the soloist, orchestra and organ. I was particularly taken with Andrew Joyce’s handling of the ‘cello’s beautifully rapt final utterances, even if the effect was all but spoilt by a persistent audience cougher.
The next piece’s opening was a slow and portentous pizzicato march, into which the orchestra joined, building the tensions with plenty of volatile excitement, aided and abetted by the organ at one scalp-pricking point! Through it all, the solo ‘cello kept an “eye of the hurricane” aspect, alongside menacing side-drum rolls and a final orchestral crash.
Straightaway, the drumbeat led into the final Presto, the soloist responding first with a disjointed cadenza-like recitative, and then taking up the drum’s dance-rhythm. I loved the cheery, angular folksiness of the dance, whose energies eventually gave way to the ‘cello’s taking up of a passionately romantic theme , supported beautifully by the orchestral strings. The “working-out” of these things reminded me in places of the composer’s “West Side Story” in its bitter-sweet, volatile mood. To finish, the ‘cellist played cadenza-like fragments imitating birdsong, as the percussion persisted with its “motto” rhythm in the background. Irrespective of the music’s wider context, I thought the work engaging and thought-provoking.
The concert had begun with music of quite a different mood, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, here thrillingly given what I can only describe as the “full” treatment by Marc Taddei and his players. From the start, the energies of the piece came at us in great and colourful waves, with brash auto-horns and whipped-up tempi at the climaxes. Played with such sharply-focused detailing the quieter interludes, when they came, made an enormous impact of withdrawal, the traveller’s sudden bouts of homesickness made all too heart-rending by the beautiful string- and wind-playing (Matthew Ross’s violin solo a bitter-sweet joy).
At first I thought the energetic bits needed a bit more “swagger” and point, and to rely less upon sheer speed of execution in places – but the trumpet-solo episode (superb!), counterpointed by the saxophone choirs, had such rhythmic “schwung”, such a delicious and infectious immediacy, that I capitulated, head-over heels, to it all from that moment onward! The orchestra strings played with plenty of stylish heart-on-sleeve emotion, matched by energetic wind and brass detailings which surged and flowed through the precincts of the Town Hall in grand fashion. It might have been a little too “over-the-top” for some people, but I loved it.
Again the trumpet-playing captured all the swagger of the rollicking theme which struck up in response to the solo violin’s chromatic angstings, inspiring the orchestral strings to respond in kind. At the end, the great restatement of the earlier trumpet theme by the full orchestra had more of a jazzy, spiky aspect than a “symphonic orchestral” one, a detail not lost upon the droll-voiced tuba with his brief concluding solo. In all, a terrific achievement!
Karlo Margetic, Orchestra Wellington’s Emerging Composer-in-Residence wanted to write a piece that contributed to the repertoire for wind and percussion ensemble, or as he put it in a pre-concert interview, “orchestra without strings”. As a clarinettist in various ensembles, Margetic would often enjoy first-hand the writing for winds within the framework of full orchestral pieces, and wonder why there wasn’t more stand-alone repertoire for the combination – “…such an amazing sonority!” he would think to himself – so he decided he would do something about it in the most practical possible way.
His work, Music for wind, brass and percussion, did surely and exactly what the title suggested it would do. Here were the unique sound-characteristics of the ensemble through its constituent parts and its combination of those parts, presumably as its composer imagined would happen. And it was surely no accident that the piece began with the sounds of clarinets weaving their lines throughout the textures, as the other instruments awaited their turn to try a folkish falling theme, despite the snarling aspect of the trombones, warning their fellows not to get too cocky with their new plaything too soon.
But to no avail – the theme became thoroughly energized through all this attention, and began arcing shreds of melody through the air like shooting stars,underpinned by crashes, explosions, and rolling timpani. Margetic certainly didn’t neglect his percussion, enabling it to glint and sparkle in places, roar and rattle in others, as this theme rolled around the stratospheric regions belonging to each instrument group. The panoply of sounds thus created made for a wonderful effect, both lyrical and dramatic, its melodic contouring not unlike the well-known thirteenth-century chant “Dies Irae”.
As the melody developed, the tensions around and about it receded, provoking a final ensemble-roar in passing, and leaving a muted voice whose tones had perhaps underlined the whole of the interaction – having done, it melted away along with the other resonances. On this showing, I thought the work a great success – coherent throughout, beautifully shaped and contoured, interestingly coloured (those “amazing sonorities”, no doubt!) and always suggesting spontaneity, however much was pre-ordained.
Conductor Marc Taddei belatedly talked to his audience before the orchestra began the final item of the concert, Duke Ellington’s Night Creature. Taddei wanted to draw people’s attention to the idea that classical music didn’t exist entirely of itself, but drew inspiration from popular music, and cited “The Duke” as an example of a musician who “thought across” categories as both a performer and composer. Apparently, Night Creature was written because its composer wanted to get a symphony orchestra to “swing”.
“Swing” it all most certainly did, the work launched by the jazz combo (piano, double-bass, drum-set, bongos) playing part of another Ellington-inspired work, music which “set the scene” for what followed, without a break. The first part of Night Creature was just as evocatively titled Blind Bug, the “nocturnal dance” scenario somewhat nightmarish, the textures dominated by the brasses and saxophones, with the strings providing a kind of atmospheric backdrop.
The following Stalking Monster had well-defined rhythmic trajectories set by low piano notes, winds and strings, the music droll, rolling-out and evocative. At the other end of the sound-spectrum were powerful toccata-like exchanges between brass and timpani, though these also joined in with the rhythmic drolleries, the muted brasses extremely characterful. Solos from both saxophone and trombone were an exciting feature, and even the strings got to do a bit of “funky” towards the movement’s end.
Finally Dazzling Creature stirred some glamour and sex into the mix, a depiction of the “Queen” of all the night creatures – a muted trumpet announced the erotic “charge” of her presence, strings delineated her seductive movements and the winds underlined her exoticism. Having established this “Mistress of a Modern-day Venusberg” and her thralldom over all, the music swung with the saxophones, and hit its straps with the brass choir. And, how the composer did enjoin us in his programme note on the music to relish his depiction of “the most overindulged form of up-and-outness”! I’m certain that “The Duke” would have been pleased had he been there – for all of us, players and listeners, it was “swing” with a vengeance.