The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents
MUSIC FOR MATARIKI
EVE DE CASTRO-ROBINSON – The Glittering Hosts of Heaven
GUSTAV HOLST – The Planets
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Pietari Inkinen (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Friday, 14th June, 2013
“Matariki” – the “eyes of god”, are said to be the stars belonging to a cluster (known elsewhere as the “Pleiades”) which were formed by the fierce God of the Winds, Tāwhirimātea, who tore his eyes out and threw them into the heavens in anger at the separation of his parents the Earth and Sky.
Somewhat less overtly savage is the account in Greek mythology of the seven daughters of Atlas, the Titan, who were pursued by the hunter, Orion, and saved (presumably from a fate worse than death) by Zeus who placed them in the sky. And, yes, there are seven stars, and in both of the mythologies quoted here, each star is given its own name and character.
Only after the concert did I go looking for these definitions and explanations – and I was both delighted and amazed by how these archetypal depictions and metaphorical interpretations of the particular stars in question seemed to particularly resonate with my memories of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s wonderful “Glittering Hosts” music, which was the first music we heard during the evening.
This work was a new commission by the orchestra, and I thought one that most successfully threw wide open its composer’s particular gifts of evocation, along with an ear for near-inexhaustible detail and an unerring sense of structure. De Castro-Robinson’s arresting story-like rhetorical gestures and vivid instrumental characterizations kept us transfixed, like some sultan of antiquity in thrall to his Scheherazade, as she related tales of wonder and excitement.
I liked how the piece began, not with far-away, nebulous murmurings divorcing us by dint of sheer distance from the firmament and its activities, but with in-the-face insistent, spiky, here-and-now happenings, the deep strings and percussion opening up the vistas only after we ourselves had become caught up with some of the scintillations. So, the vastness of the territory was indeed evoked, but so were its relative immediacies, with three of the seven instrumental soloists, flute, clarinet and trombone, drawing us into their opening interplay as part of the overhead galactic goings-on .
The piece seemed very “layered”, with frequent ostinati delineating patterns of orbital and rotating movement, bursts of shimmering detail evoking both individual and “clustered” stars, and more long-breathed lines (usually from the strings) suggesting the mystery of great distances. Details came and went more by osmosis than chance, leaving resonances in their wake, a cantabile figure from the solo ‘cello taken up by the strings, and a trombone solo sounding part-clarion-call part-lament. And across the larger picture, orchestral percussion gradually added their weight and colour to a kind of processional sequence which generated great warmth and colour, almost Straussian in its impact.
After this, the sounds deepened and darkened once again as though some kind of “event’ had occurred, leaving far-reaching resonances, and the soloists all gingered-up with impulse-gestures, angular figures bouncing between one another and different orchestral groups! The solo ‘cello, high in its register, brought forth a deep, double-bass and timpani response, as the flute “sounded breath” against a solo viola’s romantic inclinations, and the percussion trickled in strands of ambient warmth, taking little notice of the larger concerns of gleaming brass and scintillating winds.
The vastness of physical territory was matched by the piece’s far-flung moods – out of the sounds’ passive objectivity at the beginning gradually evolved what sounded to me like a baleful oppressiveness, challenging the solo violin’s lyrical warmth and generating energies throughout the orchestral textures which rose up in a kind of madness, the laughter chromatic in accent and mocking in tone, a kind of display of awesome power dwarfing any human aspiration. The solo trombone’s flatulent-textured comments gave ready rise to similarly pithy responses from among the other soloists, almost an “enter-the-clowns” scenario, one which both entertained and disturbed with its implications for we earthly mortals.
All of these interactions seemed to me in the overall grip of some wonderful kind of axial trajectory whose volatility of detail and surety of progress seemed to mirror, in a star-crossed way, human affairs on earth. I could fill paragraphs with minute-to-minute impressions of the journey taken by the music, but such an undertaking would be out of the scope (orbit?) of this review. Enough to say that the whole was rounded off by the seven soloists’ adroit dovetailing of their lines and fusing of their ever-waning tones and textures with those of the orchestral winds, into a deep silence at the end.
As homage to the splendour of the night skies, I found De Castro-Robinson’s work compelling and satisfying. While it may never challenge its companion concert piece this evening in the popularity stakes, it’s a work which, I think, will reward repeated hearings, and – what would be best of all to happen – a recording. Certainly it’s a handsome tribute by the composer to her “beloved parents”, one of whom (her father) was able to be present at the performance (I understand, somewhat hair-raisingly, after having his scheduled flight to Wellington cancelled earlier in the day!) – it was obviously “in the stars” that he was able to eventually make it!
Having had our terrestrial selves already somewhat borne aloft by contact with the “glittering hosts” of Matariki, we were more than ready for some closer-to-home interplanetary explorations in the form of Gustav Holst’s well-known seven-movement suite “The Planets”. Despite its great popularity, it’s an elusive piece, terribly difficult to get “right” all the way through, due to its wide-ranging moods and compositional styles over the seven parts, not to mention the sheer virtuoso instrumental demands upon the players. Surveys by commentators of recordings which have been made over the years haven’t turned up a single performance by one conductor and orchestra which is reckoned to have “nailed” the piece through and through – though,of course, the same could be said of many, many works, both on record and in concert.
So, how did Holst’s brilliant series of astrological character-studies come across here, throughout the evening? Generally, I felt that Pietari Inkinen and his players were happiest when the music took them to realms furthest from the heat of the sun (with the exception of Venus, more of which in a moment). In fact the final three movements were, I thought, superbly delivered, not least of all the composer’s own favorite movement, Saturn (the Bringer of Old Age), which was cold and unremitting at the outset, with the music’s growing disquiet built to a terrifying central climax (such scalp-pricking trumpets!), before slowly and inexorably turning the music’s despair to resignation and acceptance. Uranus (the Magician, and a favorite of mine) I thought a riot of colour, energy and scarily-directed impulse (the music should sound, as here, just as dangerous (baleful brass and shrieking winds!) as it does funny (galumphing timpani and wheezy contra-bassoon!).
And the enigmatic Neptune (the Mystic) demonstrated such endless reserves of sustained tonal control from all concerned (including the wordless off-stage choir), that we sat for what seemed almost like an age in eerie silence at the end, lost in our own wonderment at the spell cast by those beautifully-distant voices. Earlier in the suite , the cool, chaste, and determinedly virginal charms of Venus (the Bringer of Peace) were of course as much Holst’s doing as anybody’s – and this performance from Inkinen and his players was no exception, with peerlessly pure horn-playing from Samuel Jacobs and matching tones from the winds, as well as Vesa-Matti Leppanen’s violin and the rest of the strings (apart from a not-quite-true attack on their soft final chord, obviously difficult to achieve).
Interestingly, I found myself talking with an old friend at the concert’s interval (before the Holst work was played) – this was an extremely experienced concert-goer friend who enthusiastically praised Pietari Inkinen’s recent work with the orchestra (much of which he said I was heartily agreeing with!) – he then said something like “…and such elegant music-making! – never a vulgar or ill-conceived sound from the orchestra…”. Again I was able to agree, though as I was about to opinion that with some music, this conductor’s encouragement of elegant, and unfailingly mellifluous orchestral textures didn’t for me take some things in the music far enough, the “resuming-bell” sounded, and that was the end of the discussion.
So as I listened to each of the remaining pieces, I found myself recalling my friend’s words – Mars (the Bringer of War) was first up, with everything expertly played by the band, and including some wonderful individual moments – a big-boned, sonorous euphonium solo, for instance! – but the playing for me, though brilliant, didn’t really disturb or truly alarm. One of Holst’s own books on astrology had the following description of the planet: “Mars is cruel,has blood-red eyes and is prone to anger”. Here, it all seemed not quite brutal- or harsh-sounding enough – while at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, I thought Jupiter (the Bringer of Jollity) lacked real humour and bucolic energy. In a sense, each characterization needed more sheer abandonment, towards ugliness in “Mars” and vulgarity in “Jupiter” – and this is probably the rub!
Finally, Mercury (the Winger Messenger) featured skilled, precisely-timed playing, but was it all mercurial enough? – was this the speed of thought? My own thought processes, perhaps – but then I’m a flat-footed, somewhat pedestrian thinker, lacking in true wit and real spark. There are wings on the feet of visual depictions of Mercury that l’ve encountered, but this performance’s sounds didn’t accord with those images in my head. Alas, Mercury here remained earth-bound!
So, in the fine old tradition of performances of this work, some of the planets on Friday evening shone more brightly than others. Those that really glowed did so most effulgently – and conductor, orchestra and choir can be especially and justly proud of that unforgettable moment at the end of Neptune’s performance when it seemed in the hall that the whole of the Universe had stopped for a few seconds just to listen to the music’s silences…..