Their own sounds: Viola students from the NZSM

Viola Students of the New Zealand School of Music

Music by Bloch, Hindemith, Flackton, Brahms, Stamitz, and Walton

Vincent Hardaker, Megan Ward, Felicity Baker (cello), Alexa Thomson, Alice McIvor with Stephen Clothier, Rafaella Garlick-Grice (pianists)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The presence of Gillian Ansell, violist in the New Zealand String Quartet, as a teacher of viola at the School of Music appears to be producing excellent results, in the numbers of skilled violists who are her students, emerging there.

Even so, there is definitely a difference between the performers and in the sounds they make; no carbon copies here.  The variety thus produced provided some of the interest in this lunchtime concert.

Ernest Bloch’s ‘Rhapsodie’ from his Suite Hébraïque commences with a Jewish pentatonic march-like melody, and continues in similar vein.  A beautiful and interesting work, it needed to be more mellow than this player made it.  The tone was sometimes harsh, and the piano part rather over-pedalled at times.  However, there was great attention to the dynamics on the part of both performers.

Hardaker followed in an unaccompanied work by another viola player: the first two movements from Viola Sonata, Op.25 no.1 by Paul Hindemith.  The programme note seemed to have been dashed off in haste; the remark ‘The first two movements of this sonata run together’ intrigued me, but in fact they were played one after the other, without a pause.

Megan Ward played something entirely unusual and charming: William Flackton’s Sonata VI for viola and bass, with Felicity Baker, cello.  I had never heard of the composer, but it seems he flourished in the mid- to late-eighteenth century.  The ‘galant’ style of the period was one of ‘simplicity, homophony and immediacy of appeal’ according to the programme notes.  The three short movements gave us playing that was rhythmically strong, a consistently pleasant, rather gentle tone, and ornamentation that was beautifully managed.  The cello part was subtle and very musical in effect.  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians article on Flackton, by well-known music editor Watkins Shaw, speaks of his ‘considerable individuality and expressive power’; and ‘his refined and elegant taste’.

Brahms’s Viola Sonata in F minor (Op.120 no.1, from 1894) was perhaps the best-known work on the programme.  Alice McIvor’s sound is rich and mellow, with plenty of volume when required.  Some slight intonation inaccuracies in the first movement could not spoil a fine performance.  Stephen Clothier, a composition student, was a splendid partner at the piano.  His playing was expressive, and he gave the piano part its full value.  There was just a shade of over-pedalling at some points, but the performers did very well.

The second of the two movements played, andante un poco adagio, was very attractively performed, with many nuances, the phrasing bringing out the lyricism and a certain nostalgic, even wistful character to the music.

With Carl Stamitz’s Viola Concerto no.1 in D, Op.1, we moved to a solo work in which the pianist had the unenviable task of trying to be an orchestra.  The first movement was played, without cadenza, but had Alexa Thomson extended nevertheless.  Violas vary in size, and it appeared to me that hers was smaller than those we had seen already.  However, she made a big sound on it.  There was plenty of work for her to do – the movement was taken at considerable speed, and as well, there were double-stopping, octaves, string crossings (playing across several strings in rapid succession in one phrase or figure) to contend with.  These were all accomplished with skill and precision.  The orchestral part had not a lot to do; it was really just supporting the violist’s part harmonically.

Alexa Thomson also played the last work on the programme: the first movement (andante) from William Walton’s Viola Concerto.  Again, there was much double-stopping.  Slight intonation lapses in this and the previous work were not significant in light of the accomplishment of most of the playing.  This was a lively, invigorating and highly competent performance of a difficult work, and as the programme note said ‘showcasing the viola’s warm, rich tone’.

As a whole, the concert exhibited the skills of the viola students, as well as introducing a marvellous range of important works written for the instrument.

I was pleased to see that not all the students wore black clothes for performing.  I can see no need for students, who are not professional musicians, to attire themselves entirely in black, as they often do, especially not for daytime performances.  Let’s have some visual, as well as aural, colour.

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