Enterprising take on the year’s anniversaries with Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Vinten

Overture: Oberto (Verdi)
Requiem on the anniversary of Verdi’s death (Puccini)
Plymouth Town – ballet music (Britten)
Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten  (Pärt)
Hommage à Wagner: Liszt’s Venice: music for Wagner’s death (arranged by Michael Vinten)
Symphony in C (Wagner)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 7 July, 2.30pm

2013 is the two hundredth anniversary of the births of Verdi and Wagner and the centenary of Britten’s. Here was an ingenious concert that included pieces from the early years of each composer as well as music written to mark the deaths of the three.

Some were fairly obvious, others obscure and interesting, if not great works.

Those in the habit of listening to Radio New Zealand Concert after midnight will have become familiar with a disc of Verdi overtures which I’m sure I’ve heard half a dozen times over the years. (Much less interesting is their attachment to overtures by Marschner). The all-night programme seems to be drawn to certain discs and I have always enjoyed this one.

Oberto was the first opera that Verdi completed and was performed, at La Scala indeed! It reveals Verdi as a bold melodist and orchestrator, in the style of the day which was heavily influenced by Bellini. It’s interesting as demonstrating the accepted and expected approach of the day that made no virtue of ‘originality’ but merely sought to display talent in finding memorable, dramatic music that fitted the story and maintained the attention of those paying for their seats: today that’s considered tawdry commercialism in some quarters.

It was a fine way to start, as there was little that a sub-professional orchestra could not play adequately. Gusto and good sense compensated for some rough edges and the usual problem of modulating the volume of brass instruments.

I had never come across the little Requiem that Puccini wrote in 1905 to mark the fourth anniversary of Verdi’s death. It was a bit hard to discern the composer of Madama Butterfly of just the year before. It was composed for choir, solo viola and organ but this was an arrangement for orchestra. It was thoughtfully played but didn’t leave much of a mark. I’ve listened to You-Tube performances, both employing a choir, which I confess I found a little more engaging that the orchestral version.

More interesting was a very early work by Britten, a ballet score entitled Plymouth Town, the story hinting a similar topic in Bernstein’s ballet Fancy Free and the musical, On the Town, though the scenario involved a bit of violence in the middle that Britten handled with a mixture of inventiveness and inexperience. Largely based on the evolution of the sea-shanty A-roving, the first few minutes, working well with cellos and bassoon did not strike me as offering music that cried out to be danced, but it became more ballabile in the course of its 20 minutes duration. There were later passages that offered flute, clarinet and timpani some attention, and there were well controlled pianissimo string and woodwind passages marking a restoration of peace.  Given that Britten was writing for the stage, where other senses could be engaged, it was hardly surprising that the music alone seemed a bit long.

Then came the piece that had opened the NZSO concert two days before: Arvo Pärt’s moving Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Tubular bells were unobtainable and the part was played at the piano; the piano, played to produce the purest sonority sounded most appropriate.  Of course, the performance lacked a little of the sense of breathless grief that can be achieved, but the final note of the ‘tubular bell’ lingered longer in the air than seemed possible.

After the interval Wagner had the floor. It began with Vinten’s quite Wagnerian-sounding orchestration/precis (shall we say) of a couple of Liszt’s late piano pieces prompted by Wagner’s death in 1883. One was entitled Hommage à Wagner and the other, Am Grabe Richard Wagners, which Liszt had partly orchestrated. There were hints of Götterdämmerung and Parsifal; not a bad experiment in musical manipulation, and well played by the orchestra.

Finally, the most impressive work on the programme, Wagner’s symphony, written aged 19 and played in Leipzig to an encouraging reception. As the programme notes pointed out, its models were Beethoven and Weber (interestingly, Weber’s two early symphonies, both also in C major, were written when he too was 19 and 20).  Though ten years before Schumann’s symphonic ventures, it seemed to me that he and Wagner had both been similarly influenced by Weber, particularly in the scherzo, third movement. Furthermore, Wagner’s symphony was performed in Leipzig where Schumann lived in 1832, studying with Friedrich Wieck; did he hear Wagner’s work?

It’s a most impressive early work that deserves occasional outings with major orchestras, and the Wellington Chamber Orchestra made a very creditable fist of it, as they did with most of this very interesting programme.

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