Fancies and realities from Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents

BEETHOVEN – Leonore Overture No.1 Op.138
Symphony No.8 in F Major Op.93
JULIET PALMER – Three Pop Songs “Solid Gold”

Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

The Opera House, Wellington,

Sunday, 8th September, 2013

Restricted as to performing venues on account of the capital’s various earthquake-generated strengthening projects, Orchestra Wellington triumphantly made good in the Opera House on Sunday afternoon with its most recent concert, La Donna Ideale, whatever difficulties might have arisen from having to make music in relatively unfamiliar spaces.

By covering the pit and extending the floor area of the stage to well out in front of the proscenium arch the organisers had given the musicians a surprisingly immediate acoustic for its audience to enjoy. Though a smallish orchestra, the sounds in the purely orchestral items packed plenty of punch, with clear (almost too clear) detailing – the string passages which began the Leonore Overture No.1 had great intensity, but moments of less-than-uniform intonation, a glitch which receded as the players “found” one another.

For me the concert’s venue recalled my first-ever orchestral encounter in a similar kind of space – the Palmerston North Opera House in 1969.  Maestro Piero Gamba conducted the then NZBC Symphony Orchestra in an evening of music-making that rocked my socks off, especially with Ravel’s La Valse as a rousing finale. Here, the fireworks at the concert’s end were Beethoven’s, Marc Taddei leading a performance of the composer’s Eighth Symphony that emphasised the music’s dash, drive and excitement, though somewhat at the expense of wit, charm and good humour.

It was Beethoven’s music also which led this latest concert off. Here was a further instalment in a survey by the orchestra of the various Leonora Overtures written by the composer for his opera “Fidelio” – the composer wanted “Leonora” as his opera’s title, but Beethoven was persuaded eventually to make the change, as at least three other composers had previously used that name for their operatic settings of the story.

Leonore No.1 was thought for many years to be the original version of the overture  – but recent research has established it was written after the other versions, specifically for a Prague production of the opera in 1808 which apparently never actually took place (hence the Overture’s somewhat “academic” high opus numbering). Though not as overtly theatrical in its layout as the other “Leonora” overtures, the music still has a pleasing and satisfying overall shape – a sombre introduction, giving way to determined energies followed by lyrical yearnings, the whole completed by a surging, all-conquering conclusion.

Having the players, specifically the strings, brought foward of the proscenium arch made for a more-than-usually analytical sound-picture, sharply-focused, but lacking the bloom of the Town Hall’s ampler ambience. However, the smallish number of strings survived the sound-spotlight with considerable credit, a couple of previously-mentioned ensemble and intonation inconsistencies aside, during the slow, recitative-like opening passages.

Once the allegro got under way the full orchestra’s extra weight and immediacy of sound was thrilling to experience, the music’s syncopations and energies here, and at the conclusion of the work, done with verve and dash. Conductor Marc Taddei managed the music’s contrasts beautifully, the horns and other winds giving great pleasure with their handling of the famous yearning theme sung in the opera by the imprisoned Florestan.

The following work on the programme indirectly gave the concert its overall title, “La  Donna Ideale”, which was the title of the sixth of a collection of eleven Folk-Songs composed and/or transcribed from other sources by avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio. Of course, Beethoven’s eponymous heroine celebrated in the concert’s opening music had already ticked the requisite boxes suggested by the title!

Berio wrote these songs for the celebrated singer Cathy Berberian, whom he was married to for a number of years. Today’s singer was our own Madeleine Pierard, resplendently pregnant, and as engaging in voice and platform manner as ever. I could imagine Berberian’s voice having a bit more “edge” and feistiness in places compared with what we heard, but not any more charm, wit and heartfelt directness which Madeleine Pierard gave to us so generously.

The singer’s focused diction enabled us to hear every word of the two American songs which opened the set, and her fully-vocalised engagement with the changing moods of the others brought each one to life. From song to song one marvelled at the differences
of ambience and energy and the range of emotion.

Particularly telling were the contrasts across the final sequence of four songs, the eerie, almost spectral quality of the singer’s “bleached” tones in Motetu de tristura, the out-of-doors chirpiness of Malurous qu’o unno fenno, the folksy, tongue-in-cheek exchanges between singer and solo ‘cello in Lo fiolaire, and the verve and energy of the concluding Azerbaijan Love Song – it sound as though those people in the final song were playing for keeps!

Supporting and matching Pierard’s artistry was the quality of the orchestral playing throughout, both in ensemble and across the many solo lines, making the whole a heart-warming experience.

What a contrast with the world evoked by ex-pat Toronto-based Kiwi composer Juliet Palmer – unlike the often more rarified, prescribed work of many of her contemporaries, her Solid Gold presentation drew directly from mainstream culture, namely, those of pop lyrics associated with music.

Juliet Palmer used only the texts of various pop songs to gather the shards of material she needed to make into a kind of distillation of impulses concerning  love – the composer declared her aim to “unearth the heart of the love song”.  A lot of the time the singer was using the word I – beginning with “I am, I said” which was about the closest to a direct quote from an actual song – but elsewhere it sounded as though Palmer was actually reassembling  the sounds of the words. Other reconstructions brought forth phrases beginning with such words  as “I wanna be” –  according to the composer, echoing a 1984 hit song “I wanna know what love is”.

As she was inspired by pop music’s “distinct sound world” her own music here mostly courted pastiche, (I scribbled the phrase “Disney-like accompaniment” at one point) primarily a kind of springboard for those deconstructed/reconstructed lyrics to bounce along before taking and relishing their brief individual moments of glory. But there were also abnormalities and angularities in places, diverting horn glissandi notes during the work’s introduction and a clustered, Ligeti-like accompaniment to the words “I am” and their subsequent development, sharp Stravinsky-like chords  contributing to the faint underbelly of edginess in certain places in the work.

Enjoyable, but intriguing – and sung by Madeleine Pierard with a richly-wrought relish that brought to mind Noel Coward’s comment  regarding “the potency of cheap music”.

After this we pleasurably anticipated a different kind of delight – the rich, robust humour of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. It’s always seemed to me a work of enormous verve and assurance, one which appears to confidently sum up a whole cosmos of symphonic achievement on the part of its composer. Though outwardly it appears something of a classical “throwback”, the music constantly confounds expectation and is filled with dramatic surprises and rhythmic angularities.

Alas, in this performance, the “rich, robust humour” was a sometimes thing. Brilliantly though the orchestra played the work, I thought Marc Taddei’s frantic pacing of the music took away some of the work’s capacity to delight and confound as Beethoven probably intended. For every sequence that impressed with its near-breathless brilliance, there were two which caused me to lament the over-riding impression of excessive haste  – with such deliciously-contrived humour and droll charm to be savoured, I’m at a loss to understand why these things seemed to be put to the metronomic sword.

To be entirely fair, the parts of the work which I thought did come off well were certainly exciting to listen to – the first movement development evoked a kind of tense game of chase between groups of instruments, the horns in particular bringing out their accents tellingly at one point, though the crescendo leading to the reprise had little chance to register at such a pace. And the finale, too, had its best moments mid-movement, the music’s driving force giving an extra vertiginous quality to the “giant’s footfalls” and their hair-raising harmonic lurches.

The middle movements seemed to me far less happy with so much detailing being made to rush by at speed – the Allegretto scherzando movement lost some of its droll contrasts between delicacy and girth, while the canonic passages between winds and strings had little chance to properly register at such a tempo. Similarly, the Tempo di Menuetto sounded too businesslike and regimented here, as if all the dancers had personal trainers as their partners, keeping things up to speed. And the delicious triplet accompaniments for the horns and winds in the Trio went almost for nothing for me, despite the wonderfully alert playing.

One person’s meat, they say – but even so, a thing of beauty is surely to be savoured and not merely efficiently despatched. There were enough good things about the symphony’s performance here to divert the harshest critic, if only momentarily – but I felt that, if more time had been given for notes, phrases and paragraphs to properly “own” and relish their allotted spaces, a good performance of the work would have become a great one.









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