NZSM Orchestra serves composers well, with a star cello soloist

Te Kōki New Zealand School of Music : Contrasts

Jason Post: Noumena (world première)
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 (adagio – moderato; lento – allegro molto; adagio; allegro ma non troppo)
Shostakovich: Symphony no.9 in E flat, Op.70 (allegro, moderato, scherzo: presto, largo, allegretto)

NZSM Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young, with Heather Lewis (cello)

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Tuesday, 8 October 2013, 7.30pm

A demanding programme proved to be well within the capabilities of the NZSM orchestra, which included only a few ‘guest players’ (though all four horn players were guests).

The work by graduate student (studying for Master’s) Jason Post was titled ‘Noumena’, meaning ‘an object beyond our phenomenal experience of it’ according to the programme note by the composer.  It opened with a quiet flute that gradually became louder, and was joined by harp, bassoon and percussion.  Then the other strings arrived, with some playing ponticello (very close to the bridge), while the double basses played very low.  They were quickly followed by overblown flutes, all the while the music becoming louder Some brass joined in, while the percussionist played glockenspiel and then xylophone, the glockenspiel returning again later.  The various orchestral sounds, many of them unusual, made for music that was effective in its own way, but it would be difficult to see the piece receiving multiple performances.

Despite the technical and ideological aspects of the work, it reminded me most of a howling southerly storm, such as we experienced on 20 June this year, and then again, to a lesser extent, as I typed up this review the morning after the concert.  There was a build-up of sound, intensity and texture, then an unleashing, with many wind-like ululations.  The tempo was pretty regular, and the playing intense and on-the-ball.

Elgar was well served by the performance of his cello concerto.  This soulful, even romantic work is different from most of his other compositions.  Heather Lewis, in a gorgeous green dress, made a very strong and incisive opening, playing without the score, and immediately gave us a wonderful range of tone and dynamics.  Right from the outset, the orchestral cellos were very fine, too.

While the sound in Sacred Heart Cathedral is very good, there were times in all three works when the fortissimos were somewhat overwhelming, due to the acoustics, and the size of the building being much smaller than a concert hall.

Nevertheless, both orchestra and soloist made the most of the sublime melodies with their poignant resonances.  I could not see the soloist properly – but there was no doubt about the sumptuous, lyrical and passionate sounds she produced.  The orchestra did its part splendidly, but the focus was definitely on the soloist.  She had the work thoroughly at her fingertips, with all its technical, interpretative and  expressive demands, but made it her own.  The emphasis for both soloist and orchestra was on interpretation.

The lento opening of the second movement had both soloist and orchestra performing wonderful singing lines, filled with romantic longing.  These long lines and their phrasing were beautifully managed by Heather Lewis, and there were delicious pianissimos.  The allegro molto section provided a greater variety of temperaments.

The adagio continued in a similar mood to the lento, except perhaps for a greater degree of sadness, with the soloist virtually continuously involved, while the final movement also had a mixture of emotions, right up to its almost abrupt ending.

Shostakovich’s ninth symphony is possible his shortest and his most jolly – and the first for which I owned a recording.  It starts with plenty of gusto, and a delightful piccolo playing above syncopated pizzicato on the strings, with many interjections from brass and percussion, giving almost a fairground atmosphere.  The lively, quirky theme is thrown around the instruments as well as being played by the
full band.

The second movement starts in complete contrast; it is quiet, slower, and features a lovely clarinet solo, with woodwind chorus to back it up.  The strings enter, with a slow build-up of a surging theme that has a mocking character.  It is overcome for a time by gorgeous flute solos.  This movement was beautifully played.

The third movement went back to a quirky, lively mood.  It was exciting, with a plethora of notes, timbres and rhythmic figures.  Early on, the trumpet and trombones featured in fine form.  They returned later in stentorian style, to signal the largo, which featured a superb extended bassoon solo.  The player had great tone and phrasing; it was a delightful but somewhat sombre interlude between scherzo and finale.

The allegretto starts quietly, but the excitement builds to a climax, relieved by much drumming and rhythmic playing from the wind instruments.  Changes of key added piquancy to the repetition of the theme.  When the full orchestra play it forte there is a definite air of mockery about the rendition.  Many sectional variations ensue, before a quite sudden ending.

This demanding programme deserved a bigger audience.  However, the church was close to being packed.  Perhaps some potential audience members do not realise that the New Zealand School of Music is a university-level institution, and that many of the players are post-graduate music students.  The level of competence is extremely high.

The entire programme received spirited, committed and accomplished performances.
Kenneth Young brought out the best from the players.  His programme notes for the Elgar were elegant: I enjoyed his saying about the first movement “The violas then introduce an elegiac theme, long and flowing, which the cello cannot resist.”  I would need to hear Jason Posts’ piece several times to be able to relate the programme notes to the music, while those for the Shostakovich by Mark Wigglesworth (written in 2007) were very informative about the composer and the history of the work’s performance, but said little about the work itself.



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