NZSO’s “Tall Tales and Tangos” musically resplendent but dramatically inert

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

Tall Tales and Tangos

Tchaikovsky:  Selections from The Nutcracker
David Farquhar: Suite from Ring Round the Moon
Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf

Tecwyn Evans, conductor
Anton Oliver, narrator
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sat.12th October 2013 

This was a matinee concert devised specifically for children, and it was great to see so many of them at this well attended event. Rugby legend and classical music enthusiast Anton Oliver introduced the programme, giving a particularly warm welcome to the under-tens with his assurance that ”this concert is for you”.

The orchestra comprised some fifty players, probably a bit of a squeeze in many theatre pits, but eminently suited to the larger Fowler Centre for the scale of works selected. Tecwyn Evans exploited the size of this ensemble to wonderful musical effect, and elicited clean, clear playing of great finesse and warmth.

The Nutcracker highlights opened with magical delicacy from the strings, where every note of the chattering rhythms was crystal clear. This precision and clarity typified the work, which Tecwyn Evans proceeded to build with wonderful control: there was an ethereal lightness of touch for the Sugar Plum Fairy; a colourful, galloping Trepak yet clean and never rambunctious; veiled evocative suggestiveness in the Arabian Dance; and lively, gracious waltz music that built to a surging conclusion while never being overplayed. It was a most satisfying musical experience which maximized the rich contrasts and masterful orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s writing.

For a watching youngster, however, hearing it perhaps for the first time, it represented a sadly lost opportunity. Nobody explained to the young listeners that this was music composed for a company of ballet dancers. The movements were not identified in the programme notes, to provide guidance about the characters and settings. And despite the enormous talent that Wellington boasts in the dance world, there was no glittering sugar plum fairy seen shimmering to the ethereal music, no fiery jack-booted Cossack leaping across the stage, no veiled dancer insinuating her hips through the Pasha’s chamber. This claimed to be a concert for children, yet no effort had been made to provide a minimal connection between the notes and their intentions. The NZSO has done many “semi-staged” performances, there was plenty of spare room on stage with the smaller orchestra, yet sorely absent was the little lateral thinking and coordination with the dance fraternity that could have lifted a child’s experience from bewilderment to enchantment.

David Farquhar’s Ring Round the Moon suite is theatre music at its most beguiling, and it was a great choice for this programme. There is a freshness and transparency that permeates every dance and plants the epithet of “easy listening” firmly in the classical arena. Tecwyn Evans and the NZSO showed off the suite to great effect – they executed with wonderful clarity and drama the many tricky rhythms in Farquhar’s clever creation, and explored its wide range of dynamics and instrumental colour with vivacious enthusiasm. But again the music’s wonderful potential was hamstrung by the missing partner in the marriage – the dance – which could have brought its meaning and intentions so brilliantly to life. I could picture Sir Jon Trimmer and his dancer wife Jacqui stepping out with the suave Two Step, the steamy Tango, the seductive Waltzes to stunning effect at front-of-stage – but nobody had thought to invite them…………… another sadly lost opportunity for adults and youngsters alike.

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is a wonderful choice to introduce children to the realm of dramatic music and orchestral colour, where surely the great C19-20th Russian orchestrators must remain unchallenged. Tecwyn Evans and the NZSO gave a wonderful reading of the score which maximized the drama and highlighted its key moments with great clarity and panache. The joy of the light tripping strings was almost palpable as Peter bounded out the gate into the sunlit meadow in search of adventure; so was the menacing warning of the horns as the wolf circled under the cat and bird in the tree above. As the duck was consumed the dread oboe call wailed out across the auditorium with hideous finality, and the ferocious horns blasted forth with their fantastic dissonances as the wolf tried to wrest his tail from Peter’s noose. The final victory march was all it could have been to swell a child’s heart with pride at the hero’s triumph against all odds, and it capped off a superb performance from instrumental soloists and orchestra alike.

Despite that however, this work fell well short as a dramatic production for children. The tunes belonging to each character in the story were played one by one at the start, but the wind and brass players should have been brought to the front where small children could get a clear view of their instruments. Also, Prokofiev clearly considered that the narrator’s role was key to the work, and he rejected another writer’s text in favour of his own, remarking that “the balance between words and music in a work like this is very delicate..”. Anton Oliver was put on the back foot from the opening sentence, having been provided with a lapel mike that could not produce adequate speech clarity even for listeners very familiar with the work, let alone youngsters coming to the story for the first time. What happened here to Public Address Systems 101 and the broadcaster’s obligatory voice test?? Also, the boy hero’s magical story calls for a lot more than a straightforward recital of the text – its drama was left crying out for the gestures, voice production and body language of a seasoned actor with the consummate artistry of someone like Wellington’s Tim Spite. While Oliver is doubtless a wonderful choice to pull in the reluctant Southern Man to NZSO concerts in Southland, he was placed in a most uncomfortable position for a children’s concert in the urban capital.

This was an audience liberally endowed with tiny tots in glittering tutus and sparkly shoes who deserved to be transported into that world where music, drama and dance make the magical connections that can capture a child’s loyalty for life. But the outstanding performance from Evans and the NZSO could not provide this experience unaided; it was up to the artistic management to create the other half of the equation.


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