Orchestra Wellington – breathlessly exciting Beethoven and Bernstein

Orchestra Wellington presents:

Fancy Free

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op 72b
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade for Violin (after Plato’s Symposium)
Beethoven: Fidelio Overture Op 72c
Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free

Conductor: Marc Taddei
Violin: Natalia Lomeiko

Opera House, Wellington.

Sunday, 17th November 2013

This was the fourth and final subscription concert presented this year by Orchestra Wellington. The slow introduction to Beethoven’s Leonore No.3 overture was beautifully crafted, with Marc Taddei eliciting exquisite phrasing and riveting dynamic contrasts from the players, and creating an almost breathless anticipation of the arresting theme to follow. It burst forth with wonderful colour and drama, but it was conducted, sadly, at such breakneck speed that the flying scales conveyed a blur of hectic notes, rather than the spine tingling clarity that Beethoven so brilliantly conceived. The players responded valiantly to the challenge, and there were plenty of rich contrasts and musical spectacle, but the recapitulation of the tutti theme was again just too fast to be convincing. There was so much promise in the introduction, such beautiful playing from the orchestra, especially the wind principals, that I was convinced this would prove to be an exceptional performance, but it was irrevocably marred by the excessive tempi that followed.

Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin is a technical tour de force for both soloist and orchestra. This programmatic work in five parts is based on Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates and other dinner guests create “a series of related statements in praise of love” (Bernstein). At first hearing it came across to me as a rather cerebral exploration of somewhat angular melodic idioms and edgy tonality, with never a trace of sentimentality, despite its theme. There was something elusive about it, perfectly summed up by a senior colleague who remarked that it didn’t seem to be able to decide whether it was a “serious” work or not. But it was certainly a serious challenge for the players – Natalia Lomeiko produces a most beautiful violin tone, and she gave a reading of consummate musicianship and technical mastery, backed up by exceptional playing from the orchestra.

After the interval there was a brief interlude of music presented by the Hutt Valley’s Arohanui Strings. This is an inclusive, free neighbourhood programme, currently serving 65 children from seven schools. Run by high quality teachers and a team of student and community volunteers, it offers invaluable ensemble and orchestral experience to young string students. All the instruments are donated, and Orchestra Wellington has partnered with the group for two holiday programmes. This very creditable initiative is opening up new horizons to children who would otherwise have no chance to take up music.

Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture opened the second half of the concert, and was conducted by the orchestra’s young assistant conductor Brent Stewart. He crafted a convincing introduction, from the initial fortissimo outburst,  on to the main horn theme beautifully delivered by Ed Allen. The woodwind principals again produced some magical phrases with real depth and musicianship, then the orchestra burst into the central tutti statement. Unfortunately Brent succumbed to the temptation to rush this tempo so that, yet again, the busy string parts tended to become blurred, rather than having the riveting clarity of Beethoven’s impelling rhythmic dynamo.  But again the players did sterling service to the score and this work was underpinned throughout, as was the whole programme, by a rich and rock solid foundation from cellos and particularly basses.

The final work was Leonard Bernstein’s suite of ballet music Fancy Free. It was commissioned by the legendary American choreographer Jerome Robbins with whom Bernstein collaborated on a number of stage works including West Side Story. The seven movements of the Fancy Free suite follow the shore leave of three sailors – heading for a bar, sussing out the female talent, chatting them up, and so on. Bernstein’s highly evocative and colourful music is characterised by some incredibly tricky rhythmic writing and syncopation, often at hectic pace, that recall the idioms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet music. The playing was full of excitement, and the orchestra negotiated the frenetic, knife-edge rhythms with complete mastery and panache. Some contrasting bluesy dance music was announced by a deliciously seductive theme from veteran trombonist Peter Maunder, which set the  mood for a wonderfully atmospheric break where the guys and dolls had paired off. This suite really was a tour de force from the players and it showcased just how talented this orchestra is. Only one thing would have put it up a notch, and that would have been the choreography. There’s nearly always an element of the golf (sorry, stage) widow about dance suites, however brilliantly conceived and delivered they may be. A back-projection of the ballet production would be no big technical challenge these days, and it would not have been the first time Orchestra Wellington had played to film. Two of my immediate neighbours in the audience independently exclaimed “If only we could see the dance!” and that’s exactly how I felt too. Maybe there’s a cue here for a future live collaboration with NZ Ballet – let’s hope so!

At the conclusion of the concert, Orchestra Wellington released its programme for 2014 which has a distinct Viennese flavour. Mozart, Mahler and Bruckner are featured composers, and the series is built round the complete series of Haydn’s Paris Symphonies. These seldom-heard but delightful works are an inspired choice for an orchestra of this size and a venue like the Opera House. There is definitely an exciting year of concerts in the offing.


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