Promising orchestral concert: excellent Ritchie, problematic Mozart

Wellington Chamber Orchestra;  conductor: Brent Stewart with Karen Batten (flute)

Anthony Ritchie: The Hanging Bulb and Flute Concerto
Mozart: Symphony no.41 Jupiter

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 8 December 2013.

This interesting programme promised a great afternoon of listening, offering the contrast of the young and fresh with the time honoured and revered. For me, some of those hopes were more than fulfilled, others irretrievably dashed……………….

The Hanging Bulb is a short descriptive work that explores through music the despair and obsession associated with the image of the hanging light bulb. But far from being a narcissistic descent into anguished navel gazing, it was a very creative and evocative piece with beautifully crafted orchestration and contrasting moods, alternating between despair and obsession. That despair was first expressed in the haunting opening harmonies, through which were woven spare, dissonant and very plaintive wind melodies that created an almost mesmeric atmosphere.

Interleaved with those episodes were sections of frenetic, syncopated rhythms which were recycled in obsessional repetitions. The very tricky, jazz-like idioms, cycling round and round, brought to mind the image of a mouse trapped in a maze, searching desperately for escape. The tension would build and build, then suddenly resolve into the quiet, despairing reflection of the next contrasting episode. The piece wound up with a closing section of frenetic rhythmic acceleration culminating in a dramatic final chord. The players did great justice to both the technical and poetic demands of the piece, and it is one that deserves more frequent airing.

The Flute Concerto was written in 1993 for Alexa Still during Ritchie’s residency with the Dunedin Sinfonia and it has been widely performed, especially in New Zealand and the USA. It is an attractive work which, like The Hanging Bulb, displays Ritchie’s skilful and creative instrumental writing both in solo and orchestral parts, and his skill with complex and catchy rhythms. The first movement is an energetic, effervescent allegro whose considerable technical demands were tossed off with complete aplomb by Karen Batten.

The orchestra executed with skill and confidence the many tricky, syncopated rhythms that underpin the solo role. The contrasting central Lento movement is introduced by a warm, lyrical theme from solo bass clarinet, a sadly neglected orchestral instrument whose qualities Ritchie here does proud. As in The Hanging Bulb, the movement comprises a series of contrasts between the gentle lyricism of the opening, and interspersed episodes of restless idioms for soloist and orchestra, while the Allegro finale is like a dance sequence, again full of contrasts and sprightly rhythms.

These conversations are always engaging and interesting, and there was a clear affinity between soloist and orchestra throughout the work. Their enthusiasm enhanced a thoroughly refreshing, light hearted and appealing work. Karen Batten was a joy to listen to, and her elegant gown showed that she clearly embraces the wider task of creating a rewarding “performance” ambience for the audience.

After the interval, Brent Stewart offered some brief explanatory comments about Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, particularly emphasising its sunny disposition which he felt was very appropriate to the festive season. This work was written at a time of great difficulty for Mozart, when his health and financial situation were under great stress, and the Viennese seemed to be tiring of him, yet it exudes joy and confidence throughout.

Unfortunately, the tempi imposed by the conductor throughout the entire symphony were such that much of the detail and delight of Mozart’s consummate orchestration was lost.  The spine tingling brilliance of the two outer allegro movements, and their riveting woodwind parts, were lost in a frenetic scramble of notes.

Mozart’s clean, compelling dotted rhythms were frequently blurred into triplets in a hectic attempt at what? The players gave it their all, but the result was a travesty of this mighty work that only thoughtless showmanship on the conductor’s part could have found acceptable. This may seem a harsh verdict, but when a young conductor can inform the players at rehearsal that he is in touch with Mozart, and knows what Mozart wants, misgivings are immediately aroused. Brent Stewart let himself, the players, and most of all Mozart down very badly. They all deserved better.


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