NZSO with Farr’s first piano concerto plus Respighi celebrating Rome


New Zealand Symphony Orchestra:  Pietari Inkinen (conductor) with Tony Lee (piano)

Feste Romane (Roman Festivals)
Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome)
Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)
Farr:  Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 28 March, 6:30 pm

The huge Respighi tone poems in this concert were works that exhibited the fullest orchestral resources of the NZSO, expanding it beyond 100 with guest players, not to mention the further addition of the Wellington Brass Band for the finale of the Pines of Rome.  The opening Roman Festivals suite immediately opened the doors to Respighi’s wonderfully inventive orchestration, which here covers the whole gamut of colourful and dynamic possibilities. In the four movements of Circus Games, The Jubilee, October Festival and The Epiphany, Inkinen directed the orchestra with a sure hand and clear sense of control that explored the full range of the most sensitive muted strings and hushed soulful wind solos, the exhausted ecstasy of pilgrims as they finally sighted the Holy City, the wild rage of beasts in the arena punctuated by the haunting hymn of the condemned martyrs, through to the wonderful contrasting dance styles in The Epiphany. There were numerous special moments of superb playing, particularly from wind soloists, but the fading echoes of the hunting horn hovering evocatively in the night air of the October Festival particularly highlighted the most extraordinary control and musicianship of horn principal David Evans.

Gareth Farr’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra  used much more modest orchestral resources, and was a new commission for which he provided some enlightening programme notes. “I’ve wanted to write a Piano Concerto since I was 17 – so it’s been gestating in my head for nearly 30 years……Piano Concertos have long been stereotyped as romantic, sweeping and epic. I’ve taken a hint of that on board, but for the most part I’ve focused on darker symphonic explorations. There is an ominous urgency to much of the first and third movements, while the second has an almost machine like atmosphere…..” Yet there were also many poetic moments throughout the work, starting with the shimmering pianissimo strings of the opening, and continuing through delicately shaped single lines of piano melody in the first movement, as Inkinen superbly controlled the build-up of rhythmic
complexity and orchestral texture to culminate in the “wild and diabolically virtuosic ride in 5/4”.

The second movement opened playfully with “an interlocking duet between the highest note of the piano and the highest note of the xylophone…..I certainly had a smile on my face when I wrote it” (Farr). As the repeated-note motifs passed from instrument to instrument, they were punctuated with more soulful episodes from the piano. The finale was a moto perpetuo, even more technically demanding than the first movement, with the piano part leaping all over the keyboard, and soloist and orchestra tussling in a maelstrom of highly complex syncopated and irregular rhythms. There was only a brief interlude of calm before the “long gradual build to a victorious ending”.

Throughout the work, the tonalities were approachable and seemed to grow naturally from the idioms of the writing. Percussive elements played a huge part in the creative whole, yet they were largely confined to the percussion section itself and did not threaten to dominate the effective interplay between piano and orchestral forces. This was never a solo-plus-accompaniment approach, but rather a tightly constructed dialogue between two equal voices, pianist and orchestra. The technical demands of the writing and its rhythmic complexities were nothing short of phenomenal for all players, yet there was never an instant where one felt the slightest weakening of resolution and control. The technical prowess of young Australian pianist Tony Lee, only recently graduated B.Mus. from Sydney Conservatorium, were frankly mind blowing. Gareth Farr obviously had complete confidence that every note of his vision would be impeccably realised by both soloist and NZSO, and his trust was richly rewarded. The excitement of the performance was infectious, and Farr looked overjoyed as he took stage accolades at the end and accepted bouquets from both audience and orchestra.

The second half of the concert comprised Fountains of Rome  and Pines of Rome. Again I was struck by the clarity and control of Inkinen’s direction, and the way the NZSO responded to the musical and technical demands of Respighi’s wonderfully creative and colourful orchestration. It was a thrilling moment in the finale when the lights came up on Wellington Brass in the choir stalls, and the huge resources of orchestra and band combined as “the army of the Consul bursts forth in the grandeur of the newly risen sun toward the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill” (Respighi).

Wellington is extraordinarily privileged to be able to enjoy performances of such outstanding quality from its resident orchestra and the exceptionally skilled individuals who make their careers in it. This programme was a huge night’s play, yet their vitality and commitment was unflinching right through to the final downbeat.