Splendour and Strife from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

BORODIN – Overture “Prince Igor” / BRUCH – Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.5 in E MInor Op.64

Simeon Broom (violin)
Rachel Hyde (conductor)

St Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 13th April

There’s something about Russian music which makes for a kind of instant combustion of attraction for the listener – it’s a combination of energy, colour, feeling and fantasy that intoxicates the senses, so that other, more abstract considerations seem irrelevant in the midst of all the excitement. And yet, when you force yourself to stop thinking “wow!” and concentrate on “how?” you find the music possesses its own logic of design and advances its own priorities with the kind of sure-footed certainty and vision that marks out great and distinctive art.

But there’s the case of this particular Russian composer whom I’m thinking about, where he was too preoccupied with his other interests and activities to actually get whole sections of his works properly completed –  what’s remarkable is that his music, as completed by his colleagues after his death, still possessed these aforementioned qualities in abundance, for goodness’s sakes! You’d be right in thinking that it’s Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) whom I’m referring to, though if you hadn’t glanced at the review’s heading you might have spared a thought for Modeste Musorgsky, another Russian composer for whom life even more seriously got in the way of music, with a number of compositions having to be “edited” after he died, a self-ravaged dipsomaniac.

One could say that the music of Borodin shares a lot of characteristics in common with that of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, fellow-composer-colleague, so that the effect of having the latter work on the former’s music for much of the time resembles the “rescue operation” activities of a kind of posthumous “alter ego”. But because Borodin’s music emerges from these rejuvenations sounding practically as much like Borodin as do the original, completed works, it suggests a uniquely-focused creative spirit was at work, one whose music with its distinctive harmonic and lyrical qualities has the mark of a genius.

So it is with the Overture to Borodin’s unfinished opera “Prince Igor” – both Rimsky-Korsakov and another composer-colleague, Alexander Glazunov completed the composer’s unfinished sketches of parts of the opera, with the latter taking on the job of reconstructing the Overture. Glazunov himself recorded that he composed the music “roughly according to Borodin’s plan”, using themes from other parts of the opera and from associated fragments. He modestly admitted that “a few bars at the very end were composed by me”, though, as with the rest of the reconstructions, the spirit of Borodin seems to shine out of every episode.

You could hear that distinctive voice immediately make its presence felt in the opening bars of the Overture which began the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s first concert of the 2014 season. Conductor Rachel Hyde asked for and got a dark, rich sound from her players at the outset, the strings digging deep and the winds, though not perfectly in accord with their tuning, still bringing out that curious blend of splendor and plangency so characteristic of Russian music. I noticed that, for this concert, the brass and some of the percussion were brought out of the recessed altar area at the top of the steps, and into the more open performing-space, with a much more integrated, rounded-sound effect, to my untutored ears, than in previous orchestral concerts.

Though both winds and strings stumbled at the beginning of that trickily syncopated second subject melody, the playing brought out plenty of the music’s rhythmic excitement throughout – what a fine time the winds had with their “galloping” rhythms in places!  I liked, also, the antiphonal calls of the brass and the sheer “presence” of the tuba at crisis-points, sensationalist that I am!  As well, the horn solo was beautifully managed and the strings replied in kind with appropriate fervour. Despite the occasional spills one had a sense of conductor and players’ properly engaging with the music’s sheer physicality, a quality that’s needed for Russian music in particular to work its magic and properly stir the blood.

The orchestra has enjoyed collaborations with some pretty amazing concerto soloists over the years, and this concert continued in that tradition, with violinist Simeon Broom giving us the evergreen G Minor Concerto by Max Bruch, something of a “calling card” for virtuoso players. Broom has recently returned to New Zealand after ten years of study and performing in Europe to take up a place in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. On this showing he can certainly lay claim to considerable accomplishment as a soloist, bringing to the music here a wonderfully burnished tone and plenty of interpretative imagination – a momentary lapse of concentration during one of the double-stopped descents in the first movement a minor blip in the otherwise fluent performance flow.

I thought the orchestral support for Broom wholehearted and finely-wrought, Rachel Hyde getting on-the-spot attack from all sections and some lovely moments of collaboration with the solo violin line. Detailings such as the winds’ series of descending phrases counterpointing the solo line leading up to the “big” tutti gave particular pleasure.

The soloist’s eloquent playing of the cadenza was superbly capped off by the orchestra’s precise attack leading to the music’s gear-change into the slow movement. Broom’s lovely spinning-out of the lyrical lines here, though not absolutely note-perfect, created a lovely frisson of feeling and  and atmosphere, one which built inexorably towards the movement’s great and glorious outpouring of heart-on-sleeve emotion, a process in which conductor and orchestra played their part lyrical and nobly.

The finale was launched strongly and expectantly by the orchestra, a touch of less-than-perfect ensemble mattering not to the argument, and advanced beautifully by the soloist with some stunning upward runs. Rachel Hyde and the players held the big moments firmly and in focus, while at the same time keeping the ebb and flow of exchange with the solo instrument vibrant. The brief and exciting coda was thrown off by all concerned with great aplomb. Altogether this was a performance which gave considerable delight to we listeners.

What seemed like sterner business was afforded by the Tchaikovsky E Minor Symphony after the interval, a work whose considerable technical and interpretative demands were bravely, if not altogether easefully, tackled by the musicians. I thought the two middle movements the most successful, each featuring some skillful solo playing and some nicely dove-tailed ensemble, as well as tremendous surgings of tone and energy when required. The outer movements each had their moments, but each I felt lacked that last ounce of energy and edge in certain other places which would have suitably invigorated the music’s overall impact.

But details such as the slow movement’s tricky horn solo, and the clarinet figurations in support were beautifully done, as was a lovely “afterglow” effect at the movement’s very end, thanks to some hushed string-playing and (again) some lovely clarinet work. And in the third-movement Waltz I loved the horns’ eerie stopped tones and the wonderfully balletic string “scurryings” and other “Nutcracker-like” gestures from the winds, so characterful and colourful.

The Symphony began well, with those dark, suggestive clarinet tones so characteristic of the composer, and some deep and sonorous lower-strings support – however, despite Rachel Hyde’s suitably “energized” tempo for the allegro, the wind players seemed to let their figurations coagulate, slowing the music’s pulse down in places, to the point of dragging. Away from the step-wise rhythm, things were more animated, the strings’ marvellously expressive tune sung fervently and the brass chiming in and tightening things up when they could. But the overall pulse of the movement for me simply lacked enough underlying forward momentum to make the music work – a question not necessarily of tempo, but as much to do with accent and phrasing, and of things being kept alive and purposeful.

The “attacca” into the last movement was, however, just the job! – and, indeed, the whole of the introduction had both girth and momentum, the conductor holding things together splendidly, though the succeeding Allegro energico’s stuttering figurations and syncopated entries led a few players momentarily astray. Brass and timpani made the most of their big “motto theme” statements, pushinging the rest of the orchestra through the vortex-moments of the development section. Matters concerning ensemble did come to a head with the reprise of those stutterings and syncopations (an extended sequence, this time!), where, in the midst of the ensuing dislocations, Rachel Hyde had to very properly stop the players and start again, most resolutely at the flash-point of the troubles! But the players grasped the nettle and made the sequence work the second time through, so honour was restored.

While the symphony didn’t consistently “fire” it had its worthwhile moments – and the playing from all concerned in the other two items did both the music and the musicians proud.



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