Aspects of nature, life and love, from the NZSM Orchestra

Te Koki New Zealand School of Music presents:

LILBURN – Overture “Drysdale”
FAURÉ – Pelléas et Mélisande
BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor
DVORAK – Symphony No.8 in G Major

Jian Liu (piano)
Kenneth Young (conductor)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 4th June, 2014

It was the sort of programme I would have travelled miles and miles, over hill and dale, thru fog and storm, and braving accident and ambush to see and hear – with distance lending enchantment, as is often the case. But even without the distance, the enchantment remained – this was music by turns exciting and evocative, so very typical of each composer’s work, even the relatively early Overture by Lilburn, but still, as were the other pieces, treasure!

To my great delight, the bringing about of it all by these youthful players and their conductor had many magnificent moments, for most of the time triumphing over the difficulties posed by the venue. The chief problem was the “in-your-face” character of the St.Andrew’s acoustic, which gave the performance sounds an insistence which wasn’t altogether the doing of the players.

It underlined and set in bold the importance for Wellington of having the Town Hall restored to its former glory as soon as possible, with both performance venues in that building currently out of circulation and sorely missed. I recall over recent times a number of youth orchestra performances in the main auditorium of the Hall whose qualities were underlined by the acoustic’s warmth and focus, a marked contrast to the somewhat overbearing, almost raucous immediacy of the St.Andrew’s sound.

My thoughts regarding the performance of the engaging Drysdale Overture of Lilburn’s were thus coloured by that acoustical context. I found a lot of the playing in what was otherwise a splendid performance lacked dynamic variation – the “great waves of sound” referred to in my notes regarding the piece’s opening gestures scarcely abated during the more vigorous working-out of the different motifs in the composer’s “sunlit rondo”.

Fortunately, the sounds did give space for the various appearances of  the “nostalgic theme”, and the unanimity and focus of the strings in places such as their sudden reprise of the opening figure, just before the final sequence. But this was due as much, if not more, to conductor Kenneth Young’s control and the skills of his players, the oboist in particular delivering the lovely melody with all the feeling for its context that the composer might have wanted.

Thanks to Fauré’s (or rather, his pupil, Charles Koechlin’s) somewhat gentler scoring, three of the Pelléas et Mélisande exerpts from the composers’ s incidental music for Maeterlinck’s play made a lovely impression throughout – Young and his musicians didn’t hold back the emotion, the string-playing in the Prelude having plenty of juice, and the clarinet work outstanding, really making something of the sequence just before the strings’ final phrases.

Fauré’s music doesn’t have the astringency of Sibelius’s for the same subject, and nothing like Schoenberg’s evocations of unease and darkness in his 1903 symphonic poem, also inspired by the play. This feeling was underlined by the exclusion of the fourth piece from the suite La Mort de Mélisande, leaving the lovely Fileuse (Mélisande at her spinning-wheel), depicted by whirling strings and a charming, winsome oboe solo (a different player to that in the Lilburn Overture), and finally the Sicilienne, a graceful dance composed by Fauré for an earlier, unfinished work, and used here again to beguiling effect, with its piquant oscillations between major  and minor. Here the harpist was able to shine, with a nicely-judged accompaniment of winds and then strings.

The Beethoven concerto featured a much-awaited appearance by that fine pianist Jian Liu, whose recital and chamber work I’ve so enjoyed over previous seasons. He didn’t disappoint with this, Beethoven’s darkest and most austere of the composer’s concertante works. Young and the players gave him an opening tutti which “spelt out” the journey in no uncertain terms, tense of mood and sharply-focused in articulation. Again the acoustic tended to narrow the dynamic range of the playing, but this music could easily deal with whatever sonic vagaries were brought to bear on the performance.

From his very first, commanding entry, Liu caught us up with his overall focus, his feeling for dynamic contrast, and his quicksilver responses to the music’s volatilities – as well as commanding the piano part (as with the cadenza) he was able to play “chamber music” with the orchestra in such passages as the rather misterioso section leading up to the recapitulation, dovetailing his cross-rhythmic triplets beautifully with the orchestra’s wind players, and bringing our the “gothic-like” touches to the writing just before the movement’s end.

The slow movement had a kind of Hellenic beauty at the start, its eloquence in Liu’s hands beautifully matched by the wind-playing that brought about a lovely sea-change to the soundscapes, as well as the beautiful dialogues with which the lower strings engaged the pianist at a later point. Only some slightly hurried turns of phrase in some of the exchanges prevented total pleasure – but the coda reinstalled that sense of rapt beauty which continued right up to a slightly misread wind entry at the end (which probably went swimmingly by comparison, at rehearsal – them’s the breaks!).

The finale’s attaca broke the spell, the pianist launching the argument with a real swing, taking the music at a fair lick and rendering some of his figurations as a whirl of notes – very exciting! But again from Liu was this lovely “accompanying” instinct in places, supporting the winds as they took over the melody. I loved the “fierce dance” character of the music during the tutti just before the clarinet tune, brought out with a will by Young and the players. But the contrast with the clarinet’s entry was also magical – fine playing, here – and the string fugue continued the excitement, leading up to the music’s martial element being hurled across the canvas with gusto.

After this, the coda was just right – a proper release of boisterous high spirits, kept pent-up for so long and here given full expression, by both pianist and orchestra. A pianist friend with whom I sat was also lost in admiration for Liu’s playing – “gossamer”, “agile”, “forthright”, and “energizing” were the words that were bandied about between us during the interval!

The recommencement brought out what seemed like the full band for the Dvorak G Major Symphony, surely one of the most adorable works in the romantic symphonic repertoire – and certainly one of its composer’s sunniest creations. Only in the second movement do the clouds gather for moments of anxiety and doubt – and Dvorak had that ability, shared with Schubert, to smile through tears and keep his essential spirit indomitable. And so it is with this symphony.

The outer movements – particularly the opening one – are both rhythmically tricky beasts, and I thought here in particular, throughout the first movement, that the orchestra didn’t manage to exude quite enough energy to really “kick” the music along. It always seems to me, with student and amateur orchestras, that not enough attention is paid to the rhythmic character of difficult pieces – and if the rhythm is tentative, unsure, or sluggish, then no amount of in-tune or note-accurate playing will save or properly enliven the music.

I once heard Ken Young, when rehearsing a difficult piece of contemporary music with the NZSO, telling the players, “Don’t count the music – FEEL it!” With Dvorak’s music, there’s that constant need to feel the rhythmic “kick”, to activate the dance element that’s in so much of his work. It’s not a question of speed or even tempo – but of “pointing” those rhythms, of stressing both beats and/or off-beats where appropriate. Accurate and eager though the playing was, here, I thought the first movement needed a touch more nervous energy overall, and sharper attack on some of those rhythmic beats. With this composer’s music in particular, a strongly-characterised rhythm beats the hell out of merely playing the right notes.

Still, I did think the performances of the middle movements of the work of a particularly high order, here – Young and his musicians revelled in the multifarious changes of mood in the second movement. bringing out the charm and lyricism and, indeed, romance of the opening, but fronting up to the theatrical darkenings of texture and tone brought by forceful wind,brass and timpani at key points – the timpani, in particular, was spot-on in its many rhythmic underpinnings and textural colourings. And the third movement similarly disarmed, with its bright, eager, slightly tense waltz-tune, put across with gorgeous string-tone (even with a touch of portamento in places!). Both the Trio and the sprightly Coda kept the music’s charm to the fore, nicely underlining the contrast with the finale’s declamatory opening.

Though sounding in places a bit of a raucous riot in this venue, the finale had plenty of thrills augmented by one or two spills. Everybody managed to kick up heels at some point or other during the wild dance-sequences (the horns had a great time with their trills, as did the trombones with their hoe-down-like shouts of encouragement!), and the contrasting lyrical variations featured, once again, lovely clarinet work and flute decorations that got the spirit, if not quite the letter, of the music right. And what a barnstorming finish!

I didn’t have miles and miles to go, nor hill and dale to contend with, when returning home – but this concert’s music and its performance still had just enough magic about it to both enchant and content.



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