Wellington Chamber Orchestra – nostalgia, high spirits and adventure

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

LILBURN – Aotearoa Overture
HAYDN – Symphony No.99 in E-flat
SIBELIUS – Symphony No 1 in E Minor

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Vincent Hardaker (conductor)

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

Sunday, 6th July 2014

Perhaps it’s awfully “New Age” of me – but I do like to make up some kind of all-purpose phrase to use as a heading, when writing a review of any concert. It actually provides a framework upon which one can hang aspects of an overall purpose for the music-making, even if it’s largely in the ear of this particular listener as it were. Of course, this “ear of the listener” is the true reality of any concert – we listen to and respond individually, not collectively, to music, however much we might like to compare notes (whoops!) afterwards.

This concert resisted my first attempts at finding a phrase that would adequately sum up the music played – I finally hit upon the idea that the ostensible “odd composer out” of the trio, Josef Haydn, could, in fact, be equated with his two youthful companions, Sibelius and Lilburn, on the score of being similarly “young at heart”. There’s certainly nothing in this particular Haydn Symphony to suggest anything other than youthful spirits and unflagging energy, qualities in abundant supply, of course, in each of the other works on the program.

So, on that score I’ve been able to link, however tenuously, both music and composers for this Chamber Orchestra presentation. Douglas Lilburn’s well-known Overture “Aotearoa”, which opened the concert, was written specifically for a “New Zealand Centenary Matinee” in London in April 1940 – the orchestra’s own programme note was, I thought, somewhat misleading in using the word “sadly”, when referring to the Overture being performed in London first of all, as it was that particular centenary soiree which specifically prompted the work’s creation and gave the young composer the opportunity of it being actually performed. It was, incidentally, Lilburn’s final compositional act of his student years in London, as he left shortly after the concert for New Zealand.

But to the present performance!  – and here I have to take my metaphorical hat off to conductor Vincent Hardaker and the orchestra players for a splendid performance of the work. Right from the first pizzicato-and-woodwind chord, it seemed to me that a certain quality was “there”, that the sounds made by the players brought to mind that unique character remarked upon by New Zealanders who heard that first London performance – “It’s Cape Reinga!”, one ex-pat Kiwi listener was heard apparently whispering to the other, during the work’s introduction!

What impressed was the evocation of the music’s character throughout – tones and textures by turns shimmered, sparkled and roared, as the interaction of sunlight, water and wind with rugged coastlines and towering mountains was brought to the mind’s view. True, there was a lack of really soft playing from the strings in certain places, and some of the composer’s characteristic whiplash rhythmic figurations occasionally lacked the last word in precision – but the spirit was at all times palpable, which, for me was more important than soulless accuracy.

I also liked Vincent Hardaker’s actual “shaping” of the music, particularly the way he allowed the central section of the work a little more time and space in which the sounds could expand and create a contrasting mood with the predominant allegro. It actually made the work “bigger” than I’d ever heard it played before, opening up the music’s realms during that particular sequence, and making the reprise of the allegro even more spine-tingling than usual. I’ll risk bias by particularly praising the winds for their characterful playing throughout, even if all sections of the ensemble had their moments of glory.

After this, the first movement of the Haydn Symphony (No.99 in E-flat) just didn’t seem to ignite, even in the wake of an introduction which showed some promise – the allegro which followed pushed the ensemble beyond the players’ manipulative capabilities, even if the music’s spirit sounded right in certain places. Better presented was the slow movement, written by the composer as a heartfelt tribute to a deceased friend. The strings prepared the way for some lovely work by the winds, the music then leading the players through some darker, tenser moments and as suddenly back into the sunlight once again. Notable, too, was the quasi-military sequence with properly stuttering brass and complaining winds, towards the end.

Anyone brought up on an “older school” of Haydn-playing (Beecham, Klemperer, Walter) would gasp and stretch their ears at what seem like the breathless “authentic” tempi at which today’s ensembles take some of this music. Hardaker’s tempo for the Minuet practically turned the music into a Beethovenian scherzo, most of which the players coped with, apart from some blurred figurations. A good thing the conductor relaxed the tempo a little for the Trio, though things were still pretty edge-of-the-seat lively for the players.

Fortunately, the finale was played largely for its wit and drollery, the conductor encouraging his musicians to enjoy their interactions, and letting individual voices “speak” (such as the oboe’s crescendo on the held note shortly after its entrance). We enjoyed the composer’s seemingly endless inventions as one orchestral group followed the other in a kind of tag-music game, demonstrating some adroit ensemble playing in the process.

Things moved up a few notches for the Sibelius Symphony after the interval – and the work got away to the best possible start with a stunningly-played clarinet solo from Robert Ewens, followed by passionate, soulful string-playing. Wind and brass gave stern responses, resulting in a mighty climax (the timpani slightly ahead of the beat, but the spirit certainly present!). There being no harp for whatever reason, a piano was used (the player nervous-sounding at first and misreading the opening rhythm – but things soon settled down), the winds setting to and “carrying” the atmosphere, one or two sluggish entries brought up to speed by the others.

The movement’s evocations of Nordic landscape and weather were conjured up with a will, strings digging into the reprise of their gloriously juicy lines, winds enjoying their icy-fingered chromatic descents, the brasses covering themselves in glory in places, and the percussion putting the final dusting of snow on the peaks! – though I did find in places the timpani too loud – I couldn’t hear the final string pizzicati at all, beneath the rattle of those skins, exciting though the noises were.

Such a gorgeous slow movement! – the lullabic character of the music was nicely caught by strings and winds over murmuring brass, though the harp was sorely missed in places. Occasionally I thought the winds TOO forthright, though the plangent tones weren’t out of place, even if the nicely-played solo ‘cello was somewhat overpowered in such company. The beginning of the allegro was well-managed, the rhythms dancing, the lower brass snapping at the dancers’ heels, amid great shouts and cymbal crashes, the strings maintaining the “howling wind” aspect well – the calm returned suddenly and effectively, the conductor taking all the time in the world with the music, giving room for his players to express the utmost tenderness and serenity – well done!

The timpanist made the most of his big moments in the scherzo, leading the way with those treacherous off-beat entries which everybody seemed to manage, along with the fugue-like passages for winds and strings, though I could swear the brass missed an entry at one point. Fortunately they were all there for the Trio, the horns in particular making lovely sounds, inspiring the winds to reply in kind, even if the oboes sounded a bit overbearing. The scherzo’s reprise culminated with an excitingly well-managed accelerando at the end, which all concerned must have enjoyed!

And so to the finale of this epic work! Singing strings and snarling brass with winds close at hand, at the start, made a good beginning. More lovely work by the strings with their recitatives and with the winds at the start of the allegro – conductor Hardaker steadily and surely building the galloping excitement with his players. I was surprised by how quickly he moved the second “big tune” along, giving the pianist little chance to make an impression with his “harp” entries. The lower strings shone with some agile “scurrying” work at the allegro’s return, then helped the rest of the strings to push the rhythms along, the brasses flailing the textures, heightening the energies and stirring the blood! At conductor Hardaker’s speeds, the aforementioned “big tune” had more urgency than majesty, and the brass seemed to run out of puff trying to keep up, though they rallied for the final few shouts of defiant triumph.

In all it was a performance that, for all its orchestral fallibilities, gave us the work’s essences – and parts, such as the work’s opening and the last few pages of the slow movement, were most satisfyingly and memorably realized. Together with the Lilburn those were the concert’s highlights for this listener – places where the music wasn’t overly “pushed” but allowed to articulate its character and truly engage the skills and sensibilities of the musicians. On this showing, I look forward to hearing more of Vincent Hardaker’s work with this orchestra.












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