Anniversaries, celebrations and NZ premieres – NZSM Orchestra at St.Andrew’s

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:
Music by Gade, Villa-Lobos, Vaughan Williams

NIELS GADE – Overture “Hamlet”
(Vincent Hardaker – conductor)
HEITOR VILLA-LOBOS – ‘Cello Concerto No.2
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Symphony No.3 “Pastoral”
Inbal Megiddo (‘cello)
Alicia Cardwgan (soprano)
Kenneth Young (conductor)
NZ School of Music Orchestra

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

Wednesday, 6th August, 2014

I thought this an exceptional concert in every way! – innovative repertoire choices were thrillingly and memorably supported by skilled and strongly-focused, committed playing from all concerned.

Each piece as presented had its own world and voiced its own particular character – partly the result of stylistic and contextual differences, but also  indicative of the extent to which these musicians were determined to get to grips with things, and put across the music’s differing flavours, colours and feelings.

I’d never before encountered either the Niels Gade overture or the Villa-Lobos concerto (the performance of the latter by ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo was, in fact, the New Zealand premiere). Gade may have been thought conservative in musical outlook by his contemporaries and by subsequent posterity, but I thought his “Hamlet” Overture fully worthy of Shakespeare, as regards the music’s beauty, dignity, energy and theatricality.

Conductor Vincent Hardaker and his players deftly nailed the “cat-like tread” mood of the opening, preparing the ambiences for the intense, dramatic urgencies that grew, spectre-like, out of the textures. Though not strictly following the play’s action, the music portrayed a good deal of the drama’s significant moods and character interactions.

A telling example of this came with the strings’ very Lisztian melody depicting the beautiful but ill-fated Ophelia’s love for the Prince, and the music’s gradual disintegration as the girl’s madness and death drew near, lyricism undermined and eventually overlaid by repeated turbulence and purposeful strength. A final ‘cello solo then sounded over rich brass chordings, suggesting some kind of valediction being played out, the tragedy grimly resolved. I enjoyed it all, music and playing, immensely.

After this things were somewhat re-aligned – from Shakespearean tragedy the focus morphed into Latin American intensity and exuberance. This was accompanied by a change of conductor and the introduction of a soloist to perform Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Second ‘Cello Concerto. It was Kenneth Young who took the podium, and we also welcomed Inbal Megiddo, Head of ‘Cello Studies at the School of Music, as the concerto player.

To hear Megiddo perform this work was to experience the next best thing to a direct link with its composer, as she had studied the concerto with its first performer, Aldo Parisot, for whom Villa-Lobos actually wrote the work. Megiddo described that experience for her as “exhilarating”, and expressed the hope that she might be able to convey something of that same feeling in her performance for us, by way of dedicating her efforts to her “teacher, mentor, collleague and friend”. I can only report that she certainly made good her intention in spadefuls!

From the work’s first chord, with the music’s upper registers straightaway reaching for the stars, we in the audience were galvanised anew, as much by the playing as by the music itself – the writing seemed to possess a kind of “top echelon” quality, something of an edge which constantly tingled and thrilled. We heard marvellous exchanges between soloist and orchestra, with the former’s rhythmic verve readily communicating itself to the young orchestral players, encouraging them to take up the spirit of the music’s frequent syncopated figures and impulses dancing along the ‘cello-strings.

The folky-sounding second-movement Modinha, a Brazilian love-song genre, featured a beautiful ‘cello melody, with an intensely-laden heart-on-sleeve dance-like accompaniment. Still, the music seemed always to have a slight “edge”, an astringency which put paid to any feeling of its emotion cloying, Hollywood-style. A Scherzo, dance-like and mixing the exotic with the “folky” brought forth more exciting playing – in places intense and gutteral, at other times airborne and melismatic – from Megiddo, with conductor and orchestra splendidly responding to her energies with sharply-syncopated tutti sequences.

What the cellist herself described in the notes as a “virtuosic cadenza” was here excitingly and full-bloodedly played, with wonderful near-the-bridge timbres, triple-stopping and resonant open strings, some spectacular glissandi launching us into the world of the work’s finale. Here, ‘cellist and orchestra had a terrific time with a four-note theme that was tossed about like a straw man in a blanket to exhilarating effect, right up to the sheer abandonment of the coda, complete with its breath-snatchingly abrupt ending!

After the Villa-Lobos work’s ferment of whirlwind energies and arresting sonorities it seemed on paper entirely appropriate for the concert to feature by way of contrast a piece entitled “A Pastoral Symphony”, moreover one written by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer of that quintessential English-landscape piece “The Lark Ascending”. Thinking about the juxtaposition of the two pieces made me recall a conversation some years ago with a friend who had visited London for the first time – he told me that after encountering the overwhelming grandeur and magnificence of St.Paul’s Cathedral he simply had to go back to his lodgings and lie down for a while.

True, the Villa-Lobos concerto, for all its engagingly vigorous and heartfelt qualities, wasn’t exactly grand, stupendous and cathedral-like! – but neither was the Vaughan Williams Symphony a mere exercise in English pastoral evocation (as a fellow-composer of Vaughan Williams’ dismissively remarked, concerning the work – “like a cow looking over a gate”!)  Whatever restorative qualities the symphony possessed applied to its own set of tensions and tragedies embedded within its contexts, those of its composer’s wartime service with the Medical Corps in France, a scenario fraught with death and loss. The composer, in fact referred to the work as a “War Requiem”, the Mahlerian second movement of the work with its bugle calls (played on a natural E-flat trumpet, and echoed by a natural horn) and anguished strings particularly underlining this idea.

Elsewhere, the music sang, danced and echoed with evocations of landscapes and people’s lives darkened by war and stained with blood – each movement wrought its own kind of ravaged beauty, the language and atmosphere one of lament rather than conflict and carnage. Ken Young kept the music’s pulse flowing throughout, to the work’s great advantage in this case, as tensions were made palpable by the playing’s urgency and tightly-wrought figurations. In the first movement, for example, the flowing themes were never allowed to settle, the music’s aspect having an almost haunted air, with memories of what had gone before “charging” the textures with tragedy.

The orchestral playing was, I thought, impressively focused, poised and suitably alert at all times, the textures and colours having the right mix of beauty and astringency. The winds at the beginning had tuning problems most obviously in their ensemble passages, but their individual work was outstanding throughout, with many a beautiful solo turned as the work proceeded. The brass chimed in with rich resonances when required, their ensemble capping the climaxes beautifully in places. And the work of the strings was a joy to experience, from the players’ most sensitive nuances to the most earnest and full-blooded climaxes. Conductor and players caught the ebb and flow of it all, the beauties and the sorrows.

The second movement’s nostalgic brass calls (the trumpet offstage, as indicated) came off splendidly, ably supported by contributions from the solo viola,’cello, and clarinet – but the work from the strings was again wondrous, phrases so sensitively and unerringly delivered, the players obviously right into the music’s world. Young aimed for and got a telling contrast of mood with the swiftly-delivered third movement, the tempi quicker than I’d ever heard previously – but it worked brilliantly, completely avoiding the somewhat heavy-footed quality sometimes encountered in performances of this movement. It also had the effect of sharpening the players’ responses to the movement’s elfin-textured coda, impulses striving for the greatest possible contrast with what had gone before in the bucolic scherzo.

Another off-stage “effect” in this work came with the final movement, the voice of a soprano at the very beginning and at the end. The singer’s disembodied tones have an ethereal effect, her wordless line a part-lament, part-incantation, which the strings repeat fervently at the movement’s climax – a stunning, breath-catching moment, as on this occasion. Soprano Alicia Cadwgan’s voice was ideally placed, not quite pure-toned enough at the outset of the first solo, and rushing a phrase mid-way through – but sounding far more at ease with her return at the end, floating her last few notes beautifully and hauntingly. As far as “capturing” the particular character of the movement mattered, Young’s direction and the orchestral playing was I thought, beyond reproach.

In the silence that followed we sat and allowed the resonances to fade as the tones had done, and pondered the music’s effect. I couldn’t help at that moment recalling various descriptions of the work which I’d read via my first, youthful hearings of recordings, comments which, even at that latter stage seemed to concentrate more upon the composer’s depictions of the “Corot-like landscapes” in France, and scarcely remark upon the music’s darker context of war’s grim realities. Perhaps a certain distancing wrought by time was necessary for people to re-examine the work’s and its composer’s circumstances – appropriately so, of course, as the anniversaries of that particular conflict presently loom disturbingly from out of time’s mists, carrying their warnings!
















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