Unexciting, lowpowered NZSO programme under Alexander Shelley yields riches after all

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley

Shakespeare in Music

Korngold: Suite from incidental music for Much Ado and Nothing
Mendelssohn: Three pieces from the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Walton: Henry V suite (arranged by Muir Matheson)
Strauss: Symphonic Poem Macbeth

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 2 August 7:30 pm

The one programme in the NZSO’s 2014 season that looked problematic when I first scanned the offerings last year was this one. No soloist, no well-known conductor, no crowd-pulling music centre-piece.

So I was not surprised to see one of the smallest audiences for the NZSO that I can remember.

However. The music, all of it, was enjoyable and Alexander Shelley proved, as he had with the National Youth Orchestra last month, an engaging and energetic conductor. I’d heard him interviewed by Eva Radich on Upbeat during the week and was interested in his enthusiasm and ideas for engaging younger people in the enjoyment of classical music.

He spoke about each of the works on the programme, pertinently, with a wit and charm that could hardly have bothered anyone (though I often hear what I consider churlish complaints about musicians who presume to tell the audience things that they think they already know or, if they don’t know, don’t want to).

Korngold’s incidental music for Much Ado was for a Max Reinhardt production of the play in Vienna when the composer was 21, about the same time that he wrote Die tote Stadt. The claim in the programme that Korngold had won the admiration of Mahler struck me as unlikely, though I was aware of comments on the prodigy’s genius from others. After all Mahler died in 1911 when Korngold was only 13.  But the truth is more amazing, as the boy had been introduced to and played for Mahler in 1906, aged about 9!

The five pieces (out of a total of 14) gave immediate evidence of the composer’s theatrical flair and his predisposition for a Hollywood career which came in the 1930s. They were colourful, charmingly orchestrated, opening with a big chirpy tune, depicting the spunky Beatrice, and then a romantic tune more suitable to Hero and Claudio (according to the programme note). The next piece depicted the Bridal Morning, gentle and delightful with prominent flute and cello. And so it continued, each piece strongly characterised, and immediately engaging. The suite is scored for small orchestra: no basses, with single woodwinds, trumpet and trombone and just two horns, harp, piano and percussion.

The last section is Masquerade, a hornpipe, which is familiar – not what is heard in the British Sea Songs, the BBC Proms fixture on the Last Night, nor one of the Hornpipes in the Water Music. But a great little number, splendidly played. The music was a hit in post-ww1 Vienna and deserves to be heard occasionally today: in RNZ Concert’s Cadenza or their early morning programme, for example; and they now have an excellent recording thereof.

The orchestra played the Overture, the Scherzo and the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music. I’d wondered whether the normal principals – Leppänen, and the two Joyces – viola and cello, who were absent for the Korngold would reappear for the rest of the concert, but the sub-principals remained, including Donald Armstrong as Concertmaster.

The Overture danced with sparkling clarity and brilliance through the elfin-like opening bars, and the following tutti was especially enlivened by bell-like flutes, in fact the woodwinds were having a particularly fine evening, specially evident in the Scherzo; and throaty trombones restored the Wedding March from its manifold mutilations to its proper splendid celebratory character.

Though I do not usually warm to the bombast, heroics and bluster of Walton, and not Belshazzar’s Feast  either, it was either the fine orchestral playing or a sudden awakening on my part to the composer’s gifts that made me enjoy, even admire, the music he wrote for the war-time film of Henry V. The Passacaglia was especially attractive, with remote touches of Tudor music, of Gluck, of Grieg… I couldn’t really nail it. The battle scene was obviously a brilliant accompaniment to bowmen’s battles and cavalry charges. It struck me that there must have been something in the water between 1897 and 1902 (when Korngold and Walton were born) that led to such instinctive film music composers.

Finally, the least known of Strauss’s tone poems, Macbeth: I’d long thought it must have been his first as it has seemed less memorable, burdened with too much thick orchestration, and a biggish melody that tries to emerge on the strings failed to take root. In fact, both Aus Italien and Don Juan preceded it and Tod und Verklärung was written at the same time. So there’s no reason in terms of composing maturity for me to find Macbeth less arresting and interesting. But I do. It uses a normally large orchestra, with triple winds and five horns, and though this was a thoroughly lively and resonant performance it was only in the closing phase that the music showed signs of cohering and evolving in a promising and interesting way.

The concert as a whole was most enjoyable however; as I wrote above, however, there was no ‘must see/hear’ about the programme. For me, several other Shakespeare-inspired works would have suggested themselves, such as Berlioz Symphonie-dramatique, Roméo et Juliette from which around 40 minutes of beautiful excerpts could have been played. Or the Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev music for the same play might have had more pull than any one of the pieces programmed.


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