Soloists add distinction to NZSM Orchestra concert

Te Kōkī NZ School of Music presents:

BRAHMS – Tragic Overture
TCHAIKOVSKY – Violin Concerto in D
BARBER – Knoxville: Summer of 1915
BARTOK – Dance Suite

Xin (James) Jin (violin)
Amelia Berry (soprano)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Kenneth Young (conductor)
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Thursday October 2nd, 2014

In the wake of a couple of crackingly good recent concerts given by the NZSM Orchestra and its intrepid conductor, Kenneth Young, I found myself eagerly looking forward to this particular evening’s presentation. The programme followed the orchestra’s policy of mixing the familiar (Brahms, Tchaikovsky) with the less-frequently performed (Barber, Bartok), the repertoire obviously designed to present the student musicians with a wide range of technical and stylistic challenges.

For a number of reasons, it seemed a nicely-balanced choice of items. The documented love-hate relationship between Brahms and Tchaikovsky as personalities gave the concert’s first half an extra frisson of contrasted expression. Then, the excitement and exhilaration of difference continued throughout the second half by a shift of focus twentieth-century-wards, with Barber and Bartok.

The prospect of hearing an exciting young soloist  Xin (James) Jin play a popular work like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto would have drawn many people to the concert; and while Samuel Barber’s music (apart from his ubiquitous Adagio) wouldn’t have perhaps quickened pulses in the same way, the presence of ANOTHER soloist (soprano Amelia Berry) would, I’m sure, have been enticing – a singer or instrumentalist performing with an orchestra has a theatricality which is always of interest, in addition to whatever it is they’re performing.

Well, as it turned out, the concert was fabulous in parts – and interestingly enough the “soloist-and-orchestra” sequences stole the show! The concerto got one of the most exciting performances of the solo part I’ve ever heard from Xin Jin, while soprano Amelia Berry’s rendition of Barber’s achingly nostalgic setting of childhood memories “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” touched our hearts in a completely different way.

Neither performance was perfect in all respects – in the concerto, the orchestral support for the soloist was heartwarming in the lyrical passages, but didn’t really ignite in some of the more vigorous “brandy-on-the-breath” parts of the finale. In the Barber work the unfortunately overbearing acoustic of the venue meant that Amelia Berry’s words were often hard to decipher, the very “up-front” tones of the orchestral playing working against vocal clarity, gorgeous though her singing “sounded” throughout.

As for the two other works on the programme, the playing was in places spectacularly fiery, but again, thanks in part to the acoustic, had an uncomfortable “unrelieved” quality – I found the Bartok, in particular, hard going in places for this reason, the orchestral sound too confrontational for comfort, to my ears. A pity that both of this orchestra’s recent concert venues, the Cathedral and St.Andrew’s Church, are simply too “tight” – both acoustically and physically! – to accommodate orchestral performance easily,  and full-on works like the Bartok Dance Suite exacerbated the problem.

The experience reinforced my feelings of frustration and anxiety regarding the present non-availability of the Town Hall for orchestral concerts of this kind. These musicians’ efforts deserve far better than having merely makeshift venues in which to perform, in short, places in which they can be heard to their best advantage, instead of being compromised.

So it was that I found the performances hard to accurately judge in some aspects – for example I found the central section of the Brahms “Tragic” Overture too insistent-sounding, missing that sense of quiet, stricken numbness, an almost spectral tread of growing unease which swings like a pendulum between despair and dignity, and which provides a contrast with the outer parts of the work. I did think that Ken Young pushed it along dangerously quickly as well – the results were certainly tense and knife-edged, but any “inner” reflection of tragedy wasn’t brought out, and the music for me lost some expressive breadth as a result.

The acoustic wasn’t so much of a problem in the Tchaikovsky work, as the composer’s orchestral writing is relatively lean in any case, allowing his soloist’s tones to readily come through – although Young and the orchestra certainly took pains to facilitate this quality throughout most expertly. I thought the first two movements brilliantly successful, the excitement generated by all concerned towards the end of the first movement positively scalp-prickling, and deserving the spontaneous burst of applause at the movement’s end!

We got some beautiful solo playing in the slow movement from both the violinist and the accompanying wind players – but when it came to the last movement, I thought Xin Lin’s astonishingly expressive energies and spontaneous irruptions weren’t sufficiently matched by the orchestra, though I did appreciate Ed Allen’s horn-playing in the “Russian Dance” sections. Somehow the whiplash timing of the orchestral interjections didn’t come off with enough élan, and that cumulative tutti just before the soloist’s final entry unfortunately hung fire – it’s all rhythm and timing, the players needing to throw themselves at the notes and be damned to the consequences! Still, the response of the audience to it all (and particularly to the soloist) was rapturous at the end, and deservedly so.

The Barber work, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is something of a concert rarity, here – I know Leontyne Price’s recording, but had never before heard the work live. It’s a setting of passages from author James Agee’s novel “A Death in the Family”, depicting a small boy’s recollection of summer evenings at home with the family. Barber described his work as a “lyrical rhapsody” and dedicated the music to his own father, who was ill at the time the piece was being written. It was premiered in Boston in 1948 by the singer Eleanor Steber.

I caught some beautifully vocalized sequences from the soprano, almost all in the quieter passages – the opening descriptions of people sitting on their porches, rocking gently, the gentle depiction of the night as “one blue dew”, and the very wind-blown Elgarian orchestral passages  during which the singer describes the family spreading quilts and lying under the stars. We clearly heard the heart-rending “May God bless my people”, and, at the return of the lullaby the comforting “Sleep, soft, smiling, draws me to her”.

Throughout the rest I registered the music’s emotions but couldn’t hear what was being sung – Amelia Berry’s voice, sweet and bright as it was, simply couldn’t couldn’t free itself from the orchestral fabric whenever the dynamics increased. We needed those words! – they would have fitted onto a single program page, avoiding any kind of disruptive turn-over – or else they could have been projected onto a screen. It would have increased our enjoyment of the performance hugely, even though the general nostalgic mood of the piece was movingly caught and held by soloist, conductor and players.

Bartok it was, to finish, and it certainly made an impact! The orchestral playing in places was some of the best of the evening – just as well, because when projected outwards with any kind of force it was a pretty unrelenting sound-picture! The first piece had more of a droll aspect, dark, galumphing rhythms alternating with big, blowzy textures, reminiscent of the “drunken peasant” depictions in the same composer’s “Hungarian Sketches”. The infamous second movement, with its laser-beam brass glissandi, nearly lifted the cathedral’s roof, an onslaught relieved only temporarily by the harp in conjunction with strings and winds. I liked the “Hungarian hoe-down” aspect of the third movement, and appreciated the respite afforded our sensibilities by the “molto tranquillo” fourth movement, with its nicely-realised exotic, almost Iberian atmospheres.

But golly! – what a riot of a finale! As I’ve said, it was almost too much in places, though undeniably exciting, the rhythms, textures and colours changing without warning, the overall mood of the piece capricious and volatile. It left us a bit winded, I think, everything in the sound-picture a bit claustrophobic in effect, but still exhilarating, in between gasps! There was no doubting the commitment and skill of the players, spurred on by Ken Young’s boundless energies – perhaps it wasn’t the most elegant finish to a concert, but the sounds were those which stirred the blood most satisfyingly. In all, great stuff from the NZSM Orchestra!

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