Orchestral spectaculars from the NZSO – and a 2015 sneak-preview

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

JANÁČEK – Sinfonietta
BRETT DEAN – Trumpet Concerto
MUSORGSKY (orch. Ravel) – Pictures at an Exhibition

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
Dima Slobodeniouk (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Wellington

Friday 10th October, 2014

I thought it happy and appropriate that the second half of the NZSO “Bold Worlds” Wellington concert on Friday of last week was prefaced by several of the principal players telling us something about the 2015 orchestral season (details of which had just been released), and specifically what each of them was particularly looking forward to taking part in.

So we were able to hear concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen telling us about the various 2015 concerts involving violinists, including reappearances by Hilary Hahn, Baiba Skride and Anthony Marwood, plus a concert featuring the first appearance of Janine Jansen with the orchestra. Vesa-Matti also talked about Sibelius’s Four Legends, conducted, naturally, by Pietari Inkinen – and mentioned that he would also, at some stage, be revisiting Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”.

Principal flute Bridget Douglas then took over, expressing her delight at having played all the Beethoven Symphonies, and at the prospect of taking part, with pianist Freddy Kempf, in performances of all five piano concertos next year. She told us about us about her scheduled performance of the Ibert Flute Concerto with the 2015 National Youth Orchestra, along with a new work by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, Salina Fisher. She also mentioned the return of Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, with the Mahler Fifth Symphony, as another highlight.

Then it was the turn of Principal Trombone Dave Bremner to wax enthusiastic about his favourites from the coming season, naturally enough focusing upon his eagerly-awaited partnership with the world-famous trombone virtuoso Christian Lindberg, the latter conducting Jan Sandström’s Double Trombone Concerto “Echoes of Eternity”, Bremner citing the exercise as “proof that men CAN multi-task”, then afterwards drawing our attention to the orchestra’s centenary tribute to the work of Douglas Lilburn, via his Second Symphony.

Having suitably whetted our appetites for the coming season the players returned to their places to await the arrival of guest conductor Dima Slobodeniouk. How fitting it was that, having told us about some of the orchestral highlights of the coming year, the players then pulled out all of the orchestral stops in giving us terrific performances of two favourite orchestral showpieces and a spectacular new concerto for trumpet and orchestra, the latter with one of the world’s great soloists, Håkan Hardenberger!

First on the  evening’s program was Leos Janáček’s grandly festive and excitingly virtuosic Sinfonietta, a work that’s as exciting to watch being performed as to hear, thanks to the writing for brass choir which begins and ends the music, and which is often delivered by players placed either antiphonally or (as here) in a group separated from the remainder of the orchestra. Janáček began writing music for a gymnastics festival at Brno, in his native Moravia, intending to compose a number of fanfares to mark the occasion – but his imagination gradually took charge of the original idea, and he found himself overwhelmed by a mixture of patriotic fervour (the work was dedicated to the Czechoslovak Armed Forces) and parochial feelings (apart from the opening fanfares, each section of the work celebrates a landmark in the town of Brno).

Also informing the music is the composer’s incredible native exuberance, additionally fuelled by his late-in-life infatuation with a married woman, Kamila Stosslova, almost 30 years his junior – many of his important works come from the period of his “idealized” relationship with Kamilla, who was obviously a kind of “Beatrice” to the composer’s “Dante”, an archetypal Muse.

All of this would have gone for very little had the performance by the orchestra, directed by their striking current guest conductor, Dima Slobodeniouk (a name which led me to make wild and inaccurate first-guesses as to his nationality, which was Russian!) faltered or hung fire in any way. Placed in the gallery at the rear of the main orchestra, the brass consort began the work, pinning back our ears with some fantastic playing, bringing out that hint of barbaric splendour which, alas, is sometimes smoothed over in performance. This all took place in tandem with Larry Reese’s thrilling, on-the-spot timpani contributions, the sounds ringing around the proverbial rafters most excitingly and satisfyingly.

The rest of the work brought in the main body of the orchestra, each movement vividly characterized by instrumentation which, in Janáček’s characteristic way, often exploited the extremities of tonal and timbal characteristics of the groups – thus the treble instruments of the orchestra often shrieked and squealed most excitingly, while the lower reaches menacingly loured and rumbled. Performances which don’t bring out this sense of striving to push of the sounds in certain places simply don’t do the composer or his music justice – and thankfully, Dima Slobodeniouk seemed to understand and readily engage Janáček’s particular demons in that respect.

So, in the second movement (The Castle at Brno), the strings joyously chirruped their vigorous figurations over brasses that muttered and rumbled, in between sequences of great lyrical beauty. Similarly demonstrative was the fourth movement (appropriately titled “The Street”) with its festive trumpet-calls, invoking all kinds of responses from the rest of the orchestra, involving gruff, big-boned bass strings dancing heavy-footedly and orchestral bells ringing out almost in alarm at the summons. I liked, too, the boyish “tumble-down” orchestral phrases, winds squawking in roguish pleasure at the unseemliness of it all, energy and laughter paramount.

These two movements were such a marked contrast to the third, middle movement (evocatively called “The Queen’s Monastery”). At the beginning all was melancholy, the tuba mournfully intoning a pedal-note over which the strings and then the winds sang what seemed like a lament, broken only by extraordinary flourishes from the winds in a handful of places – when questioned about these by a worried flute-player, the composer apparently emphasized that the irruptions need to sound “like the wind”. But the most marked contrast came with the music’s middle sequence, the pent-up energies firstly hinted at by the brass, and then, after a brief restatement of the opening by the strings, suddenly unleashed, to the alarm of the strings and the orchestral bells – what larks were here! – riotous goings-on amongst the brasses, with whooping horns, bumptious heavy brass and scintillating trumpets making the most of their “moments”, despite the frightened squawks of the winds!

A gentler, more folksy beginning to the final movement from winds and strings gradually built in strength and tension towards the great moment when the brass at the rear, summonsed by a clarion call and a cymbal crash, rejoined the orchestra with the work’s opening fanfares, this time underpinned by whole-orchestral counterpoints. I confess that I did want the conductor to broaden the music slightly as it drove towards its resplendent final chords, but he chose, just as excitingly, to maintain the momentum until the very final peroration – what a noise, and what an overwhelming effect! Even the somewhat ungrateful acoustic of the MFC was activated, shaken and stirred by all of this, with the players’ efforts and their conductor’s magisterial direction receiving justly-deserved acclaim.

Straight after Janáček’s far-flung ambiences, our ears were freshly-syringed by the opening of Brett Dean’s Trumpet Concerto, an evocation, it seemed, of huge machinery being activated piece-by-piece, begun by woodblocks and metallic scintillations, and building through an enormous crescendo, a cavernous bass line underneath the more superficial figurations suggesting some kind of gigantic ship being launched. Having activated his orchestral forces, the composer introduced the trumpet, played here by Håkan Hardenberger, by repute one of the world’s best on the instrument. He was the “superhero” of the composer’s conception, his music brooking no interference, and very much “in charge” of things until his downfall, delineated by the dying flight aspect of the lines at the movement’s end.

The second movement, given the title “Soliloquy”, presented a more meditative mood, the “draining away” of energy and colour reminding me of some of Salvador Dali’s paintings of melting objects. The trumpet played long lines trying to stem the downward flow, but was itself caught in the torpor of it all – all seemed decay and disillusionment. The trumpeter’s attempts to energize his world – last-ditch attempts at rallying fanfares – seemed to fall on deaf ears, as the orchestral basses take up the chromatic downward figurations. All the soloist seemed to be able to do was salute the passing of things, and wait for some kind of redemptive force to appear.

It came with a muted trumpet call which seemed to awaken a distant response in kind from within the orchestra, one which grew in detail and resonance – rather like the opening of Respighi’s “Appian Way” sequence from “The Pines of Rome” the voices were distant and representing mere possibility at first, remaining muted and disembodied, but with impulse and ambience beginning to mushroom into something. As the interactive dialogue between trumpet and orchestra began to flourish and establish itself, a distant march-like rhythm suddenly began, beautifully “placed” by the composer from with the existing textures. This quickly took on a course of its own, set in opposition to the trumpet and orchestral discourses, the music building up to an incredible climax, most theatrically brought to an unexpected close by a stratospheric note from the trumpet and a dismissive whip-lash phrase played by the solo violin – what an ending!

We need an interval to doubly realign our ears after those two works! – In that respect the “sneak preview” of the 2015 season was doubly welcome, as it helped “close off” what had been before, in preparation for Ravel’s take on Musorgsky’s tribute to the work of one of his dearest friends. It’s a work that’s too well-known to have to comment on each section, here, but the “pictures” and their interspersed “promenades” were again notable for their sharply-etched characterizations, the conductor seeming to me to pay particular attention to the nuancing of the string lines in places, to the point where the textures exhibited all kinds of characterful fibres, enough to remind one of human speech – one of the composer’s obsessions, of course.

My only criticism of the conductor was that he seemed to elongate many of the pauses between the pictures, breaking the continuum of the voyage. Yes, the pictures are self-contained – but Musorgsky himself abruptly “butted-together” pairs of them, sometimes incongruously, as one would experience when disparate pictures in galleries are hung next to one another. The composer also “filled in” some of the pauses between the pictures by the use of “promenades” music derived from the work’s very opening, a melody that changes in mood and feeling in relation to different parts of the gallery. Elsewhere, pictures aren’t linked by anything except silence – and I found the silences in some cases stretched by the conductor so far as to take us away from the experience. A pity, because I found myself having to re-establish myself in the gallery a number of times instead of simply being taken from picture to picture, in what should have been a sequence of unbroken enchantment.

But as for the orchestral playing – well, it was of a vividness and impact that meant that one was very quickly returned and imbued with the pictorial and emotive force of whatever music was being performed – it was the best possible advertisement the orchestra could have devised for its up-and-coming programme next year. And I do hope to encounter both conductor Dima Slobodeniouk and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger again in concert, before too long. It was wonderful to experience an evening of music-making so distinctive and engaging.







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