School of Music Orchestra wins audience delight with demanding programme

Te Kōki New Zealand School of Music

Smetana: Vltava (‘The Moldau’, from Má Vlast)
Ginastera: Harp Concerto, Op.25
Lilburn: Diversions for String Orchestra
Shostakovich: The Golden Age Suite Op.22 (Introduction, adagio, polka, danse)
NZSM Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young, with Jennifer Newth (harp)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 7.30pm

Once again, the audience was treated to a very demanding programme brought off with skill and panache by the NZSM orchestra, with the help of quite a number of guest players.

It coupled the familiar with the unfamiliar.  The opening piece from Smetana’s Má Vlast was familiar, but seldom programmed recently, within my hearing.  It provided a good work-out for a student orchestra.  There was plenty of scope for the flutes at the opening, and soon for the other woodwinds.
A quieter second section featured strings, flute and harp, with subtle brass support, in a delicious representation of the flows of the great river Vltava.  The grand theme returns in the last section, in more excitable mode, with full brass and percussion.  This was a very creditable performance.

Ginastera’s harp concerto was completely new to me, and it was interesting to read the programme notes describing the history of its first performance.

Amazingly, Jennifer Newth, who has recently graduated with first class honours in music, played the complex solo part without the score.  The harp must surely be the most difficult instrument to be found in a symphony orchestra, yet this accomplished musician played with apparent ease the most demanding passages, using a range of techniques, described in her programme note as ‘pedal slides’  (which I observed – the sound continued to change even though no fingers were on the strings) ‘harmonics, whistling sounds, ‘falling hail’ glissandi and gushing chords.

Along with her virtuoso playing rising to the composer’s demands, there were considerable challenges, for the large percussion section, which were fully met, including plenty for xylophone to do.

In the first movement, a dreamy slow melody was particularly attractive, while in the second movement a modal melody performed on various instruments was notable.

The third movement’s extended harp solo demonstrated the huge range of the harp’s capabilities, and those of the performer, as described above; its final section began with an enormous glissando, something the harp can do so magnificently.  The percussion was in its element with complicated technical work; the xylophone was a good counterpart, with its wooden quality, to the ethereal nature of the harp sound.  There was little brass in this work – just two trumpets in the last movement only, but a celeste, along with frequent suspended cymbal vibrations, contributed to the exotic atmosphere.

This was a bravura performance, and the audience’s response was appropriately prolonged and enthusiastic.

Ginastera was a hard act to follow, but the early Lilburn work proved to be a pleasant interlude between the more intense and exciting works for full orchestra.  The writing for strings was delightful.  After a lively sparky opening, the second movement was contemplative, with nevertheless, as in the first, lots of pizzicato.  The third section was faster, with repeated quavers, while in the fourth some discords that became typical of Lilburn’s writing appeared, but there was little of his later very prevalent dotted
rhythmic figures.

The final movement featured leaping figures at various levels of pitch – then a sudden ending.  The Diversions proved to be a most enjoyable work, and was played with verve and splendidly rich tone.

The Shostakovich work provided both humorous content and sufficient technical requirements to live up to the effect created by the Ginastera work.  The programme note described the scenario of the ballet for which the music was written: a worthy tale of the superiority of the Communist ethos over that of Western nations, as worked out through the visit of a Soviet football team to a Western city.

Shostakovich’s satirical writing could be interpreted as ‘getting at’ the capitalist West – or deriding the very scenario and the ideology behind it.  It gave rise, in these four movements, to some hilarious musical expression.  Not that it was easy; it is hard to imagine a student orchestra even20 years ago tackling such demanding music as this.  It employed full orchestra (but no harp).  I find brass plus piccolo and percussion playing at forte or beyond far too loud in this venue: a very resonant acoustic in a no particularly large church.  Perhaps there is no alternative.  The orchestra has played in Sacred Heart Cathedral, which is only slightly larger and with an equally lively sound.

Please, Wellington City Council, get on with strengthening the Wellington Town Hall, or respond to former Councillor Rex Nicholls, who through his letter in Dominion Post, called for the hall to reopen.

After a rousing introduction, the highlight of the work, viz. the second movement was an extended slow piece that was most affecting, and contained much of interest, not least the appearance of bass clarinet and particularly the solos on soprano saxophone by Genevieve Davidson, and also solo violin from the orchestra’s leader, Laura Barton.  Later, there was gorgeous playing from solo clarinet and solo flute.

The third movement reverted to the jocular mood apparent in the first; the polka was good fun, with a wonderful tune for the xylophone and a sardonic popular song from the trombones.  The Danse finale revealed great precision of rhythm at considerable speed.  But it was so loud that the audience’s applause sounded quiet by contrast.

Nevertheless, all concerned should be thoroughly pleased with their efforts, as the audience was.



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