Orchestra Wellington in irresistible, largely Russian programme plus multi-cultural esoterica

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei

Leila Adu: Blessings as Rain Fall (vocal part sung by composer)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3 in C, Op 26, with Michael Houstoun – piano
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 2 in C minor, ‘Little Russian’

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 20 June, 7:30 pm

Not content with the inevitable attraction of the complete Tchaikovsky symphony cycle, plus one of the most exciting piano concertos of the 20th century, Taddei added an indefinable something whose appeal might have been in any of a dozen varied musical or artistic realms. A vocal piece by a young composer, Leila Adu, of mixed New Zealand and Ghanaian birth, with its roots in those places as well as in the Buddhist spiritual, metaphysical world, but also casting an astute eye towards ‘world music’, whatever that momentarily fashionable term means, that has supplanted the non-PC word ‘folk music’.

Set to a poem by Tibetan Buddhist lama Kalu Rinpoche, it was chosen by Adu in part because it doesn’t mention a deity and so should be open to people of any religion (or perhaps none).

After some introductory remarks by Nigel Collins, in preparation for later broadcast of its recording by Radio New Zealand Concert, he welcomed acting Concertmaster Stephanie Rolfe (I suppose, substituting for Matthew Ross); then Taddei and composer-singer Adu came on stage. She stands pretty motionless, expressionless, yet seeming totally self-possessed and confident.  I’m sure her demeanour persuaded most of the audience that we were going to hear something unusual and significant, and there’s no doubt about the forces of personality and character that work in her favour in any role she chooses to adopt.

Her voice arrived first and for a moment seemed to dominate the orchestra, even though it appeared not to be amplified: it’s an engaging voice that switches several times into a surprising falsetto which was presumably to reflect the spirituality of the words. After a little while, the shape of the piece emerged: limited amount of melodic material, mostly consisting of descending scales in a rhythm that might be described as part-time jazzy, related more to the idiom of the mid-century American musical than to jazz itself. The words sometimes sounded as if being forced into existing musical patterns.

The text was a series of six nine-line stanzas, and the music varied somewhat from one to another but its style hardly varied. In the early stages the oboe defined the mood, but there were dark accompaniments from tuba, trombones and bassoon, and flashes of light from flutes and xylophone; towards the end a sense of contentment and fulfilment seemed to take over, reflected in her face enlivened at first by subtle and then more open smiles. The final (seventh) stanza involved an emotional shift, expressing through the music, more joy, more singing in the upper register, brighter colours in the orchestra.

One had the feeling in the end, trying to weigh the music, assess its value, characterise it, that given its base in Buddhist philosophy and morality, the standards that are applied to western music were irrelevant. That it’s not meant to be judged as we might judge a sonata or an opera, but perhaps rather, a madrigal or a protest song, where the message or the spirit is more important than the artistic clothing in which it’s dressed.

The colour of the air seemed to change when Nigel Collins reappeared to talk briefly with Marc Taddei about Prokofiev and his concerto during the rearrangement of the stage for the piano’s arrival. No 3 is the best known and most popular of Prokofiev’s five; in fact, it’s the only one in the traditional three-movement shape. All five are being played at this year’s Proms in London next month, by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. Sold out evidently.

In truth, the opening revealed a little shakiness, but very soon pianist and orchestra found accord and a driving, repetitious energy rapidly took charge. It was interesting to have a fundamentally non-flamboyant pianist, much concerned with the metaphysical, at the keyboard for it allowed the essential quality of the music to emerge rather than having to search for it through a haze of glitter and bravura.

Though things got a little out of sync for a moment in the second movement, the tricky alternating beats of piano and orchestra continued to be high entertainment. It falls away and suddenly becomes the Allegro ma non troppo, finale, in which the bassoon starts nine minutes of scrupulous wit and deft rhythms, the piano leading a calm section adorned with flighty flute figures, as Prokofiev continued to draw on his famous trove of tunes that he hoarded against a drying up of melodic inspiration. Such a one survives scores of repetitions that lead to an impetuous rush as orchestra and piano experience multiple climaxes, piled one on the other.

Tchaikovsky’s second symphony, like the first, emerges as a wonder: why is it not often played, as it’s such an attractive work. My first awakening to it was in the mid 1950s through the splendid World Record Club which all music lovers (when that naturally meant ‘classical’ music) joined and built up their LP collections at tolerable prices for generally excellent performances. Of course, I still have, and have just played, that ‘Little Russian’, by Giulini and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Tchaikovsky uses several Ukrainian folk tunes, which gives the symphony its name: ‘Little Russia’ was Russia’s name for its often put-upon fellow Slav neighbour to the south (not that that country has always behaved very prudently).

During the interval I had moved from a seat about seven rows from the front to row T, where the orchestral balance was better. Everything sounded great now, even though one’s ears do adjust to acoustic weaknesses and the imagination makes good. The orchestral strings, now at only two players less in each section than the NZSO, are at the level of most good city orchestras in Germany and it’s a real shame that they are not funded adequately to offer more employment and to give more concerts around Greater Wellington and in the provincial towns of the southern North Island, and Blenheim and Nelson.

The horns, especially principal Shadley van Wyk, delivered well in the several important horn passages, and the two bassoons (Tilson a former NZSO player) were distinguished, as were winds as a whole. But principal credit goes to Marc Taddei who conducted, as he frequently does, from memory; the buoyancy and warmth of the playing was simply a delight, with magical quiet passages, allowing an excellent launch-pad for crescendos. The timpani too, sounding with subtlety, in the decrescendo leading to the end of the Andante marziale, second movement.

The Scherzo was charmingly lit from above, by woodwinds: piccolo and flute prominent; all sounded well disciplined through the dancing final section. The finale opens with a splendid fanfare-like, attention-grabbing call to attention which subsides with fine timpani again and quiet strings and winds to a leisurely promenade. And the end comes with a slow acceleration, and the repetitions, with subtle instrumental changes, of the Ukrainian folk tunes by which Tchaikovsky builds excitement through the final pages. The applause was enthusiastic and quite prolonged.


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