Praiseworthy, adventurous concert from Tawa Orchestra moves into foreign parts

The Tawa Orchestra conducted by Andrew Atkins with Xing Wang (piano)

Weber: Overture to Preciosa
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K 466
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A, Op 92

Christadelphian Church, Paparangi

Sunday 14 June, 3 pm

My third orchestral concert this weekend established a healthy restoration of normality in music making. The two Inkinen Festival concerts from the NZSO represented music as performed by a hundred or so of the most talented and polished musicians in New Zealand.

But apart from those, there are many thousand who devote some of their energy and time to pursuing the same activities; some of them do it for unapologetic personal satisfaction, unlikely to make any sort of living from it, but being rewarded by the response of a paying or non-paying, but sympathetic audience. There were smallish but very appreciative audiences at both the St Andrew’s and Paparangi concerts.

There are dozens of small community orchestras throughout New Zealand; they get musical and social pleasure from their efforts and their audiences may be fewer than their own numbers. But such an orchestra contributes importantly to local communities.

The Tawa Orchestra has existed for at least a couple of decades (I’m guessing) and, like most such groups, pays a conductor and perhaps a soloist to work with them. In the past the orchestra has usually played in Tawa College Hall; this time they have given two performances of their present programme: the first at St Andrew’s on The Terrace in the city, the second in a church in Paparangi.

They tackled a most commendable and probably the meatiest programme in their history: music from the central repertoire, that takes no prisoners, from which there is no place to hide, where the accuracy of the notes, their articulation, their expressive shape in dynamics and tone are essential elements in the composers’ conception, and where their absence or faulty realisation might affect listeners’ enjoyment.

Those factors, as well as the kind of venue they play in, weigh on ‘amateur’ performances, and often face awkward acoustic problems.

The Weber overture was part of the incidental music that he wrote for a play, Preciosa, and it works well as a concert overture. It is constructed in a conventional way, ending with strong, lively melody and the orchestra’s playing was driven energetically and given the obvious technical limitations, was an imaginative, successful way to open the concert.

Then conductor Andrew Atkins lent a hand moving the upright piano to centre stage for the performance of Mozart’s great D minor Piano Concerto with pianist Xing Wang. Its introduction often sounds unexpectedly deliberate: that is, slow, but its strikingly serious, almost fateful character quickly made the tempo feel absolutely right, creating the sort of atmosphere that the name Mozart probably doesn’t prompt for a lot of people, especially those familiar only with the more popular pieces. The programme note recalled the affinity of this concerto with Beethoven who began his piano concerto career only 15 years later, and it was the serious-minded quality that Atkins and his pianist drew from it that counted very much in its favour.

It’s not insignificant that this was Mozart’s first piano concerto in a minor key (there was only one other, later, that in C minor; the character of keys was important to Mozart, as they are to most composers).

Wang’s cadenzas were excellently played, overcoming the evident difficulties presented by a piano not meant for concert use. The orchestra made gestures towards dynamic variety, and a greater subtlety of expression than was actually achieved. But the spirit was willing.

The piano furnishes the second movement, marked Romance, with a lovely melody which the strings also handled well; it’s a little removed, though not too far, from the profound spirit that ruled in the first movement. I realised after a little while that I was neither hearing nor seeing oboes, though the score calls for them and two players were listed in the programme (Mozart didn’t use orchestral clarinets till a bit later in his career), but there were plentiful flutes and I wasn’t sure that oboe parts weren’t being handled by them to some extent.

The last movement is lively and purposeful though it doesn’t express unrestrained joy or happiness, and it contains plenty of challenges for the pianist – not purely technical, but in its spirit and intellectual character, and the orchestra may have found some difficulties in expressing them. Wang played the last movement cadenza in an unrushed, studied and thoughtful manner.

The whole work had been an admirable if rather surprising choice for amateurs, but one that was handled with as much accuracy and energy as it was reasonable to expect.

If the Mozart was a tall order, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was like tackling Everest and the South Pole on the same day. And there was no brilliant, fluent soloist to draw attention away from the purely orchestral challenges.

In its main elements, the performance was praiseworthy, though there were obviously limitations in ways that are to be expected: instruments in the low register tended to weigh a bit heavily on the rest of the orchestra, especially timpani, trombone and tuba, on account of the church acoustic; and the presence of six flutes but no oboes was a little unfortunate (there were three clarinets however). Certain failings were due simply to an excess of enthusiasm, however, which was hardly a problem in the first movement, but where thematic elements are repeated many times as in the second and third movements, balance problems and shortcomings in finesse appeared.

The vigorous rhythms and the dance-like character of the whole work, much remarked, were certainly very evident. Here and there, certain instruments handling inner parts emerged too loud, somewhat obscuring the melody line; that might have been due to slightly unbalanced numbers in various sections, though the dominance of violins over violas meant it did not trouble the string department.

One hopes that members of the audience, new to this sort of music, will be inspired to poke around on You Tube to explore other performances of the music they’ve heard, allowing themselves to become classical music devotees or even fanatics in due course.

The ambitious and demanding character of the current programming, and much of the organising of the music, soloists and programme notes is presumably the work of conductor Andrew Atkins, and these aspects of a conductor’s job which he performs so well, as well as the broad familiarity with the huge classical repertoire that he demonstrates, should help towards a useful career as a conductor, eventually of professional musical ensembles.  In the meantime, he’s expanding the horizons and the musical skills of the Tawa Orchestra excellently.


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