The Apprentice, La Mer, Ibert’s flute concerto and an enchanting francophone premiere from National Youth Orchestra

NZSO National Youth Orchestra conducted by José Luis Gomez with solo flute, Bridget Douglas

Dukas: L’apprenti sorcier
Ibert: Flute concerto
Salina Fisher: Rainphase
Debussy: La mer

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 2 July 2015, 6:30 pm

The National Youth Orchestra has generally played a major symphony in the second part of its main annual outing (and this is its 56th year). They’ve included Mahler’s First and Seventh, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth, Shostakovich’s Tenth, Rachmaninov’s Second, Brahms’s First and Second, as well as Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Also sprach Zarathustra, many taxing concertos and other large and challenging works. Back in 2007, they played La Mer (I’ve only looked back a dozen years); and they played it again here.

This concert was conducted by José Luis Gomez, a young Venezuela-born, Sistema-inspired musician who has already made an impact in North and South America as well as in major European cities (Hamburg, Frankfurt, Liverpool, Stuttgart, Madrid…) in both opera and orchestral performance. Though he appears not yet to have worked in France, his programme was almost wholly devoted to French music (one can easily argue that a young composer like Selina Fisher, is essentially a disciple of the Debussyish, French tradition) which calls generally for a different and in some ways more difficult aesthetic approach to music.

New Zealand’s musical future is in good hands with the continued flourishing of this orchestra (and let’s not forget the youth orchestras in all the major cities of New Zealand), with major support from the Adam Foundation over seventeen years, as well as from the NZSO itself.

L’apprenti sorcier
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not really a true representative of Dukas the composer. (I elaborate some thoughts about the contrasts between the classicists and the impressionists and the place of Dukas in the aesthetic quarrels of the period at the end of this review).

But Dukas was a skilled orchestrator and a gifted composer nevertheless.
It’s a brilliant composition, fully deserving its real popularity. The woodwinds’ opening was careful and wonderfully refined, and the strings, given their full orchestral complement (16, 14, 12, etc, -approximately) produced a warmly confident chorus, solo flute emerged with a big romantic vibrato and bassoons too came out of the shadows that usually envelop them.

Though there were occasional partings of the ways in ensemble, the conductor inspired enthusiasm and energy that overcame all; the brass was emphatically present in the chaotic climax as the apprentice loses control of the situation, to complete an exciting performance of this popular piece.

Ibert’s Flute Concerto
The orchestra was then thinned out to chamber size for the fastidious but animated flute concerto by Ibert, who was one of several French composers born around the 1890s who did not join Les Six (who have been celebrated this week as RNZ Concert’s ‘Composers of the Week’).

Though I suppose it would be nice for a soloist with the orchestra to be a current or recent player with them, the selection of NZSO principal flute Bridget Douglas, who moved through comparable paths in New Zealand, beginning in Dunedin, was inspired; at the time she might have been a member of the Youth Orchestra, she was probably studying on scholarships overseas. However both her demeanour and performance display an exuberant youthfulness.

Her acumen clearly elevated the orchestra’s performance in what is certainly one of the most familiar and successful flute concertos. The playing hardly touched the ground in the first movement, capturing what can only be described as the quintessential sound of French flute music, leading the orchestra in high risk-taking exploits (remember this is the composer of the vivacious Divertissement). In the sharply contrasted, sombre, legato Andante, the light seemed to have dimmed, exposing the orchestra’s, and the soloist’s, expressive talents as they explored Ibert’s command of a more thoughtful strain of 1930s French music, absorbing both the neo-classical and the satirical, flippant character that post-first world war music had acquired.

The start of the boisterous and memorable third movement proved a bit tough for the horns, but they were vindicated later. Its jazzy rhythms, decorated with the most hair-raising flute passages are interrupted twice with pensive episodes, allowing breathing space, and for unexpectedly lyrical playing from the flute, often in charming duet or trio with other wind instruments or the strings.

Salina Fisher’s commission
The tradition of commissioning a piece from a young composer has become established. This year the composer, has, as violinist, been an orchestra member since 2010 and was concertmaster in 2012/13; she is the orchestra’s Composer-in-residence this year and has won composition prizes at the New Zealand School of Music and the NZSO’s Young Composer’s Award in 2013 and 2014. Her music has been played by several overseas soloists and chamber ensembles.

The array of percussionists signalled a more than average interest in the strange and exotic sounds available these days from that department. As well as bowing on the edges of the xylophone, the most magical effects, sort of disembodied flute sound, came from Rachel Thomas bowing on crotales; and episodes of bouncing bows on strings and bows brushing tonelessly across stringed instruments, in large, synchronised, circular movements. It was as entertaining for the eyes as for the ears.

I was impressed by the composer’s notes that elaborated, not on the wearisome explanations like: ‘exploring of extended techniques that might enrich the experience of hearing the contrabassoon with its reeds removed, underwater’, but a description of the source of the sound – here rain falling – arising from actual events; for example, she writes: “the variation in sound and movement of raindrops depending on the material upon which they fall, and the texture created when these countless individual timbres and rhythms happen all at once”.

There were rather enchanting melodic fragments, rising and falling scales played softly on the two harps. But as well as these singular devices for the depiction of rain falling, there were blocks of brass in warm harmony, which in the end contributed to a remarkably attractive sonorous chorus in an exciting

La Mer
I was intrigued, considering the watery nature of the previous composition, at the choice of La Mer as the big, symphonic work on the programme. I’m assured that neither was programmed to complement the other: pure serendipity. Though not at all a symphony, it is of near symphonic length and has three movements (like the Paris and Prague symphonies of Mozart, if you care).

This too uses a big orchestra, three trumpets as well as two cornets, three bassoons and a contrabassoon, again the two harps and an array of percussion including glockenspiel, all used with purpose and sensitivity. At every hearing of this masterpiece I gain a little more clarity about its melodic and rhythmic content, how the fleeting, fugitive gestures and arabesques, relate and contribute to the bewildering tapestry. In the first movement, the orchestra captured the dim awareness of dawn with the woodwinds countering the threatening sounds of timpani and bass drum, and though there were momentary slips, the growing illumination that the performance created, the brightening glow of the horns midway in the movement, was marvellous.

The Jeux de vagues, sometimes referred to as a Scherzo, to me a misnomer, has the role of an at times playful, at times calm, symphonic middle movement; it brings the full light of day, not in an obvious, brash way, but through the fluency of flutes, always to be remarked, over bassoons and cor anglais, suggesting a friendly sea. The third part, Dialogue du vent et de la mer, opened with very enthusiastic timpani and brass, but the gorgeous, swaying tune and the vivid evocation of conflicting forces were magnificently rendered.

It’s not just that this music might mean/should mean something special to one who has lived all his life close to some of the biggest seas in the world; as one of the first really major works of the 20th century, it marks for me a more important and influential development than the intellectually driven inventions of Schoenberg and co was to do a few years later; and at least as significant as The Rite of Spring.

Naturally, much of the audience at such concerts comprises family and friends of the players, but they could not have so filled the MFC, showing that growing numbers of ordinary music lovers are realising that if the music is your primary interest, rather than a social event, as much delight and revelation is created in a Youth Orchestra performance of this calibre as with the NZSO itself.


Reflections on Dukas and Debussy:

Above, I touched on the place of Dukas, between César Franck and Debussy and the intermediate composers like Fauré and Chausson.

After the 1880’s, Debussy picked up the sense that composers like those and others had been hinting at in previous decades. Influenced by impressionist painting and symbolist poetry, he believed music was about nuances, colours and emotions, story-telling and scene painting; organically evolving melodic ideas and rhapsodic shapes.

Dukas was born into the era of Debussy (he was four years Debussy’s junior) but, while they were good friends, Dukas adhered to the model of César Franck and the more classical, Teutonic, tradition, and he was a passionate Wagnerian; while Debussy, very consciously a ‘French’ composer, had come to reject both Franck and Wagner. But their totally opposite views did not seem to affect the happy friendship between the two.

And although Debussy wanted no school of Debussyistes and didn’t much like Ravel who was his passionate admirer, Roger Nichols remarks in his New Grove article: “a list of 20th century composers influenced by Debussy is practically a list of 20th century composers, tout court”.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not truly representative of Dukas the composer. True, it was written four years after Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune, about the same time as Nocturnes, but while
the finger-prints of a brilliant orchestrator can be heard, there is as much Strauss as Chausson in it, and a lively imagination is needed to ascribe much to Debussy.

The programme note relates a Messiaen anecdote that suggests The Apprentice was intended as mockery of the Strauss’s symphonic poems, particularly Till Eulenspiegel, that were sweeping Europe at the time, but it is hard to believe that Dukas would have expended all that effort creating such a masterly and highly sophisticated score merely as a put-down of Strauss. My reading of Dukas’s personality and nature don’t suggest that sort of behaviour; after all he remained a good friend of Debussy even though Dukas was a traditionalist, a Wagnerian, and thus not too distant from Strauss’s musical values.

A commentator writes, for example: “While Debussy was forging esoteric links with symbolist poetry, Dukas had the effrontery to compose a symphony in plain C major!” The symphony is a close relative of Franck’s Symphony in D minor; Dukas wrote it in the same year, 1897, as The Apprentice. As for Dukas’s great piano sonata in E minor, it sounds like a fine piano work that Franck never wrote (and as a passionné of the latter, I expect that to be read as great admiration).

Anyway, as one of the disappearing generation who actually saw (and heard), very young, an early screening of the Disney film, Fantasia, in which Stokowski conducted the music along with the marvellous animated version of the Goethe story, the music has been embedded in me for a long time.

In thinking about these things, I fished out my copy of Roger Nichols’ Debussy Remembered which trapped me for a while; there were not many pertinent bits of letters from Dukas relating to Debussy apart from evidence of great warmth and mutual respect and affection. But it’s the sort of book that engrosses you with all sorts of interesting people, events and ideas.



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