Breaking the concert mould, with fateful results – Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents :

RODRIGO – Concierto Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra
SHOSTAKOVICH – Piano Concerto No.2 in F Major Op. 102
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.4 in F Minor Op. 36

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Andrey Lebedev (guitar)
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday September 5th 2015

Breaking the mould, as Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington have done repeatedly and successfully over the last few seasons, this concert presented no less than TWO concertos, and for different instruments! The orchestra could have gone the whole hog and asked Michael Houstoun to play the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto after the interval (the one with the concerto-like parts for violin and ‘cello) – but the name of the concert would have then had to be altered, from “Fate” to something like “Concertomania”, or something.

Wisely, no such deviation was allowed, and so we were given the next Tchaikovsky Symphony in the composer’s numbered series, one whose theme was responsible for the concert’s “fateful” title. And, after the success the orchestra had achieved thus far with the first three of these works (I can testify to the excellence of the performances of No.1 (“WInter Daydreams”) and No.3 (“Polish”) – to my chagrin I missed that of the “Little Russian” – it was necessary that “the big three” (as Marc Taddei referred to them) needed to be tackled, and put across with the same kind of verve, brilliance and sensitivity as we’d already heard.

But the concert introduced a new and somewhat geographically removed element, a work which has nothing whatever to do with Russia – Spanish composer Joachim Rodrigo’s world-famous “Concierto de Aranjuez”. Wonderful though the music is, it was a slightly unnerving choice, followed immediately as it was by works associated with that part of Europe as far removed from the Iberian peninsula as it’s possible to get.

All was explained by a brief note in the programme leaflet available at the concert’s beginning – the presence of Rodrigo’s “Orange Juice” Concerto (as it was amusingly referred to by none other than Marc Taddei, speaking as part of a “between-the-items” presentation by Radio New Zealand Concert’s Clarissa Dunn) was part of a promotion by the Orchestra presenting winners of the Gisborne International Music Festival. This competition has certainly done its work in promoting the careers of many musicians well-known to New Zealand audiences, and others who have established themselves in musical careers overseas.

The 2013 winner of the Gisborne Competition was Australian guitarist Andrey Lebedev. I’m not sure whether he performed this concerto at Gisborne as one of his winning performances – but the work has certainly become the defining piece for any guitarist wanting to break into the “big time” world-wide. There are other concertos for the instrument – but none so popular and instantly recognizable. And yes, the ‘big tune ” of the slow movement has been made a hit in its own right, arranged for all different kinds of solo and ensemble combinations (the spoken presentation made reference to a well-known film “Brassed Off” in which the music was played by a solo cornet with a brass band accompaniment).

In a purely conventional context, players of the cor anglais everywhere have a lot to thank Rodrigo for, along with Dvorak in the “New Word” Symphony, of course – it’s a real gift of an orchestral solo, and was beautifully played, here – Marc Taddei got the player up for some well-earned applause at the concerto’s end. Rodrigo’s is actually a remarkable piece of composing – the concerto’s popularity has highlighted the luscious Hollywood-like tunes, but I think at the expense of some inventive treatments of the theme and parts of the theme, culminating in a very beautiful epilogue – a rhapsodic exchange between orchestra and soloist before the music just drifts into the ether – and straightaway, the march-like theme of the final movement begins, with again, inventive and endlessly beguiling treatments of the theme and harmonic variations of it, lots of piquancies and evocative guitar-like figurations from the orchestra.

The solo guitar was given a degree of amplification – expecting an acoustic guitar to make any great impact next to an orchestra in a concert hall like the Michael Fowler Centre is unrealistic, so it’s accepted that the instrument will, in some circumstances have some “help”. It must be a very hard thing to judge technically,and especially when one has to take into account the difference the presence of an audience makes. To my ears, it was here slightly overdone – it put the instrument slightly “out of scale” with the orchestra, and also into a different kind of acoustic regime – and it also made it difficult for the soloist to play really quietly in places, most notably in the “sotto voce” endings.

But I got used to the sound-picture, as one’s ears do with almost anything. One certainly didn’t miss any detail (including what sounded like a false entry – quickly corrected – from the guitarist during the slow movement!), and even within that slightly amplified sound-world there was a lot of light and shade in his playing, which was what I enjoyed. In some of the exchanges between guitar and the wind instruments, it was obvious that the guitar was in its own electro-acoustic world – but the difference was more realistic, for some reason, with the solo ‘cello in its lovely solo. Having said all of this, Andre Lebedev I thought brought out everything that was in the music for our absolute delight. I thought his playing really relished the piquancy of Rodrigo’s harmonies, and served notice to us that there’s a lot more to this music than the “big tune”, however important that is in getting people interested in the work in the first place – it’s really only the beginning!

The orchestra was a sensitive accompanying body – the playing, from both single instruments and from different sections nicely echoed the “guitar-style” manner of the work, much the same as most Spanish music for orchestra (and for solo piano) does. By contrast, in the work which followed, the orchestra found itself much more of an active protagonist, far more feisty and combatative in its interactions with the soloist. This was, of course, Michael Houstoun, playing his fourth Russian concerto in the concert series, and seemingly relishing every note. His brief on this occasion was the second of Shostakovich’s two piano concertos. Here, the transition from Rodrigo to Shostakovich wasn’t quite the schizophrenic experience it might have seemed on paper, because each work was in its way, merry, witty, festive and romantic.

Shostakovich wrote the concerto for his son Maxim as a nineteenth birthday present (the sort of things composers do “for” their children, one supposes!). One of Shotakovich’s first biographers, commenting on the music’s high spirits and sense of well-being, wrote “it was as though the composer’s youth had returned to him”, which puts the work’s dedication to Maxim in its appropriate context, far removed from the existentialist anguish of the symphonies, such as the recently completed Tenth. It’s no accident that the makers of the 2000 version of the Disney film Fantasia chose the first movement of this concerto to tell the animated story of the steadfast tin soldier, who goes into battle to defend a ballerina’s honour against the attentions of a malevolent jack-in-the-box, and after various heart-stopping adventures is able to return to reclaim his place beside her in the toy nursery.

We didn’t need the Disney film to “fill out” the scenarios, as the performance had all the energy, humour, theatricality and sentiment one could ask for. The orchestral winds which opened the concerto were spot-on with their perkiness, which Michael Houstoun’s piano lost no time in taking up. And though the Shostakovich fingerprints were soon in evidence – motoric energies and rising tides of harmonic ambience – it was all in the cause of generating high spirits and well-being, enormous washes of orchestral tone giving way to a cadenza from the soloist which picked up the energies again and whirled the movement to its exciting conclusion.

But it was then that the music would have REALLY raised the eyebrows of people familiar with the “usual” Shostakovich – we heard begin one of the most tender, lyrical and romantic pieces of writing for piano and orchestra imaginable. “It was like – well, like Chopin!” I heard one person say. And it was indeed, with bits of Rachmaninov thrown into the mix – in fact, one sequence sounded SO like the latter’s Second Piano Concerto, it was almost disorienting!  (I nearly said “disconcerting”, but thought better of it……). And then, out of these romantic ambiences came a chirpy-voiced piano figure, which returned us to the bright-eyed character of the first movement, summoning all the exuberance that was waiting in the wings onto the stage! This was the movement whose performance set everybody talking at the interval – I kept on hearing comments like “breathtaking!” “exciting!” “hair-raising!” and other expressions to that effect. It was all of those things, but especially the 7/8 sections where the missing “beat” tightened the music’s momentum and gave it a kind of headlong, unstoppable quality, firstly for orchestra and then the piano – it  was “Russian Dance” material with a twist, one that made it even more exciting and exhilarating.

So then, the “grim business” of the evening swung into play, with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Marc Taddei said, when introducing the work, that he had asked the orchestra to play the “Fate” theme as broadly and darkly as he could get it to go, and the orchestra brasses certainly delivered the goods, right from the start – first the horns, then the heavy brass underneath snarling down the scale, and finally, gleaming at the top, the trumpets – and it all sounded fantastic! In short, the brass players did an incredible job, providing tremendous weight and brilliance. I must admit, any “live” performance of the opening of this symphony I hear puts me on edge, ever since my experience of hearing in concert, over forty years ago, Antal Dorati conduct the then NZBC Symphony in this work. At the rehearsal on the morning of the concert (so I was told by a friend who was there) Dorati walked out on the orchestra after telling the brass players they were incompetent – and so that evening the brasses were out to prove him wrong, which they did, a cracked note or two notwithstanding……..but the experience, though very exciting, was also, for those in the “know”, too razor-edged to be comfortable!

Well, Dorati would, I think, have been pleased with the Orchestra Wellington brass players – they did as good a job with this work as did the NZSO players the week previously with the Bruckner Eighth Symphony. The first movement of the Tchaikovsky seems to me to be one of the composer’s most demanding works, because it carries so much tension over such wide spans of music – and even the more lyrical bits sound as though they’re stepping gingerly upon coiled springs, which could go off at any moment. It all requires tremendous reserves of physical and emotional stamina to do the music proper justice – in fact the only other thing Tchaikovsky had written up to that point that was remotely as wild and full-blooded as this symphony’s opening movement was the tone-poem “Francesca da Rimini”, the previous year (1876). The players did the music and its composer proud – if the most tremendous moments seemed the preserve of the brass and timpani, the strings and winds also played their part. At the movement’s conclusion there was a sense of things being wrung out and exhausted, of having to pick things up once again from all over, and gradually rebuild and refurbish the spirit once more.

The two middle movements certainly did that – firstly by way of a typically Russian folk-song-like slow movement, and then a very exciting pizzicato-strings dance interspersed with droll interludes for wind and brass – all part of the “refurbishment of the spirit” whose devastation by fate had been presented to us by the opening movement. Again, the orchestra played marvellously (especially in the pizzicato-ostinato movement), and only a few bars of imprecise ensemble during the slow movement, caused by a late entry from one of the players, disturbed the brilliance and sheen of the playing (the sort of mishap that probably didn’t happen at the rehearsal!). As for the finale it was overwhelming in its impact, no more so than when the “Fate” theme returned unexpectedly, announced by no less then three sets of hand-cymbals (a spectacular sight!). From this “stroke of fate” Taddei and the orchestra gradually and patiently built up the “return to life” impulses, banishing all caution and plunging into frenzied expressions of excitement with great panache – “taking pleasure in the joy of others”, as the composer succinctly put it.

Onward to the remaining two symphonies – and, amid the on-going delights of this series with Michael Houstoun and Tchaikovsky, one wonders what Marc Taddei and his orchestra have got up their sleeves for 2016?





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