Worlds of Music – Lilburn, Vaughan Williams and Mozart from the NZSM Orchestra

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Norfolk Rhapsody No.1
MOZART – Piano Concerto No.20 in D Minor K.466
LILBURN – Symphony No. 1

Xing Wang (piano)
Kenneth Young (conductor)
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Thursday 1st October, 2015

So, what on earth has Mozart got to do with Douglas Lilburn? By a happy coincidence, the concerto (Mozart’s K.466) with which the brilliant soloist Xing Wang earlier this year won the NZSM Concerto Competition First Prize was again performed by her during this concert, to stunning effect. But alongside Lilburn? Mountains and Mozart?

Anybody who has read Lilburn’s beautifully-wrought treatise on being a composer here in New Zealand (first given as a talk at the 1946 Cambridge Summer Music School, and subsequently published as “A Search for Tradition” – Douglas Lilburn : Lilburn Residency Trust, 2011) will recall the sequence describing a journey made by the young composer on the night train northwards from Wellington, and his thoughts upon experiencing a clear, moonlit night’s view of the central North Island mountains on that journey and the vivid aromas of the surrounding bush country – particularly resonant are the words concluding his description……

At that moment, the world that Mozart lived in seemed about as remote as the moon, and in no way related to my experience.

It struck me, therefore, as a fitting kind of resonance from those words to have a concert which is part of the “Lilburn 100” centennial presentation we’ve been enjoying so much this year featuring his music cheek-by-jowl with none other than Mozart’s. And to add flavour to the situation, Lilburn’s work took the form of a symphony, constructed along the lines of principles known and used by Mozart in his own works of that genre. Rather than signalling a capitulation to any kind of un-New Zealand way of doing things, Lilburn’s treatment of and provision of content for symphonic form both acknowledged the precedents and instilled a genuine, home-grown flavour of newly-minted discovery to the sounds allied to the music’s structure.

Another, more direct connection to Lilburn and his music was provided by the presence of a work by Vaughan Williams at the concert’s beginning, the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1. Readers who either attended the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s concert of less than a fortnight ago, or read my subsequent review of the event, will recall that the Vaughan Williams Rhapsody and the Lilburn Symphony were played then as well (possibly creating a “shortest duration” record for the time between two public performances of any Lilburn Symphony by different artists!). Vaughan Williams was, of course, Lilburn’s composition teacher at London’s Royal College of Music.

So, by either chance or contrivance, the NZSM concert was flavoured with interlinks of various kinds between the items, themselves, of course, making a splendid programme per se. And what a beautiful job the players made, under Ken Young’s guidance, of the opening of the Norfolk Rhapsody!  I couldn’t help thinking, as the music unfolded via haunting strings and winds, how wide of the mark that oft-quoted jibe “the English cow-pat school” is in many cases, particularly in relation to Vaughan Willliams (one also thinks of Peter Warlock’s dismissive comment  “a cow looking over a gate” regarding the older composer’s work in general).

Here, the melancholic beauty of the opening, with the strings and winds stealing in from afar, and welcomed by harp, lower strings and clarinet, lost no time in building up the music’s intensities, richly-coloured by a beautifully-played viola solo. As the sounds of winds, brass and timpani dovetailed with the strings and Ken Young allowed the orchestral throttle some juice, the music galvanized our sensibilities, the strings taking on that “anguished” quality on also finds in the same composer’s Thomas Tallis Fantasia, with full-throated support coming from the brass and timpani at the music’s passionate extremes.

By contrast, the “sailor-dance” central section was great fun, having plenty of swagger and roistering intent, before the jog-trot rhythms are effectively squared off amid swirling string-tones intent upon returning us to the opening, the brass managing a beautifully-voiced farewell reminiscence of the “dance” as the mystery of the piece’s opening surged softly backwards – so finely-controlled, and with the sounds beautifully floated by all the players. No cow-pats, and no cud-chewing eye-ballings over wooden gates – instead, a treasurable evocation of different kinds of ecstasies, some of them lump-in-the-throat, thanks to the beauty and focus of the playing.

It’s possible to feel that Douglas Lilburn may have been a little hard on Mozart’s music in suggesting its essential remoteness from certain aspects of the New Zealand landscape, though it would be fair enough to consider that the latter’s D Minor Piano Concerto K.466 (the work next on the program in this concert) is more about the world of the opera “Don Giovanni” than anything else. However, I could imagine certain Adagio movements from other works like the Wind Serenade K.361 wouldn’t have gone amiss as an ambient backdrop to moonlit mountainous slopes amid native bush – and if grandeur was wanted, the opening of Symphony No.39 would do very nicely, there being plenty of majesty and upward thrust in that music (however, NOT in one of these so-called “authentic” hell-for-leather performances afflicted upon us during more recent times, I hasten to add!).

Still, the concert triumphantly achieved a coming-together of both composers’ worlds and time-eras, demonstrating that differences can happily co-exist and be savoured, when there’s a will. In fact Mozart’s K.466, together with the C Minor Concerto K.491, made the greatest impression on nineteenth-century sensibilities, which “connected” with the music’s dark urgency, stormy tones and volatile character, rather more than with some of the composer’s more rococo-like utterances. The works were, in fact, seen as a precursor of romanticism, and were both greatly admired by Beethoven.

At the piano was the 2015 NZSM Concerto Competition winner, Xing Wang, whose focused and totally committed performance seemed to me to wholly “own” the work. From where I was sitting (over to the right-hand side – I had no view of the soloist’s hands but was able to “read” the music in her face most enjoyably, as she played) the piano in this particular acoustic – a carpeted floor – seemed mellow-sounding almost to a fault, so that the soloist found it difficult to generate a truly assertive tone in places. Still, the exchanges with the orchestra had real tension and purpose, amid all those dark D Minor tones and syncopated rhythms! I thought the violins were occasionally inclined to “stretch” their phrasings a bit more than the other orchestral sections, but the effect amid Mozart’s tense, anxiety-ridden dovetailings simply added to the music’s danger, without ever letting chaos get the upper hand.

The first-movement cadenza, dynamic and Beethoven-like, allowed Xing Wang to bring out the instrument’s colouristic qualities, the concluding phrases excitingly matched by the orchestra’s attack at its re-entry, keeping the sombre mood. Pianist and conductor then kept the music moving during the opening exchanges of the slow movement, seeking to keep the tempo of a piece throughout, rather than romanticize the lyrical opening and over-dramatise the turbulent middle section. Only my critical conscience prevents me from commenting that I actually prefer the movement with greater contrast between the two “faces” of the music, however stylistically correct Xing Wang’s and Ken Young’s (and Mozart’s!) way with it all might have seemed to most listeners.

Most importantly, at this flowing tempi nothing dragged, and the strings’ phrasing of the melody had in places a most attractive lissome grace. Yes, some of the “surprise element” was lost, with the central section plunging in at the same basic pulse – but the winds did so well to keep their long-breathed lines steady throughout. I did feel the “return” to the opening couldn’t help sounding a little perfunctory at this speed – but there I go again! I think I missed being reminded of the ending of “Figaro” here, where the warmth of the opening’s return seems to engender a sense of reconciliation of characters in conflict, Mozart’s music tugging at one’s heartstrings as the slow movements of these concerti so often do.

At the finale’s beginning Xing Wang kept the music’s momentum steady rather than “breakneck” with her upward flourishes and rounding-off phrases, trusting in her ready ability to phrase and point the music to generate excitement. Ken Young and his players echoed her trajectories with beautifully-timed responses that caught a sense of things spontaneous erupting, the exchanges reflecting the enjoyment and exhilaration all around. After an assertive and exciting cadenza (which I didn’t know), the “coming out” into the radiance of the major key was a great moment, all sunshine and happiness after the journey’s shared travails.

Mozart having been given his dues, we thus came to the proper “mountains” part of the concert, Douglas Lilburn’s first-ever symphony, completed in 1949, and given its first performance by the National Orchestra under their conductor Michael Bowles in 1951. It was the first-ever performance of a symphony by a native-born New Zealand composer, and received a lot of attention of the “not bad for a New Zealand composer” variety, most commentators obviously cautious regarding their own abilities to make a judgement concerning a work by a fellow-New Zealander, though one notice discussed the work’s “shortcomings”, such as the “abstruse” and “discursive” principal themes. Critic Owen Jensen probably gave the work its fairest appraisal at the time, praising its “originality and vitality” regarding the themes, and their integration and working-out, while commenting that the symphony “contains nothing that is startlingly new”.

A remark rather more of the “seeing ourselves as others see us” variety came from British conductor Sir Charles Groves, who directed a performance with the National Orchestra on a visit here in 1988, and made the observation “Lilburn seems to me to have captured the natural genius of the landscape”. This attitude, which is where the mountains loom into significance, was largely borne out by Dr.Robert Hoskins of Massey University in an illustrated talk about the symphony given just before the concert’s second half began, and in which he made reference to “the nurturing forces of nature”, a statement in accord with what Lilburn himself called “the naive, generous country that gave one its joyous force.”

As I’ve mentioned before, this was the second performance of the work I’d heard within a fortnight, making amends for some long fallow periods of neglect. Lilburn’s Second Symphony has definitely found more favour with the critics, regarded as a less derivative, more home-grown manifesto of one creatively “standing upright here” and being counted – but the presence of this later, more monumental work ought not to deny us opportunities to enjoy the young composer’s exuberant energies in his earlier symphonic outing. After all there are plenty of similarly youthful works in the established repertoire which pay audible homage to older music without their effectiveness being compromised one jot.

Taking his immediate inspiration from Christchurch’s Port Hills, the composer immediately throws open the vistas at the beginning, everything taken in at a glance and straightaway acted upon by the music’s confident forward momentum – here, the opening trumpet call was clear and purposeful, the winds fresh and out-of-doors, and the strings athletic and vigorous, a mood celebrated by brass and timpani in no uncertain terms – a great opening from Young and his players! Their playing brought out both the majesty and the isolation of the scenarios, encouraging the lines’ occasional striking out on their own, evoking the skylarks’s songs, and demonstrating, in Lilburn’s own words, the “well-nigh bewitched” feeling of “that air so far up with that view before and that music above”.

Yes, there were energetic Coplandesque moments and Sibelian-like evocations of the processes enacted between air, land and water, but time and place nevertheless seemed securely set, here in this performance, the dying echoes at the end nicely-judged and resonantly-voiced. The second movement’s hymn-like ruminations steadily unfolded at a pace that allowed air and space but maintained the work’s overall momentum – conductor and players enabled the music’s amalgam of physical strength and ritualistic transcendence, unerringly building both outward and inner intensities towards a tutti of almost pantheistic splendour, before horns and violas quelled the strings’ anguish – how lovely, and elegiac an atmosphere was wrought at the end!

That wonderful unfurling of the textures at the finale’s beginning had its full effect, here, the composer seemingly drawing, however subconsciously, from Sibelius’s Tapiola in places, with dark, brooding string phrases and wood-sprites darting between the trees, though there always seemed more light and warmth than gloom in this particular wanderer’s heart. And though we also experienced great Oceanides-like swells from the strings, there were recognizably “Aotearoa” brass calls which drew us out from the darknesses, evoking thousand-ton building-blocks of majestic rock, the fanfares energizing the strings and similarly inviting our spirits to rejoice and dance – a great moment, reinforced by the lower strings’ climbing the heights to join with the other voices in the celebrations!

As it all unfurled at the finale’s beginning, so the music then suddenly called itself to order, and took stock of where it had come to, taking us along as well – those last pages of the work then built into a kind of consecration, a merging of spirit and surroundings, an expression of hope in our eventual achievement of oneness with our surroundings, and of a heritage that those “born in a marvellous year” will be able to claim as their own. In that sense, how appropriate it was for an orchestra of youthful players such as these to be able to give sonorous and assured tongue to this visionary message.

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