After fifty-seven years of public neglect – Farquhar’s First Symphony from the NZSM and Ken Young

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Martin Riseley (violin)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Kenneth Young (conductor)

MOZART – Overture “The Magic Flute”
BEETHOVEN – Romance for Violin and Orchestra in G Major
FAURE – Masques et Bergamasques
YOUNG – In Memoriam David Farquhar
FARQUHAR – Symphony No.1

Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Hill St., Wellington

Thursday 14th April 2016

At last! – the drought has been broken! – the well has been newly dug! – and the field has been freshly ploughed! So, just what, you’re bemusedly thinking, am I on about this time round? I’ll tell you! – David Farquhar’s First Symphony, performed only once previously in concert in 1959, has finally received its SECOND public performance! – that makes, by my reckoning, fifty-seven years of shameful, and never-to-be-restored neglect! Well, there’s always a “better-late-than-never” component to this sort of thing, provided that whatever it is that’s been neglected actually delivers the goods when given the chance.

That chance was given the work in truly resplendent fashion by maestro Ken Young and his redoubtable band of heroes in the NZ School of Music Orchestra at Wellington’s Sacred Heart Basilica in Hill St, last Thursday evening. Farquhar’s Symphony shared the programme with several other items, in the first half an overture (Mozart’s Magic Flute), a miniature concertante work (Beethoven’s Second Romance for Violin and Orchestra) and a suite of incidental pieces by Gabriel Faure (Masques et Bergamasques). Then, after the interval the symphony was appropriately prefaced by a work for brass ensemble titled In Memoriam David Farquhar, one written by Ken Young in 2007 shortly after the composer’s death.

The effect of all of this was to judiciously “prepare the way” for the symphony – first came the overture whose mix of gravitas, festivity and fun shook and stirred all of the venue’s ambiences to perfection, followed by the violin-and-orchestra piece which delightfully brought out solo and ripieno textures to maximum effect. Though I confess to finding Faure’s Masques et Bergamasques of lesser interest than I did its first-half companions, I was still grateful for the opportunity of hearing something not often performed in the concert-hall. The most startling precursor to the symphony was, however, the In Memoriam David Farquhar piece, one which made a splendidly sombre and valedictory impression. So, when the time came to begin the symphony, our ears were nicely primed for what was to follow.

A few comments regarding the performances – I enjoyed the rhythmic “snap” of the chording at the very opening of the Mozart Overture, and the beautiful hues of both the wind and brass amid the string figurations, leading to the allegro – the conductor’s luftpause caught some of the players on the hop at the start, but things soon settled down, with crisp ensemble and plenty of ear-catching dynamic variation from the players. The voices tumbled over one another nicely throughout the “second-half” exchanges, and the trombones and timpani made the most of their moments towards the end – lovely playing.

Violinist Martin Riseley seemed to my ears a shade tense at the very beginning of the Beethoven Romance, his phrasing a little too tightly-wound for comfort – his second entry seemed to unwind the double-stopping rather more warmly and relaxedly, and the orchestra replied beautifully, the horns sounding particularly mellifluous. I enjoyed the capriciousness of the alternating “gypsy” episode, the violin-playing sweetly leading things back to the reprise of the opening, the music none the worse for its little romantic “adventure”.

Faure’s divertissement Masques et Bergamasques (“Maskers and Revellers”) originally included a piece that became one of his most well-known works, the Pavane, but it was published separately – the suite from the original 1919 stage work consists of just four movements, three of which come from a long-abandoned (1869) symphony, and one, the Pastorale, newly composed. We heard a bright, perky Overture, a limpid, atmospheric Minuet, with a grandly ceremonial Trio, a vigorous, high-stepping Gavotte also sporting a Trio, one with a beautiful melody, and finally a Pastorale, the only newly-composed piece, a flowing tune on strings nicely augmented by winds, followed by piquant phrases suggesting touches of melancholy. I thought it all pleasant enough without being greatly memorable.

Not so Ken Young’s In Memoriam David Farquhar, a piece for brass ensemble which immediately struck a deep and richly resonant vein of serious intent, while avoiding sentimentality. Trumpets took the themes to begin with then allowed the trombones some glory, the music featuring some well-rounded solos from both instruments. Composer Ken Young sought our pardon at presenting a piece of his own music at the concert, though he was forgiven readily under the circumstances. He also introduced the Symphony, making no secret of his admiration for and belief in the work as one of the most significant pieces of orchestral music to come out of this country.

Right from the opening bars of the work one sensed the purpose and focus of the sounds coming from the players, who were obviously inspired by the occasion – the opening phrase’s wonderfully angular and whimsical falling fifth/rising seventh combination here immediately opened up the music’s vistas to a range of possibilities, such as a delicious brass fanfare which the strings took over and tossed around. Then the orchestra suddenly lurched into a syncopated, upwardly progressive theme which galvanizes the music’s trajectories, the brass taking their cue, and excitedly giving the theme a Holst-like welcome.

Ken Young imbued each of these ideas with plenty of thrust and accent, the angularities building up the music to its last great climax, and to a kind of breakthrough into a strange and resonant ambient realm – a magical moment, as if one had suddenly looked up from some all-engrossing preoccupation and discovered that it was already evening. The players, after piling on their energies in layers, beautifully enabled a kind of glowing, almost crepuscular atmosphere, a territory to where the music was obviously headed, the opening angular theme now sounding like a bugle call heralding a fulfilled purpose.

To the second movement, now, and a world of magical and disconcerting transformations – ghostly shivers, mutterings and dry-as-dust timpani at the outset suddenly were swept up by toccata-like chattering fanfares which disconcertingly broke into dance mode a la commedia dell’arte, the dancers laughingly and mockingly circumventing the phantom figures of the opening, who eventually banded together and hoarsely cried “Enough!”

Here, Young and his musicians found exactly the right blend of mystery and sharp-edged attack which this music required to “speak” and work its enchantment. They brought off episode after episode with great aplomb, especially the sequence involving the Wagner-like brasses and chattering winds which conjured up Battle-of-Britain-like scenes, Spitfires and Hurricanes bursting though the clouds like avenging Valkyries. Again the commedia dell’arte dancers appeared, with their ironic laughter echoing down the music’s passageways, putting the portentous brasses to flight with a final flourish – a sequence of delicious ironies and enigmas, the orchestral writing masterly in every way.

Equally heroic was the orchestra’s full-blooded response to the finale’s tremendous “land uplifted high” gestures and textures, right from the moment the trumpet sounded the “call” to action. No more epic and heroic orchestral writing can be found in a home-grown orchestral work than in this movement, and after a trenchant ascent with the struggle made manifest every step of the way we were taken to the heights, and left there in wonderment at the place we’d reached and the wide-reaching range and scope of the journey.

I felt at the piece’s conclusion (a deeply-felt silence grew most movingly out of the final bars) that no more thrilling and satisfying realization of this long-neglected and deservedly relished work could have been achieved than here. Very great honour to Ken Young and to the musicians of the NZSM Orchestra, who enabled this music to come to life once more with the kind of commitment and sense of adventure and occasion that would have gladdened the composer’s heart.

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