NZSO ‘wastes its sweetness upon the desert air’ with some splendid, approachable, 21st century music

Aotearoa Plus
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey with Stephen de Pledge (piano)

Bramwell Tovey: Time Tracks
Magnus Lindberg: Piano concerto No 2
Christopher Blake: Voices (premiere)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 6 May, 6:30 pm

Above all, this concert again raised for me the old controversy about the handling of new music. Whether it is best to ghettoize music that is unlikely to find a large audience, or to place these pieces carefully in concerts that include an irresistibly popular masterpiece.

If the intention is to persuade the timid to expose their minds to something unfamiliar, the size of Friday’s audience showed again that approach No 1 does not work, for very few of the ‘conservatives’ would have been there, and so the hope of getting the reluctant to open their ears, failed.

It’s not as if much music being composed today uses the kinds of artificial notions of what the basic patterns of melodic structure should be, so widespread at mid-century. Though polytonality is often used and conventional melody often seems avoided in case it suggests that a ‘serious’ piece of music is really lightweight, much music, including what our own composers produce can actually be enjoyed by simply opening the ears, without prejudice.

Tovey’s opera suite from The Inventor
This first visit to New Zealand by English-born, Canadian conductor, pianist and composer, Bramwell Tovey, revealed an accomplished, versatile musician who has conducted a number of distinguished orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Montreal and Melbourne Symphony, and the Philadelphia orchestras. He has been conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 2000. His compositions range across many genres, including the 2011 work for Calgary Opera, The Inventor, which was well received there. This concert began with the premiere of an orchestral suite, Time Tracks, the second suite that Tovey has drawn from his opera. The opera tells the true story of a charismatic con-man with a variety of versatile criminal talents than culminated in an unintended climax on the Bremerhaven docks: an insurance swindle goes wrong with an explosion that kills about eighty people.

Tovey introduced his piece entertainingly, useful for those who had not bought a programme. I’m not sure that the music was much more enlivened by accounts of the opera’s subject, as it stood on its own feet as an obviously dramatic sequence, opening with bold and colourful statements. It revealed a facility in handling narrative and situational elements through the use of a wide variety of tuned percussion, as well as tam-tams and hand bells and the usual range of drums, occasional solos and episodes from orchestral sections that were attractive or arresting in their own right. A couple of times, Tovey stepped off the podium to play a honky-tonk piano to his left, a sort of bluesy lament and later evoking a dreamy quality, no doubt reflecting the opera’s depiction of the flawed character’s insight into his own weaknesses. Among the many evocative phases in the score are touches of big-band jazz and motifs and harmonies that hint at the influence of John Adams. A particularly vivid moment is the depiction of a train gathering speed.

Piano Concerto No 2 by Lindberg
Lindberg’s second piano concerto was written with the character of its soloist (Yefim Bronfman, who has played with the NZSO), with the New York Philharmonic, very much in mind. In the words of the programme note, it was a response to Bronfman’s “muscular performances of Bartok and Prokofiev”. The sound and energy of those two composers were certainly audible in the music, but at the beginning, also Ravel (though not, as the programme note suggested, Debussy); Lindberg himself has mentioned Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand as inspiring the music. Inevitably, one can also be persuaded of the influence of other 20th century composers, even Rachmaninov in the last movement, perhaps Szymanowski too.

A throbbing motif imposes itself early on, but soon the piano attempts to impose itself. For much of the time, it failed, not because De Pledge lacked the ability to bring the right amount of energy and incisiveness to the performance, but because a great deal of the time, Lindberg cannot resist imposing a massive accompaniment that smothers the piano. I came to feel that this was perhaps more the result of a failure to impose restraint on and require greater discretion and subtlety from the orchestra; it was after all, a larger than normal orchestra with extra brass instruments and pains were needed to find whatever chamber-music-like qualities existed in the scoring.

The piano had its moments nevertheless, such as the start of the second movement, and between what one felt were obligatory hair-raising, bravura passages, there was sufficient evidence of the presence of a real instinct for the great piano concerto tradition as it has evolved in the past century. There was a passage of attractively warm playing from cellos; horns contributed with finesse, and there was no question that the score lay well within the orchestra’s interpretive abilities.

Christopher Blake’s second symphony
Finally, the second half, was Christopher Blake’s second symphony, entitled Voices, based in sometimes quite literal ways on Eliot’s The Waste Land. A daunting task, one might think, to find musical intimations or coherence in that still-disturbing poem, laden with abstruse classical and modern literary and musical references. Blake doesn’t employ the titles Eliot gave to the five cantos of the poem, but focuses on the people who populate each part.

Here, in contrast to the music in the first half however, was a piece that employs as large an orchestra with wonderful discretion, only rarely allowing full tuttis to emphasise aspects. Blake’s notes draw attention to the way his symphony has cross references between the movements and, though reassuring us that the music does stand alone, without reference to the poem itself, that “it is amplified and harnesses other worlds of meaning when viewed through the lens of Eliot’s poem”. So I look forward to the performance being released by the NZSO and Radio New Zealand Concert, accompanied by a gloss with annotations to help the listener elucidate more of the music’s secrets and its connections to the poem.

Its character was announced right at the start with a prolonged, unison horn evocation, followed by a startling attack from wood blocks; then mysterious string murmurings. It’s in the first part that Eliot quotes four lines of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, “Frisch weht der Wind…”, with electrifying musical impact, and the music is there. The second part, ‘Albert and Lil’, (A Game of Chess in Eliot), is coloured with gently sleazy blues sounds, involving various instruments, including an alto saxophone, played seductively.

Perhaps the fifth section was the most intriguing and enigmatic, starting with a shocking attack from tuned percussion, and soon one of the few passages for the full orchestra with propulsive, racing strings, with its references to things not in the actual poem, but in Eliot’s notes, like the journey to Emmaus and Shackleton, a fine oboe solo, and a great variety of brilliant, cleanly-used, individual instruments, raising in one’s mind more questions than answers, especially in one’s effort to recall the poem.

Each section bears its own tone and significance, as does the poem itself, and I remained, quite simply, thoroughly engaged by the sound world that was created as well as by an admiration for the composer’s evident intention to employ the orchestra to display so well the strengths of its soloists and of each section. A very nice way for a chief executive to compliment his employees for their skill and dedication, not simply in his own composition but for the huge contribution that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra makes in the protection, against the sort of decaying and decadent cultural forces described by Eliot in 1922, of some civilized standards in this country.