The Orpheus Choir and Orchestra Wellington at Sea with Brent Stewart

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents:

also – MENDELSSOHN – Overture “The Hebrides”
BRITTEN – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”

Lisa Harper-Brown (soprano)
James Clayton (baritone)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Orchestra Wellington
Brent Stewart (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 7th May, 2016

Avast, me hearties!  Time to batten down the ‘atches and splice yer mainbraces, ready to lend an ear to these ‘ere tales o’ the Seven Seas, as retold by the Cap’n ‘n crew of the good ship Orchestra Wellington, with sister-vessel Orpheus ready to heave-to for the grand sail-past!…….well, that’s probably enough nautical language to give readers an idea regarding this concert (in fact I was starting to get worried as to where my next seafaring expression was coming from, so I’m happy to return to “landlubber mode” for the remainder of this review!

From the moment the orchestra launched into the opening of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture, we were all truly at sea, our sensibilities registering the ebb and flow of the oceanic swells, the tang of the salt spray and the sense of wide open spaces created by both wind and brass, bird calls and ship signals pushing out the vistas towards distant islands and horizons.

The whole piece is a truly remarkable recreation of a maritime scenario, one which many New Zealanders will readily identify with as a result of living so close to the sea – in fact conductor Brent Stewart expressed in a program note his own affinities with the ocean as a result of various childhood experiences. As the overture proceeded one sensed his direction of the music becoming freer and increasingly “taken up” by the music’s evocations along the way, especially with those moments of deep repose in between the watery undulations, and with the contrasting excitement of his “whipping up” the canonic strings-and-winds exchanges midway through.

Things were very beautifully rounded off by the duetting clarinets (one instrument most beguilingly becoming two) towards the end, leading to a final frenzy of waves breaking over a rugged coastline, the conductor again pushing the tempo and encouraging from his players a vigorous and exciting ferment of activity, which abruptly died away, leaving the opening theme as a single distant, haunting bird-call – here, only the final note seemed to me a shade too abruptly curtailed for its distance to properly register.

More oceanic splendours were to be had with Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from the opera “Peter Grimes”.  I enjoyed the fresh, bracing tang of “Dawn” with its opening bird-cries, and was gripped by the incredible depth and dark-browed spaciousness of the lower instruments with their portentous replying crescendi. The tolling bells of “Sunday Morning” burst forth without ceremony, a true “attacca” and at a terrific pace, the counterpointing winds throaty and characterful, squawking with what seemed like native dialects!  After an angular exchange between strings and winds, the bells returned with terrific impact, even though a couple of the decrescendo-strokes didn’t through some kind of attrition quite “ring true”.

The third Interlude “Moonlight” sounded to my ears more pointillistic than atmospheric, the brass, winds and percussion notes brought out, and given a spiky-sounding character, not merely in the manner of a pretty nocturnal picture – even so, the biting incisiveness of the final “Storm” took one’s breath away with its fury and frenetic pace. The players dealt with their conductor’s pacing brilliantly, throwing fingerfuls of detail about in what seemed like an uncalculated and spontaneous-sounding way, which worked spectacularly well. A shadowy and goblin-like sequence featured spiked winds and moaning strings which were taken up by the baleful brasses and hurled down the cliff-edge onto the rocks below – shattering!

The Orpheus Choir, along with soprano Lisa Harper-Brown and baritone James Clayton, took the stage with the orchestra after the interval for the evening’s REAL business in hand – Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. Written between 1903 and 1909, the piece was its composer’s first full-scale symphonic work, and at once placed him not only within the British choral tradition, but in the ranks of the symphonists following Parry, Sullivan, Stanford, German and, most importantly, Elgar. The work also reflected a current vogue among British composers (Holst and Delius as well) for settings of the poetry of American Walt Whitman.

During the time Vaughan Williams took to complete this symphony he spent three months studying with French composer Maurice Ravel. While the finished symphony shows certain stylistic and harmonic influences stemming from Ravel (and French music in general) the composer of the Pavane pour une Infanta defunte and Rapsodie Espagnole paid tribute to his pupil by exclaiming at one stage that Vaughan Williams was “the only one of my students that does not write my music”.

As might have been expected with a first symphony from a young composer the work has an arresting opening, attention-grabbing brass chords and a full-throated choral declamation, hurling forth the words “Behold! – the sea itself!”  Here, the choir’s voices galvanized our sensibilities right from the beginning, though for whatever reason the brasses’ attack on the initial notes was curiously soft-grained, lacking for me a certain scalp-prickling quality, both here and at the fanfare’s reprise after the first sequence concluding with “the long pennants of smoke”. Elsewhere, the playing was very much “on-the-spot” from all departments, and all sections of the choir sounded glorious from where I was sitting.

I was eagerly awaiting the contributions from the soloists, both of whose work I had previously encountered. Starting almost conversationally, with his “Today, a brief, rude recitative…”, baritone James Clayton steadily built up the energies and intensities towards “and the winds piping and blowing”, before giving us a sonorous “And out of these”, and then relishing his full-blooded exchanges with the choir at “untamed as thee!”. Soprano Lisa Harper-Brown threw herself splendidly into the swim of things with a commanding “Flaunt out, O Sea!…”, her voice strong and steady there and later with her “Token of all brave captains…..”, and riding excitingly over the massed textures just before the movement’s rapt “All seas, all ships” concluding phrases.

At the beginning of the slow movement, conductor and players caught the dark depths and charged stillnesses of the orchestral writing. I wanted at first a slightly stronger line from the baritone, whose words didn’t quite carry to me through the accompanying textures, though once the horns began their processional at “A vast similitude interlocks all” the singer’s energies found a new gear and conveyed more tonal presence and clarity. After the choir had regaled us with its sonorous “This vast similitude”, it was left to the soloist and orchestra to return us to the hushed sonorities of the opening, conductor and orchestra once again evoking the dark sounds of the “old mother….singing her husky song”.

The scherzo, subtitled “The Waves”, for chorus and orchestra, was delivered with terrific élan throughout, amid traditional sea-shanties and wind-borne spray singing and dancing above the “myriad, myriad waves hastening, lifting up their necks….”. The Orpheus’ voices relished their interaction with the swirling textures of the orchestral writing, with the different instrumental groups on top form and in perfect accord. Vaughan Williams’ use of chromatic and whole-tone scales to depict the action of the waves and the spray-laden ambiences contrasted stirringly with the nobilmente striding theme depicting “the great vessel sailing”, the choir left at the end to exultantly pin back our ears with their final, unaccompanied “following!” – a great moment!

Traditionally composers have a lot of trouble with the final movements of their symphonies – but Vaughan Williams seemed here in his fourth and last movement “The Explorers” to produce his best music of the work. Conductor Brent Stewart allowed his forces plenty of space and time at the outset, floating the chorus’s brooding “O vast rondure, swimming in space” steadily, almost ritualistically, against a beautiful orchestral tapestry characterizing the “processions of suns, moons and countless stars above”. Moving to describe the “myriad progeny” of Adam and Eve as “baffled, formless, feverish, with never happy hearts”, the composer set disembodied offstage voices in a manner not unlike in Wagner’s “Parsifal” intoning the words “Wherefore unsatisfied soul?” and “Whither, O mocking life?”, here magically realized by some of the Orpheus’s female voices.

Again, each of the soloists performed wonders, from their fresh and eager interchanges at “O, we can wait no longer”, and throughout the rapt beauties of “O Soul, thou pleasest me!”, rising to an ecstatic climax at “O, thou transcendent” – the solo violin needed in places more ethereal as well as occasionally surer tones, but otherwise reliably supported the voices in tandem with the winds. Then at the chorus’s “Greater than stars or sun”, the soloists enjoined us amid a volley of nautical terms, to “shake out every sail”, without delay – “Away, O Soul – hoist instantly the anchor”, to the accompaniment of hornpipes and jigs punctuated by enthusiastic percussion crashes and cries from the chorus to “Sail forth, steer for the deep waters only” – truly stirring stuff!

After chorus and orchestra exhausted themselves declaring that they “will risk the ship, ourselves and all”, amid frenetic energies and terrific upheavals of energy, soprano and baritone brought the work to an ecstatic conclusion, equating these, the Soul’s oceanic journeyings with life and its challenges and fulfilments, and sharing with the chorus and orchestra a richly-wrought sense of continuing exploration, with all voices murmuring “O farther, farther sail”, as the music gradually disappeared. Thanks to an inspired performance from Brent Stewart and his forces, we were given, by the end, a real sense of the vastness of the composer’s vision and his determination to realise his view of things in his big-boned, full-blooded music.

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