Triumphant concert from Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir: Beethoven and Haydn

Orchestra Wellington, Orpheus Choir, conducted by Marc Taddei with Rusem Khamidullin (cello)

Haydn: Cello Concerto in C, Hob. VII-1
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125 ‘Choral’ (soloists: Jenny Wollerman, Elisabeth Harris, Henry Choo, Warwick Fyfe)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 11 June, 7:30 pm

First of all.
What’s happening to Wellington’s orchestra? In the last five or six years the orchestra, now known as Orchestra Wellington, has built a quite extraordinary record of successful concerts with pretty full houses, which seem to have gained their popularity through attractive prices; and imaginative thematic programmes, usually the entire series adhering to a common theme of some kind; plus the choice of soloists, whose concertos have often been related to the theme.

Ticket prices have been kept surprisingly low, vindicating the belief that any feared loss is more than compensated by the sheer number of seats sold; so as well as achieving a perhaps better financial result, there have often been sold-out concerts which must indicate that many non-regular concert goers have been enticed to come. And many of them are seduced by the power of great music.

I must also mention free programmes; such an intelligent policy, as it ensures people know about things like the number of movements (and so, when to clap), but more importantly offers a bit of basic information for newcomers to classical music. It is disturbing to note the numbers who turn away from programme sellers at other musical events when the price is mentioned: how absurd to waste all the effort and expense on a booklet that not very many read, when there is a glaring need to take every chance to enlarge musical knowledge in audiences that have been left ill-educated by our education system.

In 2015 and this year, a new policy has been adopted: selling the six-concert series, sight unseen in terms of programmes and soloists, for a really low price. This year, as information has been drip-fed, the season price has increased, to a level rather beyond the impecunious.
It works!

This year’s series is called Last Words, and the first five concerts include works written shortly before the composers’ deaths. Perhaps no more than five presented great orchestral works in their last years, though Franck, Bruckner, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich would seem to be candidates (one can think of several who wrote beautiful piano, chamber or choral music or opera in their last years, but didn’t produce orchestral music that made it).

Haydn from cellist Khamidullin
The Russian cellist Rustem Khamidullin won first prize in the 2014 Gisborne International Music Competition; this concerto date was presumably part of the prize. He was born in Ufa in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan (Chaliapin, Nureyev, and the distinguished bass Ildar Abdrazakov were born there too); his name suggests Volga Tartar origin, the same ethnic origin as the eminent composer Gubaidulina.

Anyone who was inclined to think that the early Haydn concerto was just a filler, would have had a big surprise, as Khamidullin delivered a performance of the first of the two concertos, in C major, that carried us far from any predictable expectations. Haydn’s fame is not founded on his concertos, though there are four for violin, the famous trumpet one, several for other wind instruments, perhaps about 10 for keyboard, and the other cello concerto written about ten years after the first.

Khamidullin immediately established an atmosphere that was quite entrancing: refined, of the utmost delicacy, almost spiritual in character, which Taddei’s direction implanted with the orchestra in absolute sympathy with the soloist. His playing was fluid, indulged sometimes in ‘scoops’ (portamenti) that no one of any sensibility could have criticised, as they were in perfect accord with the musical canvas that he was painting. And though the occasional bravura flourishes were brilliant, they too were much more an aspect of the dreamy and graceful interpretation, not only of the Adagio, but also of the more extravert outer movements.

He delighted in producing a warm intimacy on his lower strings, alternating, in the Allegro molto last movement, with exciting staccato phrases, crisp and lyrical. It was a flawless performance, accompanied by a suitably pared-down orchestra whose playing had the same light-footed and finely-spun quality.

Without a great deal of urging, though his reception was exuberant, Khamidullin sat down and charged through the violin show-piece, Hora Staccato (Grigoraş Dinicu), as if it been written for his own instrument.

The Choral Symphony
Beethoven, and certain other composers, seem to attract the critical ear of many critics (that’s their job, sadly), in respect of use of authentic instruments, employing the ‘right numbers’ of orchestral players, delivering ornaments in keeping with the aesthetic tastes of the music’s era, and adhering to the speeds suggested by the composer (if these are credible), or by those musicologists currently in fashion, who allow themselves to pronounce on those things.

The first thing that struck me with this Choral Symphony, was its fervent, ebullient character, part of which was tempi. The first words in my notes, in fact, included, ‘fast’, ‘secure’, ‘excitement’, which represented my response to a feeling of huge exhilaration. Taddei did not have the score before him, and while that must not be regarded as clear evidence of absolute mastery or musical superiority, it often suggests that a conductor doesn’t want to find his eyes wandering needlessly away from the faces of the players and singers, with whom a conductor’s first priority should rest.

Orchestra Wellington is of course fortunate in being able to borrow players from the NZSO (in a few key positions in the basses, one or two winds and timpanist Larry Reese) and having a few former NZSO players in its ranks. But the orchestra’s manpower consists almost entirely of native Orchestra Wellington players.  Trumpets, horns, woodwinds made impacts that were exciting, there was clarity and warmth in the strings, and the entire orchestra sounded as if the speeds demanded were well within their abilities.

The contrasts between the big thematic statements and the more meditative, evolving passages in between were dramatically captured, the tension sustained, though the music was quieter and elegantly crisp.

The Scherzo, Molto vivace, held no terrors for the orchestra, as replica, 18th century timpani, with hard sticks, inspired the orchestra to ever more exertion, with triplet quavers and the impact of incessant dotted rhythms, through momentary accelerations. Here were repeated displays of beautiful woodwind playing, Merran Cooke’s oboe distinctively, that often determined the movement’s character.

The third movement is long and beautiful, and it was only here that I had slight misgivings about the pace; not that it was too quick, but whether it quite sustained the transfiguring spirituality that has to dominate it. But the second theme, in the hands of the strings, took firm hold and later, horns, soon proved that Taddei remained in command of the propulsion and momentum of the movement, drawing attention to Beethoven’s imaginative command of orchestration, in spite of total deafness by this time.

Singers enter for An die Freude
The half-hour long last movement opened with the overwhelming confidence of a bigger and more famous orchestra, hard timpani and a cacophony of wind instruments, soon followed by cellos and basses presaging the baritone’s recitative-like opening, ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne’. Any earlier wondering about the weight of the cellos and basses after their commanding pronouncements, dissipated at once; yet where the big theme, later to take charge as ‘Freude schöne Götterfunken…’, was announced by cellos and basses, all the hushed spirituality was there.

The baritone’s lone entry, calling things to order, is probably scary even for the most experienced singer, but Warwick Fyfe was firm and confident, as if the first notes were comfortably within his range, every word clear. As well as the timpani, the bass drum, on the left, also made a stunning impact. Finally the choir arrived, very large, and clearly responding to a command to ‘give it all they’ve got’; not only was the force of Schiller’s words thrilling, but somehow their numbers made the fortissimo singing, perhaps not nice in a small choir, totally arresting. The words were remarkably clear and delivered as if the future of mankind really was in their hands. It was one of those inspirational occasions when one dreams of imprisoning the world’s worst criminals and terrorists in a mighty concert hall to hear this, and watching their evil character fall away as the spiritual power of words and music delivered an ecstatic message that none could withstand (as long as the Alla marcia didn’t have the opposite effect).

The soloists for the fourth movement were placed behind the orchestra, at the front of the choir, a position that is sometimes felt to diminish their impact. I was sitting on the left (facing the orchestra) and so was not able to tell whether there was any problem in the body of the auditorium; but when the soloists entered with ‘Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen’, it came with a reassurance that their sounds were undiminished.

Tenor Henry Choo and Fyfe found themselves alone with their ‘Freude trinken alle Wesen’ (Schiller’s third stanza); a happy pairing. And after the Alla Marcia, tenor Henry Choo was conspicuous in his solo with words from the fourth stanza, ‘Froh, froh wie seine Sonne’.

Certain parts are intensely moving: the return of the first chorus after the long, 6/8, Alla marcia episode, and the descent to the hymn-like ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen’ for tenor and bass soloists, with its octave parts.  The women’s voices alone provided one of the most glorious passages, both through their dynamic impulse and their expression of such passion through the words. And though neither soprano nor mezzo soloists, Jenny Wollerman and Elisabeth Harris, had the exposure that tenor and baritone enjoyed, their singing in the quartet was always vivid , spiritual in its message, in perfect accord and interestingly, a bit apart from the tenor and bass singing with them.

All soloists singing alone, particularly their last passage with ‘Freude, Tochter aus Elisium’, contributed a particular ecstatic emotion, The chief glory of the performance was the power and almost unbridled ecstasy of the choir, partly a result of its sheer size, even more, the conspicuous care taken with diction and admirably scrupulous ensemble. And that energy never diminished till the choir’s final pages, their fortissimo clamour finally taken up by the orchestra, which sustained it with total excitement right to the final spacious chords.

The applause was tumultuous and it encompassed everyone from Mark Taddei, through the orchestra, the choir and all the soloists.


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