America: NZSO performances of brilliant new violin concerto plus Dvořák in New York and Reich in minimalist heaven

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fawzi Haimor with Anne Akiko Meyers (violin)

Steve Reich: Three Movements
Mason Bates: Violin Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95 (‘From the New World’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 8 October, 7:30 pm

Once upon a time to have scheduled the New World Symphony would have guaranteed a pretty full house in spite of its being accompanied by unfamiliar music. But sometimes I think that as the years pass, the general public is becoming, not more open and adventurous, and simply ‘well-informed’ in the arts, and music too, but less in all those spheres.

And there are various reasons: slavery to the flat black screen, perhaps the cost of tickets, disagreeable weather outside, but most importantly, the lack of exposure on all popular radio and television channels, to anything but the most vacuous noises and sights of the tawdry, commercialised world of entertainment; and a school curriculum that avoids much real exposure to worthwhile music, or the other arts, including literature.

So there were too many empty seats for what turned out to be a splendid, enjoyable concert and the ‘happy few’ – I mean, really ‘quite a large number’ went pretty wild after each piece.

Steve Reich’s earlier New Zealand appearance
The first piece was a chance to recall the great days of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts (as it was then), in 1990, the first of the two under the direction of Chris Doig. One of the many exciting international visitors was Steve Reich and the Musicians, who played inter alia, Reich’s famous, holocaust-related Different Trains.

Perhaps trains have a special place in Reich’s life, for the piece played on Saturday, Three Movements, has inspired a performance on You Tube, played by the LSO under Michael Tilson Thomas, accompanied entirely by a film by Alessandro Manfredi featuring trains in Switzerland, some speeded up to accompany the outer fast  movements, some slowed for the middle movement. It’s a riveting, infectious experience, for a lover of both trains and music.

Three Movements for Orchestra
So was the NZSO’s performance. Coincidentally or calculatedly, the performance celebrated Reich’s 80th birthday, on 3 October.

The centre stage was occupied by two marimbas, two vibraphones and two pianos, which squeezed the strings to the sides; they were divided into two distinct string orchestras. It starts with marimbas and piano in fast alternating beats, with excitement created by shifting tonalities (accompanied in the You Tube clip as white and red, high-speed Swiss and occasional Deutsche Bahn passenger trains flash through, intensifying the excitement of the music). While the pulse remains steady, the rhythm changes to become more and more difficult to identify as sections of the orchestra handle overlapping harmonies and rhythms.

The middle movement runs at half the speed of the outer movements with vibraphones taking over the main rhythmic work and woodwinds, notably clarinets and oboes (winds are limited to pairs of each, but four horns and triple trumpets and trombones) dominate the colouring. The third movement resumes the speed of the first, but intensifies the experience as both marimbas and vibes and the pianos increase the density, loudness and rhythmic complexity. Reich draws attention to his penchant for rhythmic ambiguity and coins the term ‘canonic mensuration’ to describe the way his motifs appear simultaneously in two or more speeds. Even though it’s not easy to keep track of the pulses, they are undeniably fascinating and compelling.

American conductor Fawzi Haimor electrified the orchestra with gestures that were vivid and lucid; it was an occasion when the orchestra’s international quality and acumen were both in high demand and met the competition with formidable success.

Bates: Violin Concerto
Similar strengths were demanded by the next work by 39 year old Mason Bates who has made an impact in the United States. It was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin in 2012. Bates is composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, having just completed five years in a similar role with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He followed the violin concerto with one for the cello; his first opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, will premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2017.

It looks as if its performances in New Zealand are among the few so far outside the United States, if my Internet browsing reflects the situation. The violin concerto has been recorded by the London Symphony under Slatkin with Anne Akiko Meyers, the soloist in Wellington; and the European premiere was by the Orchestre national de Lyon last year. In the United States it’s been played by orchestras in Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra and others no doubt that don’t appear on my computer screen.

And incidentally, Bates’s website and others highlight the three-city tour by the NZSO.

Bates is travelling the road that was paved by the minimalists, Glass, Reich and Riley, but his palette is rather more eclectic, not adhering to the habits of repetitiveness felt in the early minimalists. Like most younger composers who are more interested in giving audiences a good time than impressing musicologists, he avoids serialist dogma and complex, tuneless music such as his compatriots Morton Feldman or Elliott Carter produced.

I found an interesting observation in an American review of Bates’s music, touching the direction of classical music today:
“… classical music and its audiences love young dynamos who satisfy the urge for innovation while continuing the traditions of the classical canon. Bates presents cutting-edge concerts and writes big pieces for orchestra that are essentially 21st-century tone poems, or musical narratives.”
It’s not irrelevant that he moonlights as a DJ, is deep into electronica, and the sophisticated areas of pop music.

So what does the violin concerto sound like? What are its influences?
Though I didn’t find many distinct echoes of earlier composers, there were glimpses of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, inter alia, certain of the pulsating passages of his violin concerto; and you can hear sounds that, in a couple of decades from now, will define the time and place of this music. Thinking about violin concerto models, the fast movements of John Corigliano’s ‘Red Violin’ Concerto is not far away.

The piece doesn’t demand a Straussian or Mahlerian sized orchestra: strings numbered 14 first violins down to six basses; there’s a piano and some interesting percussion that I could hear but not see.

Bates and the primitive birds
Then there’s the illustrative aspect. Bates’s own notes describe how he fastened on depicting a chase between two mesozoic animals, of the Jurassic age (around 150 million years ago): the bird-like Archaeopteryx lithographica chasing a compsognathid (Compsognathus longipes) at night. Though I’m really not interested in dinosaurs, it was not hard to be fascinated by the music itself, listening to the contest between the two creatures, through frantic, pulsating, skittering sounds alternating with the violin’s rather gorgeously lyrical, soaring music.

There was, naturally, a very special feel in the violin’s part, since we were privileged to have the commissioner/dedicatee/performer of the premiere playing with the NZSO; they were indeed driven by the combination of Meyers’s intensity and soulfulness, and the elegant, energetic conducting of Haimor. While the orchestral part of the work is full of entertainment and uncluttered virtuosity, the violin was so constantly the centre of attention that it was too easy to miss the delights conspicuous in the orchestra.

The second movement, called ‘Lakebed Memories’, took us from the actual Jurassic age to viewing a mesozoic lakebed, perhaps from the present day, in a series of slow, falling phrases from the violin and semi-glissandi pizzicato from cellos and some curious sounds from percussion, e.g. crotales(?) and glockenspiel(?).

In the middle of the third movement the orchestra gave way entirely to the violinist who raced away with endless oscillating figures representing ‘The Rise of the Birds’, another opportunity for flight, breathless ascents, or peaceful gliding on up-draughts, as the by-now-familiar, beautiful soaring motif comes to dominate until the relatively matter-of-fact ending.

I doubt that the orchestral performance was any less brilliant and convincing that those by the premiering orchestra, Pittsburgh, and others that have played it. It was one of the most attractive and engaging pieces of contemporary music I’ve come across for a while.

The New World Symphony
After the interval, the ‘New World’ Symphony did not feel like a retreat to old-fashioned music, something one knew too well, that had become hackneyed. Though other composers like Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, of the period when Dvořák wrote it (the 1890s) have now come to dominate, to hear such a vibrant and vivid performance was to be reminded that it was no disgrace to have become more immediately popular than the other composers I mentioned.

The opening, extremely calm with strings and a telling clarinet note, and then a surprising, extra-fortissimo call to attention from Lenny Sakofsky’s hard-sticked timpani and Greg Hill’s horn. To watch conductor Haimor again, in main-stream repertoire (and here, no score), bending to the same emphases and gestures, the balletic movements that galvanised the auditorium in the first half in music of our day, made clear the essentially contemporary nature of the symphony. Every section of the orchestra, now at full strength – 16 first violins down to 8 basses – seemed to be electrified by the call to deliver a message of this kind: breathy, slow and quiet flute, velvety horns, and in the famous Largo tune, cor anglais and then bassoons, in playing that quite eliminated any sense of its being over-familiar.

And the Scherzo movement was alive with variety and subtlety, with scrupulous articulation everywhere. The Finale – con fuoco – further upped the emotional temperature where sudden switches of tempo, dynamics, discretion and brashness, brilliant orchestration and, as the programme note remarks, Dvořák’s unending melodic invention, create one of the most colourful and arousing of orchestral finales. An early experience of the symphony came to mind, hearing, in the late 1950s the opening of the Finale used as a sensational promotional tool in a sampler LP of the ‘new stereophonic recording technique’ , when the breathtaking opening assaulted the ears seemingly from every direction.

Not much has changed.
This concert will go down as one of the real highlights of musical 2016.

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