Orchestra Wellington’s fifth concert excels with last works of Berlioz, Bartok and Tchaikovsky (almost)

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei and Vincent Hardaker, with Michael Houstoun at the piano
Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley, conducted by Vincent Hardaker

Arohanui Strings: arrangements of music by Purcell, Tchaikovsky (Serenade for Strings and the waltz from Sleeping Beauty)

Orchestra Wellington:
Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict (Berlioz)
Bartok: Piano Concerto No 3
Tchaikvosky: Nutcracker – Act II

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 October, 7:30 pm

This was the once-a-year event for the young musicians involved with the Hutt Valley Arohanui Strings, the project inspired by the famous Venezuelan institution, El Sistema. They filed in after some of Orchestra Wellington’s players had taken their seats: the more advanced ones taking seats alongside a professional player as mentor; the beginners spread across the front of the stage – some of them looked aged about four. They were conducted by the orchestra’s assistant conductor Vincent Hardaker, with assistance from the side by Alison Eldrigde, encouraging the littlies at the front.

Playing some simplified, though genuine classical pieces: Purcell, Tchaikovsky, Scottish dances, they charmed the audience.

Hardaker stayed to conduct the orchestra itself in the Béatrice et Bénédict overture, Berlioz’s last opera and though about six years before his death, really his last work. It’s based on Shakespeare’s Much ado about Nothing, written on commission from the Baden Baden Opera. Though it hasn’t taken root in the regular repertoire, I saw it staged by the Australian Opera in 1998; there’s some fine music, several quotes of which appear in the overture, which has always held its place in the orchestral repertoire. Its brightness and wit were splendidly captured by Hardaker and the players, with secretive little passages from clarinets, edgy brass and dancing violins.

Bartok’s last piano concerto, left a few bars short of completion when he died in New York in 1945, as WW2, too, was ending. I recalled with bemusement how barbaric it sounded when I first heard it in my late teens, which was, after all, only about 10 years after its composition.

Musicologists enjoy themselves identifyjng its odd modal tonalities; all quite beside the point. Any audience can assess its blending of Balkan folk music with ancient modes and contemporary musical obsessions, all overlaid by sheer musical inspiration. Houstoun approached the first movement with a sense of determination and energy, though its generally lyrical character emerged clearly, allowing melodic figures to take root; lovely flute notes at its end. It confirmed the admirable collaboration between Houstoun and conductor Taddei.

The second movement on the other hand can be heard simply as a rather beautiful piece of music, even though analysis shows characteristics uncommon in western classical music. But ‘beautiful’ hardly touches the enigmatic, spiritual, orphic quality of this singular movement. The orchestra alone and many individual players proved their capacity for exquisite, contemplative playing at the start and throughout there are some breathlessly calm, slow passages for the piano alone, Bach-like figurations, in which Houstoun captured a metaphysical spirit, perhaps the composer meditating on his imminent death – it’s entitled Adagio religioso. But then there’s an upbeat interlude, curiously alive with bird-calls in the middle, ending with skittering keyboard.

The third movement returns to an energetic, folk-dance-inspired Allegro vivace, where there’s still more opportunities for individual instruments to shine, like horns and the piano to indulge in fast fugal passages that come to envelope the whole orchestra.

In all, a splendid show-case for the orchestra and pianist, in one of the 20th century’s real masterpieces.

The opportunity to hear a whole of Act II of Nutcracker played without the distraction of dancers proved hugely rewarding, as the score is endlessly inventive and memorable as pure music, quite apart from its qualities of marvellous danceabilty with which choreographers and dancers have been able to create indelible productions.  While I have grown very tired of performances of the Suite that compacts the character dances, in their setting, as little orchestral pieces played by a live orchestra in the concert hall, they sit perfectly in context; their genius, their instrumental brilliance, and the way they flow the one into the next is simply a delight. The programme note records that Nureyev said that it was Tchaikovsky who encouraged serious composers to engage with choreographers, making possible masterpieces like the Stravinsky ballets, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, Prokofiev, as well as dozens of wonderful scores by other great 20th century composers.

Nutcracker engages with an orchestra, inspiring spirited and moving playing from almost every section and including a few instruments like the celesta which Tchaikovsky was the first to use symphonically (though Chausson had actually beaten him by a few years with incidental music for a French version of The Tempest). It’s the great Pas de deux that follows the Waltz of the Flowers that especially enchants me, and it was wonderful to hear this played so well by a ‘live’ orchestra.

Nutcracker mightn’t have fitted perfectly with the ‘Last Words’ theme of this year’s concerts, for the Sixth Symphony, and some piano pieces and songs followed it. But it served a higher purpose: to elevate the genre of great ballet music to the concert hall, and with this performance Marc Taddei proved the case most convincingly.

Taddei gave the first clues to the 2017 programme, which will follow the same most successful pattern as this year, disclosing the general theme of the music, associated with the great impresario Diaghilev, and at least two of his greatest collaborators: Stravinsky and Ravel. If you buy before the next and last of this year’s concerts, the sub is only $120.


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