The NZSO at seventy with an inspired programme for a full house

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Seventieth Anniversary Concert

Music by Dvořák, Prokofiev, Elgar, Gareth Farr, Stravinsky, Verdi, Sibelius, Ron Goodwin, Strauss

Michael Fowler Centre

Monday 6 March 2017, 7 pm

All three Middle C reviewers collaborated in reviewing this momentous concert. We paid attention in our first name alphabetic order. The first, fourth and seventh are Lindis’s, second, fifth and eighth, Peter’s, and the others, Rosemary’s.

Introduction (LT)

In keeping with the feisty critical tradition established by Beaglehole and Finlay at that first concert on 6 March 1947, let’s start with a little grizzle.

Wonderful for Wellington to be offered a free concert to mark the premiere of the then National Orchestra in the Wellington Town Hall (which, unlike the orchestra, has not been as determinedly looked after).

Wonderful to be offered free programmes.

And the MFC was booked out a week before.

But here was a chance to pull out all the stops.

For a wee bit more money the programme could have offered information about why each piece was chosen (that was, admittedly, covered by the introductions by orchestral members); but most importantly, to give a bit of the most interesting background to the founding of the orchestra and its fortunes in its first year. A great opportunity to educate the audience!

Go to the last section to read about the adventures of the orchestra’s establishment and first year or so

National Anthem and overture (LT)

First, one must acknowledge the resurrection of a disappeared tradition – the playing of the national anthem; here Oswald Cheesman’s arrangement of ‘God defend New Zealand’, instead of the British national anthem that was played in the 1940s and for many years after that too. It was, no doubt, to acknowledge the presence of the Governor General.  All stood and some even joined in singing in both languages.

The first work was the same as had opened the very first programme in 1947: Dvořák’s Carnival overture, and one tried to imagine what it might have sounded like then. This simply sounded like a performance by the best German and American orchestras combined: extraordinary subtlety and beauty from the full string body, elegant and throaty trombones, and exquisitely refined playing from oboes, bassoons, and all the woodwinds; it was a nice opportunity for the solo violin passage to be heard from Vesa-Matti Leppänen. The playing was all splendidly balanced, and it became, unostentatiously, an exhibition of orchestral fireworks that has ensured that it maintains its place among the showpiece works when an orchestra wants to display its virtuosity, power and refinement, all together.

At the end, violinist Greg Squire gave a general introduction to the concert, which set the pattern for spoken offerings before most of the pieces: no mayors, cabinet ministers, captains of industry or comedians; just those most intimately involved in making the music – the players themselves.

Prokofiev (PM)
Announcing the concert’s single soloist, Greg Squire made reference to the “special relationship” between the orchestra and Michael Houstoun, ever since the 1974 tour of Australia made by the orchestra with both the pianist and with Kiri te Kanawa, which was highly successful. Of course, of late Houstoun’s been more often associated with Orchestra Wellington, though one still remembers not-too-far-off occasions when the Houstoun/NZSO partnership  produced something vibrant and unique – a Rachmaninov Fourth Concerto with Vasily Petrenko conducting won’t be easily forgotten by those who heard it.

Houstoun has played and recorded the Prokofiev Third Concerto with James Judd conducting, for Trust Records, so there’s a certain “history” in this work with the pianist and the NZSO – Houstoun chose the slow movement of the work for the concert, a beautiful “Theme and-Variations” outpouring of bitter-sweet lyricism, punctuated by lively, spikier sequences. Here the opening “theme” was exquisitely coloured by the orchestra, and bluesily echoed by the piano, before a musical cat was, it seemed, set among the pigeons, creating flurries of motoric energy puctuated with cries of alarm and agitation, the piano suggesting changing to a jolly game of triplets for the third variation, which here came slightly adrift, the piano fractionally “out” with the orchestra until the fourth variation quietly and dreamily restored order.

Amends were made by all concerned with the fifth variation, energetic and constantly growing more and more insistent, until suddenly, amid the chatter of the figurations the original theme made a magical reappearance, the whole rounded off by a cadential passage which seemed to say, “And now you know the story of……….” before quietly and enigmatically disappearing into silence.

Elgar (RC)

The third work on the programme was Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, Op.15 no.1, published in 1899, an orchestration of a work written about ten years earlier. In his introduction Donald Armstrong, long-serving Associate-Concertmaster of the orchestra, spoke of the various leaders/concertmasters (and some of their characteristics and wise-cracks), and of playing and recording Elgar works with Music Director Emeritus James Judd, in whose honour this piece was performed.

What was the delight of the audience to see former Concertmaster Wilma Smith step up from where she had been playing at fourth desk (after introducing the concert over the loudspeaker earlier) to lead the orchestra in this work, an orchestra much bigger at 100 players than the one that began things 70 years ago. This one included a number of ex-players like Wilma, and other extras.

The wistful, nostalgic character of this piece was beautifully rendered. It is a far cry from the imperial pomposity of Elgar’s marches. Not that the Chanson’s orchestration isn’t grand, but it has a catch in the throat and melodic phrases that express beauty and peace. It was superbly played.

The audience’s joy in having Wilma Smith lead it was demonstrated in tumultuous applause.

Gareth Farr – Great Sea Gongs (LT)

The choice of Gareth Farr’s From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs was pretty appropriate. Very much Hamish McKeich’s territory, as a former NZSO player, it has become a popular orchestral piece. But it was violinist Anna van der Zee who introduced it. At this hearing, I came to feel that, even though only the first section was played, the musical inspiration isn’t altogether sustained throughout its course. The scoring for percussion is dynamic, much of it with distinct Polynesian flavour, and it was splendidly played by four percussionists. Nevertheless, the strings were as richly employed too and contributed dramatically to the imagined deep sea evocation.

Percussion took the soloists’ role here. From the stalls only their heads were visible and it struck me that they should have been arrayed across the front, and the various instruments identified. They make a much more dramatic spectacle than many of the conventional solo instruments.

Speaking of that, it puzzles me that no effort is usually made in programme booklets to identify the various, hugely different percussion instruments; generally they are merely referred to as ‘percussion’: maracas, marimbas, crotales, claves, castanets, tam-tams, tom-toms, snare drum, side drum… How about stopping referring to oboes, flutes, bassoons, the bass clarinet, the cor anglais, the various saxophones by name? – let’s just call them all ‘woodwinds’.

Stravinsky – The Firebird – Lullaby and Finale (PM)

For myself, the Stravinsky item was the concert’s great centrebeam, to which everything was connected, as much to do with the momentous occasion in the orchestra’s history this music represented, as with the magnificence of the sounds themselves. Bridget Douglas introduced this part of the programme, beginning by making a wish that she had been thirty years older and thus playing in the orchestra at the time when the composer himself visited this country (1961) and conducted the NZSO in this same music! She then recounted the story of another visiting conductor programming this same music in a subsequent concert with the orchestra and objecting to a change of phrasing that wasn’t marked in his score, asking the orchestra with some irritation who had gotten them to make that change – to which one of the double bass players supposedly replied, “It was a little bald-headed bloke called Igor!” But the occasion was undoubtedly a formative experience for the players of the time and one whose resonances have endured and gone into legend. John Hopkins, the orchestra’s then Resident Conductor of the day attested to Stravinsky’s “extraordinary magnetism” as a musician, and his ability to get musicians to “play above” themselves.

Perhaps mindful of the significance of that occasion, tonight’s players seemed also to “play above” themselves, Hamish McKeich encouraging the orchestra to beautifully “grow” the finale from the somewhat stricken Lullaby (Berceuse) which depicted the ravages of the evil enchanter Koschei, allowing the first glimmerings of hope to spread through the orchestral textures from the ravishingly-played horn solo, and bring about the radiance of the Firebird’s Apotheosis in resplendent style. I’m sure  that “the little bald-headed bloke” would have been thrilled with the performance.

The Force of Destiny  (RC)

In his introduction to the following Sibelius item, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, spoke of this item too, and how Juan Matteucci, conductor in the 1960s, introduced more operatic repertoire to the orchestra. He mentioned also Pietari Inkinen and the orchestra’s successful European tour.. He spoke warmly of the work of the orchestral management and staff, and finished by remarking on New Zealand’s affinity with Sibelius’s music.

There can surely be no overture more filled with the dramatic music, filled with dread omens, than this one.  The opera premiered in 1862, and has remained in the operatic repertoire. Like all of the composer’s operas, this one is filled with remarkable melodies, which were given their due by the musicians. There was wonderful woodwind, and heart-plucking harp. The piece gives opportunity for every orchestral section to shine, and the tutti passages were superb.

The playing was precise, spiky and portentous, though slower than I have sometimes heard it played. The solo passages from various members of the orchestra were exquisitely played, and the whole was a sumptuous performance, its drama fully revealed.

Karelia Suite (LT)

Sibelius’s Karelia Suite has a long history with the orchestra. Appropriately, it was introduced by Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen who recalled (not personally of course, it was before his time), New Zealand’s most famous connection with the music, in the company of which we flew ecstatically over the Southern Alps in the National Film Unit’s film for the Osaka Expo in 1970; many of us were moved to tears from the sheer emotion of the conjunction of mountains and music in that film.

The hushed strings were again a breath-taking element at the start, slowly rising from basses through cellos to violins; four immaculate horns, and other winds, contributed to the subdued but powerful spirituality of the music.

But hands up all those who longed for the following Ballade to arise from the ashes of the mere four minutes of the Intermezzo!

633 Squadron  (PM)

Timpanist Laurence Reese paid a special tribute to one of the “greats” of film and “light” music, British conductor Ron Goodwin. Larry remembered that, as a newly-appointed NZSO player, he “caught” the last of Goodwin’s country-wide tours with the NZSO, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Goodwin had been coming to New Zealand for a number of years, and, according to Larry’s reckoning,  had by that time clocked up over a hundred-and-fifty concerts with the orchestra. Goodwin’s Overture 633 Squadron readily evoked war-torn skies over Britain with British Spitfires and Hurricanes vying for dogfighting supremacy with German Messerschmitts, with the orchestra and conductor throwing themselves into the fray, and producing sounds of the utmost brilliance and excitement.

Strauss: Rosenkavalier  (RC)

The programme ended with Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Suite, arranged by the conductor Artur Rodzinski from music in Strauss’s opera, some 30-plus years after the work’s premiere. It is lush music, calling for a large orchestra, including two harps.

Appropriately for this supreme composer for the French horn (he was the son of a leading horn player), Heather Thompson, a long-serving horn player in the orchestra, introduced the item. She spoke of former chief conductor Franz Paul Decker and his introduction of the music of Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss, and of the orchestra’s playing this work at the Expo in Seville in 1992 to a huge ovation.  She also mentioned the International Arts Festival production of the opera in Wellington in 2002.

There was wonderful horn playing in this work – as indeed throughout the concert. Strauss’s writing for the orchestra contrasts drama and subtlety; exclamation and intimacy; these themes and the thrill and varied moods in the opera were well conveyed through the beautiful scoring. There were minutes – maybe five or so – when nearly all the lights in the auditorium went down; I did wonder how the percussionists at the back of the stage managed to see their scores; the playing continued uninterrupted.

The combination in the Suite of brilliant waltz, almost bombastic brass and nostalgic elements seemed appropriate for a night of memories of the varied life of an orchestra, and a fitting conclusion to the concert, making at the same time a great start to the 2017 orchestral season. This was all very fine playing, but notably from the bassoon and the horns.

A standing ovation greeted the end of the work, and streamers rained down on the orchestra. The band played Brahms’s rousing Hungarian Dance no.5 as an encore with great panache. – something they had played as an encore at the Musikverein in Vienna seven years ago, Hamish McKeich told the audience.

The concert was interesting in containing no works by the ‘Great Masters’ of the symphonic repertoire – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich, but for the amount of 20th century or near-twentieth century works, and their geographic spread: one New Zealand work, two English, one Czech, two Russian, one Finnish, one Italian and one German.

The history of the orchestra’s conception and birth (LT)

The usually much more elaborate and expensive programmes for regular concerts are probably bought by not much more than half the audience. Many of those who might just become a bit better informed remain in ignorance about what they’re hearing; they turn away when the programme seller mentions the price.

It was an occasion to honour the vision and determination of prime minister Peter Fraser and James Shelley, head of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, who drove the orchestra’s founding, along with sympathetic allies including the legendary Joseph Heenan, permanent head of Internal Affairs.

There was the bitchiness, in certain circles, about conductor Anderson Tyrer, but he contributed enthusiasm and in his book about the orchestra’s first twenty years, Owen Jensen gives him generous credit. Other conductors were invited: distinguished New Zealand opera conductor Warwick Braithwaite, Eugene Goosens.

But the orchestra’s beginning was not merely a Wellington affair.

At once, its role was as the ‘National’ orchestra, and as well as preparing the Wellington programme, they prepared enough music for four different concerts, all of which would be broadcast from the local national radio station: four symphonies, four overtures and twelve miscellaneous pieces, to be played in the other three main cities..

The Wellington programme was:
Dvořák: Carnival Overture
Brahms: Symphony No 2
Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad
Enescu: Romanian Rhapsody No 1
Wagner: Prelude and Love-death from Tristan and Isolde
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

In addition, as recorded in Joy Tonks’s history of the orchestra, The First Forty Years, the orchestra played Johann Strauss’s Moto Perpetuo as an encore to ‘restore quiet’ after the Enescu and then at the end they played Grainger’s Handel in the Strand and the polka from Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper (which used to be a familiar dinner music piece on 2YC, but which I haven’t heard broadcast for years).

Within the month other concerts took place, including, remarkably two schools concerts one of which the National Film Unit filmed. (At one of those, probably in the fourth form, 1949, I had my first thrilling orchestral experience: I’m sure Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien was the highlight). The first tour, to the South Island took place in April. And in June they ventured north, to console Auckland in the days when Auckland was only 50 percent bigger than Wellington.

In the following year the National Broadcasting Service (NBS) decided that the orchestra should undertake a nationally toured production of Carmen (in English), which was only possible with orchestral participation. It was inspired by the centenary of Otago province, to be celebrated by a music festival. Tyrer conducted and it had 33 performances in the four main centres; it was a popular success but it met criticism from those more familiar with opera. It showed that New Zealand resources were capable of undertaking serious large-scale musical productions, a step towards national artistic self-confidence.

An Italian opera company toured Australia in 1949 and Peter Fraser made a New Zealand tour feasible by offering the orchestra to the company. That tour comprised eleven operas; there were 61 performances and audiences totalled 120,000.

The orchestra’s first performance of New Zealand music was under Warwick Braithwaite in the August of 1947: Lilburn’s Song of the Antipodes. (renamed now A Song of Islands).

By the way, the visiting Boyd Neel String Orchestra played Lilburn’s Diversions for String Orchestra on their 1947 tour: not clear whether before or after the Song of Islands performance. .

There are three seminal books detailing the history of the orchestra:

Owen Jensen: NZBC Symphony Orchestra, Reed, 1966
Joy Tonks: The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The First Forty Years, Reed Methuen, 1986
Joy Tonks: Bravo! The NZSO at 50, Exile Publishing, 1996

Perhaps the orchestra’s 75th anniversary should prompt a further history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *