“Firebird” from Orchestra Wellington an incendiary experience

Orchestra Wellington presents:
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.1 in C Major Op.21
JOHN ELMSLY – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
STRAVINSKY – The Firebird – (Ballet Suite 1911 – arranged by Jonathan McPhee)

Jun Hong Loh (violin)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 14th May, 2017

This was, in this best of all possible worlds, the best possible start to Orchestra Wellington’s “The Impresario” season, a beautifully-devised concert whose centrepiece was Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 Ballet “The Firebird”. This piece, commissioned by the Russian-born artistic entrepreneur Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes in Paris, began a collaboration between composer and impresario which was to produce three of the most famous ballets of the 20th century, the other two being “Petrushka” and “Le Sacre du Printemps” – both, incidentally, to be performed by Orchestra Wellington as well, during the year.

This concert had other unities, however, which brought the evening’s other pieces into play, the first being the direct influence of the master-pupil relationship on the works we heard. In the case of “Firebird” the pupil was Stravinsky and the master was his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Renowned as one of the great orchestrators, the latter’s influence upon Stravinsky’s score was everywhere apparent, with the “pupil” obviously keen to exhibit his inventive prowess in that aspect of creation. In later years Stravinsky was to deride his own youthful largesse, calling his orchestrations “wasteful”, and, in the various “suites” for concert purposes that he compiled, significantly “paring down” the scoring.

Joining this work on the programme were two others, one by Beethoven and the other by New Zealand composer John Elmsly. Beethoven was represented by his First Symphony, a work which owed a great deal to the influence of HIS teacher, Joseph Haydn, in terms of the music’s irrepressible energy and adventuresome spirit. The words of Count Waldstein – that Beethoven would “receive the spirit of Mozart from Haydn’s hands” were certainly made flesh in this symphony, even if the implication of the Count’s remark seemed to play down Haydn’s influence upon the young composer compared with Mozart’s. Certainly the most startling of the music’s features – its “wrong key” opening on wind instruments, its dynamic, scherzo-like Minuet and its teasingly playful finale – are indubitably Haydnesque touches.

As for John Elmsly’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, here was music by a seasoned composer who presently enjoys a reputation second to none in this country as a teacher of composition at the School of Music, at Auckland University. The process of the master-pupil relationship was thus presented here in reverse, with Elmsly’s music a focal point for what his students past and present could aspire towards in their work and creative thinking.

Another commonality shared by two of the three pieces was one of “breaking ground” – neither Beethoven nor Stravinsky had produced anything up to that time as significant or self-proclaiming as each of their works – Beethoven, his first symphony, and Stravinsky, his first full-scale ballet. Each was announcing to his respective world that he had truly “arrived” as a creative artist – and in each case the world sat up and took notice. Critical reaction to Beethoven’s work was invariably positive, with the words “masterpiece” and “originality” figuring prominently, though one critic complained of hearing “too much wind”, a remark the composer obviously reacted to strongly, as he increased the incidence of writing for winds in his Second Symphony!

Stravinsky’s work, according to dancer Tamara Karsavina, who danced the title role, met with what she called a “crescendo” of success, with both public acclaim and critical reaction at one – for one critic, the “shimmering web of the orchestra” reflected the “fantastic” stage-setting and the brilliant dancing. “Mark him well,” Diaghilev was reputed to have told his leading dancer – “he is a man on the eve of celebrity”. Another critic hailed Stravinsky as “the legitimate heir to the “Mighty Handful” – that group of Russian nationalist composers which included the composer’s former teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.

What impressed most┬áregarding the performance of the Beethoven Symphony we heard was its sheer focus, conductor Marc Taddei inspiring his players to produce direct, pin-pointed energies that brought out the essential “character” of each of the pieces movements. Everything was very up-front with clearly-terraced dynamics, the vigorous movements especially fast and challenging, and played with terrific point.

The timpani and brass were superb, making their presence felt throughout, and bringing their importance into prominence, rather than seeming merely like “extra reinforcements” as is sometimes the case. For some sequences the tempi were faster than I would have wanted – some passages, for me, took on a certain relentless aspect – but conductor and orchestra nevertheless made them work brilliantly. And the slow movement had a dance-like quality, but a singing kind of dancing! – the strings played their fugato-like passages as beautifully and crisply as one would want. The timpani came into its own during the scherzo-like Minuet, and then the Finale made us firstly hold our breath at the opening, with the “teasing” aspect of the strings’ scale passages, and then smile at the chattering, garrulous strings-and-winds exchanges elsewhere.

John Elmsly’s new Violin Concerto (2016-17) was given a spacious, free-spirited reading by the gifted Jun Hong Low, winner of the 2016 Gisborne International Music Competition. Certain parts of this work I loved unreservedly, practically the whole of the first movement, whose spacious, out-of-doors feeling was mirrored by the soloist, with his leaping and arching phrases, the music in places silky and sensuous (a quality that really appealed to me) and then leavened in other places by some playful vigour. But the music’s “lightness and delicacy” (to quote the programme note) with ambiences given breadth and depth by bell-chime sounds made the listening experience for me at once airborne and profound. The chimes sounded as if they could have been a kind of call to observance, something ritualistic and exotic and resonant.

The other two movements I enjoyed, but not as wholeheartedly – I didn’t feel a comparable oneness regarding the contributions of either the drum kit in the second movement or the bongo drums in the third, despite Brent Stewart’s advocacy in both cases. I’m sorry to say that I just didn’t “get it” – I couldn’t “connect” the percussion sounds with what the rest of the orchestra was doing. I continued to enjoy the soloist’s playing, and thought the orchestral strings and winds created some beautifully limpid textures in places during the “Meditation” movement – but I found the percussion “effects” something of a distraction. Obviously I needed to hear the work again , and “work harder” at aligning the different sound-spaces of each instrumental group, specifically that of the percussion. Having heard various raga over the years I thought I might respond more positively to the bongo drum rhythms as a variant of a tabla taal (rhythmic pattern) in the piece’s finale – but again I thought the sounds too disparate, even, to my ears, alienating – on the other hand the string- and wind-writing I greatly enjoyed, and was thrilled by the soloist’s response to the music’s intensities, especially during a somewhat trenchant cadenza, from which Jun Hong Loh emerged the victor!

The soloist obliged his audience with an encore which sounded familiar but ultimately eluded my recognition. I found out later that the piece was written by a friend of the violinist, a composer called Charles Yang, whose intention was to quote and rework a number of passages from various well-known violin concertos into a single piece for a solo violin – hence my “fled is that music – do I wake or sleep?” reaction to the material! The playing was virtuosic-plus-plus from Jun Hong Loh – spectacular double-stopping passages, fingerwork at breakneck speed, and counterpointed melodies in different registers between arpeggios. It was obviously a kind of “calling-card” for a virtuoso violinist, and as such enabled the performer to mightily impress!

After the interval came the Stravinsky work, here performed in a “reduced” version by the conductor/composer Jonathan McPhee. There’s obviously a demand world-wide for such versions, as I was able to read various on-line testimonials of praise for McPhee’s work made by artistic directors in various far-flung places. Usually the situation was that, without using McPhee’s “reductions”, these groups wouldn’t have been able to afford to hire extra players to be able to perform works like “Firebird” and “Le Sacre du Printemps” both of which are scored for larger-than-usual orchestras.

I was hard-pressed to notice much difference between the original and McPhee’s edition as performed here, even after my having heard several previous performances of the former “live” as well as a number of recordings. I hadn’t picked up from the programme anything concerning the “edition”, the only thing surprising me being the appearance of the spectacular brass glissandi during the “Infernal Dance of Kastchei’s Subjects”, which wasn’t in the original ballet score but which Stravinsky himself had added for one of the “suites” – but it could well be in the McPhee edition anyway. Obviously, when a performance is as intensely-focused and fully-committed as was this one, whatever reductions of numbers there are to orchestral personnel makes little or no difference to the outcome!

Thanks to the conductor’s and orchestra’s attention to detail and their expert pacing of the story’s ebb-and-flow, both the colourful and characterful theatricality of the ballet’s series of “tableaux” and the grip of the drama’s darker undercurrents kept our attentions riveted throughout. We were able to relish all the more the composer’s contrasting of the more folksong-like diatonic themes and cadences for the story’s human characters (Prince Ivan, and the thirteen captive Princesses) with the more chromatic and spectacularly iridescent music characterising the “supernatural” characters (the Firebird herself, and the ogre, Kastchei, and all of his followers.

It was certainly among the most spectacularly-realised performances by this orchestra that I’ve heard over the years, akin to that unforgettable concert a number of years back when Marc Taddei and his players almost lifted the roof off the Town Hall with their performance of Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Whilst not absolutely note-perfect in places, the glitches were like “spots on the sun”, and there were many more moments to figuratively die for, such as the horn solo beginning the final “General Rejoicing” concluding sequence, magically realised by a guest player, Shadley van Wyk, substituting for an indisposed Ed Allen.

This, and so much else seemed to unfold in Marc Taddei’s hands at what seemed to us like a completely natural pace, the players confidently at one with the sheer wealth of orchestral detail and bringing off its stunning realisation with tremendous elan. Roll on the remainder of Orchestra Wellington’s Diaghilev Season! – at present it promises to be a truly momentous and memorable undertaking!

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