Splendid NZSO concert with a greatly gifted cellist and young conductor prodigy

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Darrell Ang with Narek Hakhnazaryan – cello

David Grahame Taylor: Embiosis
Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B minor (‘Pathétique’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 20 May 7:30 pm

This was the second of three concerts in the NZSO’s main series to feature a solo cello: a fortnight ago, a new work by Gareth Farr, and in a month’s time, Schumann’s cello concerto played by Daniel Müller-Schott. Interesting: that Müller-Schott was here in 2013 playing the Dvořák concerto which was the concerto tonight, played by alarmingly talented Armenian cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan.

But first, to follow the Gareth Farr premiere last concert, came another New Zealand piece, quite short, by young (27) composer David Grahame Taylor. It opened the concert. Bearing in mind the old-fashioned programme shape of overture, concerto, then symphony in the second half, this was both traditional and gently novel.

Entitled Embiosis, presumably a near relation of ‘symbiosis’, an interaction between two bodies or forces. Taylor’s definition of his coinage is ‘Within a lifeform’. It’s one of those cases where an enigmatic neologism offers more difficulty for the serious listener than the music itself.

For Embiosis, while probably something of a challenge for a musical analyst, was indeed an attractive listen. Whatever the secrets within the music, it kept the listener alert, to its judicious, fastidious scoring, demanding a conventional orchestra, as far as I could observe.

It opened with quiet strings being subjected to very conspicuous vibrato, to the point where it might have warranted being notated. Notes from the tuba, then tubular bells, caught the ear, but a title such as this is a constant worry, as one strives to find ‘programmatic’ significance at every turn.

While its textures could not be described as discordant (a word that has pretty well lost all meaning), the dense palette produced a kind of self-reflecting, introverted impulse. There were little downward, weeping glissandi on strings that led to a crescendo and then a sudden halt. And then it ended, just like that.

It had a unity, leaving the impression of something like a perfect little gem.

I’m sure the composer was pleased with the performance which Singapore conductor Darrell Ang drew from the players with clarity and coherence. Taylor came on stage to thank orchestra and conductor and acknowledge the warm applause.

I don’t think I heard Müller-Schott’s performance of Dvořák’s cello concerto in 2013, so Gautier Capuçon’s 2007 performance might have been my last live hearing. But there were a few years, during the much lamented Adam International Cello Competition in Christchurch, driven by the late Alexander Ivashkin, which I attended regularly, that I heard it often: one year, three of the four finalists chose it as their concerto: three times in one evening taxed even a Dvořák-lover like me.

This one was especially impressive. First it was the chance to confirm my admiration for conductor Ang in mainstream repertoire: not only were his movements vivid, economical and attractively balletic, but they clearly inspired the orchestra to playing of commitment and animation.

I suppose one cannot be altogether uninfluenced by a musician’s record of performances with top orchestras and conductors and the kind of plaudits he has attracted. One tried with Hakhnazaryan, but really failed.

Nevertheless, I could not stop impressions flicking through my head like ‘intensity’, ‘clear, flawless tone’, ‘lovely subdued pianissimi’, ‘every note precise yet creating fluid expressiveness’. The sounds he drew from his Guarnieri cello were always in balance with the orchestra, never covered, and that of course is as much the conductor’s achievement as the soloist’s. His bowing was never less than immaculate whether producing high drama or the gentlest meditative phrases.

Surely I will detect some flaws here and there, I thought: some tiny lapse in technique that interrupts the perfection of a passage; but I failed to detect anything at all that I could find fault with. In a belligerent spirit I started from the other end, contemplating whether there was a price to pay for this perfection: perhaps the loss of a sense of spontaneity, a hint that he was playing it for the first time, producing an improvisatory feeling which can be so delightful. No, nothing of the kind. All was carefully studied and conceived, and technically mastered.

Well, perhaps that was about the only shortcoming.

The last movement offers a relatively unusual opportunity for gentle, meditative playing, quiet and intimate; here, I felt, was the true test where both cello and orchestra were in accord, where he allowed Dvořák the main role, with exquisite playing expressing thoughtfulness and emotional calm. So the cellist’s silence through the last dozen bars was like a dramatic musical contribution to the final orchestral peroration. An ending that was mature, thoroughly mastered and interpreted, a conclusion reflecting the entire performance.

An Armenian folk-song arrangement was his discreet and touching encore.

I think the last performance in Wellington of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was from Pietari Inkinen in 2010. In my review then I notice an absence of much comment on the performance while it dwelt mainly on the music itself; not sure what that implies. One can certainly meditate about the never-revealed ‘programme’ that Tchaikovsky admitted to. But emphatically, it’s not a suicide note; there’s plenty written about all that.

This work offered a chance to hear a full-scale, orchestra-alone performance from this conductor prodigy. With the orchestra now at full strength, in contrast to slightly smaller string numbers earlier, the work began its big opening viola melody with heart-warming opulence; all the solo voices such as the clarinet, first horn, flute were as immaculate as usual. Ang exploited dramatic moments like the sudden fortissimo in the first movement, as well as clarifying textures and melodic strands that can get blurred in less disciplined performances. Of all the movements, it was the 5/4 time of the Allegro con grazia, working like a scherzo and trio, that for all the very comfortable rhythmic control came to feel in this playing, just a bit mechanical, missing a little in flexible breaths, dynamics and tempi, the stuff of a living, organic piece of music.

I agree with the programme note’s hint that the third movement suggested ‘an unambiguous moment of triumph’, but I share others’ feeling that Tchaikovsky intended its triumph to be superficial; its emptiness is actually demonstrated (and I mean the music itself, not just this performance) both by a mechanical rhythm and the ‘thrilling’ end, belied at once by the last movement’s immediate descent to inevitable despair and death.

As others tend these days to do, Ang swept with scarcely a pause into the Adagio lamentoso, silencing the start of that inevitable clapping. And that Finale dealt with the activities of fate with as much pathos as was necessary, avoiding excessive emotional extravagance.

It was a fine, intelligent end to a splendid concert.

2 thoughts on “Splendid NZSO concert with a greatly gifted cellist and young conductor prodigy

  1. Marc Taddei says:

    The most recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was in December 2015, during Orchestra Wellington’s traversal of the entire symphonic cycle of Tchaikovsky. The performance also included the world premiere of Karlo Margetic’s piano concerto, “Melting Furniture”.

    • Lindis Taylor says:

      I’m rather red-faced. Of course I was fully aware of the Tchaikovsky series in 2015, and was at every one except the last in which the 6th symphony was played. (I was in Sydney at the time, and I’m puzzled that Middle C appears not to have reviewed it). But that’s not the reason for the blunder. I had intended to refer to the last performance by the NZSO, but even so, it was strange not to have referred to the Orchestra Wellington performance.

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