Flute Force Five (Rebecca Steel, Elizabeth Bush-King, Hannah Dowsett, Mitchell McEwen and Katie Macfarlane
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Three opera pieces: The Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly; Berceuse from Godard’s Jocelyn; ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto
Walton: Three pieces from Façade: The Popular Song, Jodelling Song and Tarantella
Zequinha de Abreu: Tico Tico
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Wednesday 28 June, 12:15 pm
A concert by flute students from the New Zealand School of Music had been scheduled for this lunchtime and the change had come to my attention only a couple of days before the date. There were several aspects that, even in advance, suggested a very interesting recital.
One, a chance to hear just a few of the players from the RNZAF Band which is based in Wellington, but which seems to be fairly reticent about giving public concerts (I must add, a couple of days later, that someone has explained to me the extent of the band’s activities – mainly formal official and defence-type occasions, but more ordinary public exposure than I’d been aware of). Second, five flutists all together; third, at least a couple of pieces that were particularly enticing: Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and three pieces from Walton’s Façade.
And once the players came out, a detail of airforce officers in most elegant deep-blue dress uniforms (took me back to my CMT – Compulsory Military Training – experience in the mid 50s at long-gone Taieri air base), we were presented with an interesting range of flutes, from the piccolo through normal (soprano) flutes, the not-so-common alto (in the hands of Mitchell McEwen), to the rare, impressive-looking bass flute (played by Katie Macfarlane), with a tube that bends back on itself, bassoon-like; it really did lend an important sonic foundation to most of the pieces. The music stands were adorned with air force pennants.
It all offered a rather different ambience from the usual lunchtime concert, and I felt ill-dressed without suit and tie.
The Debussy piece of course opens with a flute solo, played exquisitely by the leader, Rebecca Steel. But the entire work (often regarded, by Boulez at least, as the music that truly announced the beginning of musical modernity – whatever that means) was arranged so subtly for flutes alone and played with such enchanting sensitivity that it would have been easy to hear it as the work that Debussy had actually longed to write, if he hadn’t realised that conventional scoring was likely to be more marketable.
In fact, these sounds might have better reflected the character of Mallarmé’s poem, a pastoral, an eclogue, roughly modelled on Virgil’s Bucolics, in which a faun apostrophises nymphs: flutes, Pan’s pipes for example, were de rigueur in classical myth: Greek myth meets the symbolism of late Romantic French verse. After hearing it performed, Mallarmé wrote to Debussy: ‘I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy’.
I am one who tends to favour adherence to what a composer actually wrote and am ready to disapprove of arrangements, such as RNZ Concert are delivering far too much of now, but sometimes, like here, an exception screams out for acclamation. The variety of sounds generated by the five instruments would have changed Mozart’s opinion of the flute as an instrument capable of a wide range of colour and emotional expression.
There followed three arrangements of opera favourites. I was surprised at how well the flutes captured the Humming Chorus from Butterfly, which I rather expected to be a bigger challenge, but again it surprised me by sounding so apt and felicitous that I had no difficulty imagining it spinning Cio-Cio San’s vain hopes as she sleeps, awaiting the despicable Pinkerton.
The lovely Berceuse from Benjamin Godard’s opera, Jocelyn, that hardly maintains a place in the theatre, is heard occasionally on air and in singing competitions; it’s a piece that makes one certain that there must be other neglected goodies by the composer; just as you feel about Catalani’s ‘Ebben. Ne andro lontana’ from La Wally, or Boccherini’s Minuet, or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Gustave Charpentier’s ‘Depuis le jour’ from Louise, and hundreds of other ‘one-hit-wonders’. It responded most delighfully in these garments.
Third was ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto in a lovely arrangement, full of colour with a nice cadenza in the middle from Steel.
Rebecca Steel spoke a little about the music’s origin, and the group’s inspiration by the Quintessenz – Leipziger Querflötenensemble which has the same instrumentation as this ensemble and was presumably the source of at least some of the arrangements. Most are flutists in the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester.
A truly adventurous choice was the three pieces from Walton’s Façade: The Popular Song, Jodelling Song and Tarantella. Plus Edith Sitwell’s words recited with speed and rhythmic precision by Elizabeth Bush-King, dressed with eccentric, perhaps-twenties accoutrements and a big black hat. Only her voice didn’t always overcome the remaining four enthusiastic flutes. These arrangements were especially right, in fact brilliant in the Tarantella, as flutes were really just a more sparkly enhancement of the essentially satirical, nonsense verses, in the original scoring for flute/piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, percussion and cello. The audience was delighted.
Finally a Brazilian samba-bossa nova concoction called Tico-Tico that I came to like through its frequent playing on radio in my youth – let’s say that was AB – Ante Beetleos (is that the proper accusative plural ending?).
The applause after that was even more rowdy. There was a general sense that the Air Force needs to make these musicians (and no doubt many others of their 60-strong band) more publicly visible: it might just help create a more positive attitude towards the uses of our armed forces. I gather they’ll play in a month or so in the Old Saint Paul’s lunchtime concerts.
But this exposure of a small part of the band was an admirable and highly successful initiative by Rebecca Steel and her colleagues.