Adventurous, quirky, energetic – a musical-life experience for the 2017 NZSONYO

NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2017 presents:

CELESTE ORAM (NYO Composer-in-Residence 2016)
Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra (World Premiere)
JAMES McMILLAN – Veni, Veni Emmanuel*
REUBEN JELLEYMAN (NYO Composer-in-Residence 2017)
Vespro (World Premiere)
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell Op.34
(The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra)

*Colin Currie (percussion)
James McMillan (conductor)
NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2017

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, 14th July 2017

Thank goodness for Benjamin Britten’s variously-named The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra / Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell Op.34! At the recent pair of NZNYO concerts in Wellington and Auckland it was music which, unlike the works making up the rest of the programme, was reasonably familiar to the audience. As such, the piece provided a benchmark of sorts with which the youthful orchestra’s playing could be more-or-less assessed in terms of overall tonal quality, precision of ensemble and individual fluency and brilliance. These were qualities more difficult to ascertain when listening to the players tackle the idiosyncrasies, complexities and unfamiliarities of the other three programmed pieces.

I’m certain that the NYO players relish the opportunity every time to give a first performance of any piece written especially for them, even one as unconventionally wrought as was Celeste Oram’s piece The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra, which opened the programme. In this instance, however, there were TWO new works by two different composers, awaiting a first performance, presumably due to last year’s concert being wholly taken up with a collaboration by the orchestra with the NZSO to perform Olivier Messiaen’s Eclairs sur l’au-delĂ  (Illuminations of the Beyond) – obviously, a thoroughly exhilarating experience for all concerned, youthful and seasoned players alike.
So as well as the 2016 composer-in-residence’s work having yet to be performed, there was also a work by this year’s composer-in-residence, Reuben Jelleyman, waiting for its turn. In the event, putting all the possibilities together made for an interesting programme of symmetries and contrasts – a percussion concerto and a work inspired by an older classic, with each of these in turn regaled by a separate “guide” to the orchestra, the two latter having interesting “corrective” capacities in relation to one another!

To be honest, there was a considerable amount of speculation expressed by people I talked with at the interval as to whether the first item on the programme could be classed as “music”! Celeste Oram’s piece The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra, far from being an updated version of Britten’s celebrated instructional work, took a kind of “field” approach to experiencing music instead, refracting a history of many New Zealanders’ initial contact with orchestral music as conveyed by radio (as the composer points out, the first permanent orchestra in this country was initially known as “The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra” – actually it was “the National Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service”, with the word “Corporation” first appearing as part of the orchestra’s name in 1962). This phenomenon was depicted through transistorised recordings from what sounded like a number of largely out-of-phase broadcasts of an announcer’s voice from smartphone-like devices sported by the orchestra players, sitting onstage waiting for their “actual” conductor to arrive.

I hope the reader will forgive this relatively literal (though not exhaustive!) account of these happenings, linked as they seemed to the composer’s intentions! Still conductorless, the orchestra players then took up their instruments and launched into the first few bars of Britten’s work, an undertaking lost in the cacaphony of distortion emanating once more from the radio-like devices. As “Haydn Symphony No.25” was announced, the conductor, Sir James McMillan, arrived, waited courteously enough for the announcer to finish, and then directed a somewhat Hoffnung-esque opening of the Britten which then morphed into all kinds of wayward musical illusions in different quarters, fragments that were constantly being broken into by the announcer’s voice introducing other various classical pieces, a somewhat “catholic” section including the Maori song “Hine e Hine”, Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”, and so on.

After Beethoven’s “Tenth” Symphony (“the Unwritten”) had made a static-ridden appearance, the announcer stated portentously, “Having taken the orchestra to pieces, the composer will now put it all back together again”, then promptly tuned us into the National Programme 5 o’clock news beeps and prominent newsreader Katriona McLeod’s voice. Some orchestra players at this point appeared to get fed up, and go for walkabouts down from the platform and into and through the auditorium, ignoring the efforts of their conductor to keep the music going. Soon, all the players were standing in the aisles of the auditorium, even the concertmaster, who was the last to go, leaving her conductor waving his arms around conducting a very loud, and out-of-phase-sounding recording of the Britten work. At the music’s end, we in the audience applauded him, a bit uncertainly, then watched him sit down and pull out a newspaper and read it, while the players standing in the aisles began to paraphrase parts of the music, and the radio continued to blare, the voices largely unintelligible – some sort of impasse was reached at which point it was unclear what would happen next, if anything!

From this sound-vortex Concert announcer Clarissa Dunn’s voice sounded clearly, with the words, “….and you have NOT been listening to Radio New Zealand Concert!…..”, and that, folks, was it! – a rather lame conclusion, I thought, but perhaps that was the point! It seemed to me that the piece lost its way over the last five minutes – but perhaps THAT also was the point! Celeste Oram explained the ending to her “piece” using a quote attributed to Gaetano Donizetti, who wrote in an 1828 letter that he wanted “to shake off the yoke of finales”. The determinedly “non-ending” ending of Oram’s work did seem to put the concept of the “symphonic finale” to rout!

Thoughtful, innovative, provocative, incomprehensible…..whatever characterisation one liked to give Celeste Oram’s work first and foremost, I felt it should be in tandem with descriptions like “entertaining”, “absorbing”, “spectacular”, “engrossing”. It seemed to me that the composer had achieved, by dint of her explanation printed in the programme, what she had set out to do – and what better a way to attain satisfaction by means of what one “does” as an occupation?

After this, Sir James McMillan’s own work, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel would have seemed like a kind of relief-drenched reclamation of normality to some, and something of a “safe” and even predictable example of what Celeste Oram was criticising with her work, to others. Percussion concertos have become extremely popular of late, thanks partly to the skills and flamboyant performing personalities of musicians such as Evelyn Glennie and Colin Currie, who’ve had many works written for them. For some concertgoers they’re thrilling visual and aural experiences, while for others (myself included) they seem as much flash as substance, in that they seem to me to rely overmuch on visual display to sustain audience interest to the point of distraction from the actual musical material.

Perhaps I’m overstating the case, but after watching Colin Currie indefatigably move from instrument group to instrument group, activating these collections with their distinctive timbres, my sensibilities grew somewhat irritated after a while – one admired the artistry of the player, but wearied of the almost circus-like aspect of the gestures. I began to empathise as never before with Anton Bruckner, who, it is said, attended a performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth, his eyes closed the whole time so as to avoid being distracted by the stage action from the music!

I wrote lots of notes regarding this performance, which certainly made an effect,in places spectacularly so – the opening a searing sound-experience, with shouting brass and screaming winds, and the soloist moving quickly between instrument groups for what the compser calls an “overture”, presenting all the different sounds. My gallery seat meant that the player occasionally disappeared from view! – rather like “noises off”, a sound-glimpse of a separate reality or disembodied state! In places the music became like a huge machine in full swing, which appealed to my “railway engine” vein of fantasy, while at other times the sounds seemed to drift spacewards, the winds playing like pinpricks of light, and the soloist at once warming and further distancing the textures with haunting marimba sounds. I enjoyed these more gentle, benediction-like moments most of all, the gently dancing marimba over a sea of wind and brass sostenuto tones – extremely beautiful.

At one point I wrote “All played with great skill, but everything impossibly busy!” At the work’s conclusion the soloist climbed up to the enormous bells at the back of the orchestra, beginning a carillion which built up in resonance and excitement, aided by individual orchestral players activiting their own triangles. A long, and slowly resonating fade – and the work came to a profound and deeply-wrought close. While I wouldn’t deny the effectiveness of certain passages in the work I found myself responding as to one of those nineteenth-century virtuoso violin concertos the musical forest obscured by trees laden with notes – and notes – and notes……..thankfully, my feelings seemed not to be shared by the audience whose response to Colin Currie’s undoubted artistry was overwhelmingly warm-hearted.

So, after an interval during which time I was engaged in discussions concerning the nature of music (in the light of Celeste Oram’s piece) in between wrestling with feelings that I perhaps ought to give up music criticism as a profession through dint of my inadequacy of appreciation (the result of my response to James McMillan’s piece), I settled down somewhat uneasily for the concert’s second half, which began with a work by Reuben Jelleyman, who’s the Youth Orchestra’s 2017 composer-in-residence, a piece with the title Vespro, deriving its inspiration from Monteverdi’s famous 1610 Vespers.

Describing his work as akin to a restoration of an old building “where old stone buttresses mesh with glass and steel”, Reuben Jelleyman’s piece at its beginning reminded me of a basement or backroom ambience of structure and function, where solid blocks and beams were interspersed with lines and passageways, the whole bristling with functional sounds, much of it aeolian-like, (whispering strings and “breathed” winds and brass) but with an ever-increasing vociferousness of non-pitched sounds.

Great tuba notes broke the spell, underscored by the bass drum, like a call to attention, one igniting glowing points in the structure, with each orchestral section allowed its own “breath of radiance”. A repeated-note figure grew from among the strings, spreading through the different orchestral sections, the violinists playing on the wood of the bows as fragments of the Monteverdi Vespers tumbled out of the mouths of the winds and brass – such ear-catching sonorities! As befitted the original, these reminiscences contributed to ambiences whose delicacy and sensitivity unlocked our imaginations and allowed play and interaction – a “fled is that music? – do I wake or sleep?” sense of amalgamation of present with past, the new music, centuries old, continuing to live…..I liked it very much.

To conclude the evening’s proceedings, James McMillan got his chance to show what he could REALLY do as a conductor with Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, a performance which brought forth from the youthful players sounds of such splendour and brilliance that I was quite dumbfounded. Each section of the orchestra covered itself in glory during its own introductory “moment” at the work’s beginning, the four sections (winds, brasses, strings, percussion) framed by a tutti whose amplitude seemed, in the classic phrase, “greater than the sum of its parts”, which was all to the good.

Singling out any one section of the ensemble for special praise would be an irrelevant, not to say fatuous exercise under these circumstances. McMillan’s conducting of the piece and interaction with the players seemed to bring out plenty of flair and brilliance, with individual players doing things with their respective solos that made one smile with pleasure at their ease and fluency. I noted, for instance, the bassoon’s solo being pushed along quickly at first, but then the player relaxing into an almost languorous cantabile that brought out the instrument’s lyrical qualities most beguilingly. The musicians seemed to have plenty of space in which to phrase things and bring out particular timbres and textures, such as we heard from the clarinets, whose manner was particularly juicy and gurgly!

A feature of the performance was that the “accompaniments” were much more than that – they were true “partners” with their own particular qualities acting as a foil for the sections particularly on show – in particular, the violins danced with energy and purpose to feisty brass support, while the double basses’ agilities drew forth admiring squawks from the winds. The brasses covered themselves in glory, from the horns’ rich and secure callings, to the tuba’s big and blowsy statement of fact – trumpets vied with the side-drum for excitement, while the trombones arrested everybody’s attentions with their announcements, the message soon forgotten, but the sounds resounding most nobly. Finally, the percussion had such a lot of fun with the strings, it was almost with regret that one heard the piccolo begin the fugue which eventually involved all the instruments, and was rounded off by a chorale from the brass choir featuring the theme in all its glory.

I’ve not heard a more exciting, nor skilful and involving performance of this music – an NZSO player whom I met on the stairs after the concert agreed with me that, on the evidence of playing like we had just heard, the future of music performance in this country is in good hands. Very great credit to the players and to their mentor and conductor Sir James McMillan, very much an inspirational force throughout the whole of the enterprise. Not, therefore, a conventional concert – adventurous, quirky, energetic and idiosyncratic – but in itself an experience of which the young players would be proud to feel they had made the best of and done well!

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