Magnificent NZSO concert, with percussionist Colin Currie, under James MacMillan

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James MacMillan with Colin Currie (percussion)

Thomas Adès: Polaris
James MacMillan: Percussion Concerto No 2
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 4

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 8 July, 7:30 pm

I had rather expected that, even if the pieces by Adès and MacMillan had not exactly created a stampede for tickets, that the remarkable, let’s even say ‘great’ symphony by Vaughan Williams would have done the trick.

But no, it didn’t. However, if it was something of a statement about the timidity of Wellington audiences, it was not a disgrace.

Thomas Adès
For another thing, I’d have thought the name Adès might have chimed with a few hundred on account of the operatic notoriety Adès achieved in the 1990s. For some time after the 1995 premiere of his Powder Her Face, it looked as if a new era of box-office success might result from opening the stage to rather explicit sexual flagrancy, in our new age of public pornography.

But opera news, even highly spiced, doesn’t penetrate much into mainstream media.

Based on the flamboyant life and eventual humiliation of the Duchess of Argyll, Powder Her Face was commissioned from the Almeida Theatre for the Cheltenham Festival in 1995, made headlines at once and over the following decade was produced widely across Europe and North America.

Polaris (formerly known as the Polar Star, till it was renamed after a submarine) clearly, is not in quite the same class as Powder Her Face. It’s an astronomical tone poem based formally on rather arcane musico/mathematical, acoustic, even metaphysical notions (and Adès writes of magnetic relationships between notes), none of which is probably of help to the uninitiated; and is a rather more apparent and visually affective evocation of the Arctic (I suppose) sky, with aurora borealis thrown in.

It was a quarter-hour long, fairly spectacular, orchestral extravaganza, employing six percussionists plus timpanist, as well as piano, two harps, glockenspiel and celeste. If first impression was of a show-piece demonstrating Adès’s command of musical erudition and extreme orchestrational skill, a combination of close attention plus a suspension of intellectual effort, revealed an evocation of infinite space, that might have been beyond rational comprehension and any easy definition but created an undeniable impact.

A kind of rotating, machine-inspired theme underlay the music, which rose to a climaxes followed by tonality changes, perhaps three times. The range of sounds and their effect was kaleidoscopic (did someone say ‘prismatic’?); sometimes, faced with the employment of very large and disparate orchestral forces with a seeming lack of much basic musical inspiration, one is sometimes tempted to hear it all as no more than composer exhibitionism. This music was emphatically not of that sort, and its eventual impact made such scepticism hard to sustain. Yet: is it music that warms the heart and compels rehearing?

MacMillan’s 2nd percussion concerto
One suspected that Polaris was chosen in part to support the stage-full of percussion instruments that had been prepared for McMillan’s second percussion concerto (the first, named Veni, veni, Emmanuel was played by the NZSO under Alexander Shelley in 2010, a fact that I’d have expected the programme to have mentioned).

MacMillan had spoken a little about the percussion, particularly the aluphone, a long row of small, tuned, bell-shaped aluminium gongs across the right side of the stage. The other soloist’s percussion at the front of the stage, not individually listed in the programme, but to be found in Wikipedia, included: crotales, cencerros, vibraphone, marimba, steel drum, four wood blocks, two gliss gongs, eight “assorted pieces of metal”, floor tom-toms, high tom-toms, and a pedal bass drum.

In addition, there was a fairly formidable range of percussion behind the orchestra: glockenspiel, two marimbas, tuned gong, siren, bass drum, suspended sizzle cymbal, tam-tams, tubular bells, tomtom drums, snare drums, two suspended cymbals, two triangles, thunder sheet; plus harp, and piano.

The ability of the normal audience member, including the non-specialist critic, to distinguish all these individual sounds, and to accord them some kind of purpose, is probably extremely limited and one really has to accept it in a spirit of quite profound bemusement. Generally, because of course there was only one player of all the front-of-stage hardware, only one implement (instrument?) played at a time which ensured a degree of sonic clarity. However the complementary array of machinery behind the orchestra often compensated for much prolonged quietness.

Currie is among the most versatile and virtuosic percussion practitioners in the business, multi-tasking to beat even the most gifted female achiever in that sphere. In addition to which he appeared to be handling his multifarious equipment from memory.

The novel item, the aluphone, opened the soloist’s performance, soon joined by the marimba, immediately behind it; and from then on one tried to be alert to significant and repeated motifs in order to gain a sense of its narrative, its emotional journey. Even though such attempts largely failed, the evolving dynamic patterns, which at times drifted to near silence, with gentle harp and murmuring trombones, succeeded in holding attention, suggesting that at a second or third hearing a path through the maze would take root in the memory. In the midst of the near frenzy emerged a near lyrical string episode in an adagio section, as Currie caressed reverberant cow bells, with flutes and double basses among the few contributors.

It was not only a showcase for the extraordinary soloist, but presented the orchestra and the composer/conductor with a formidable challenge which was met with impressive success, evidenced by unusually heart-felt, mutual applause from all parties involved.

Vaughan Williams’s fourth may be his most sunless, atypical symphony; and it might be compared with Sibelius’s fourth in mood, though it’s more fiery and varied. It does evoke something other than the landscapes, townscapes, seascapes and the avian world; the emotional opposite to the sunny fifth which he wrote in the middle of World War II. The fourth was written avowedly with no programme in mind, but it’s hard not to believe that a politically aware composer was not depressed at state incompetence in dealing with the human tragedy of the Great Depression of the early 30s, not mention the advent of Hitler.

The composer’s wife, Ursula, recorded this comment about the symphony: “The towering furies of which he was capable, his fire, pride, and strength are all revealed and so are his imagination and lyricism.”

Here, if MacMillan had not proven his powers already, was an electrifying performance of huge intensity, displaying anger and ferocity right from the start. What attack and energy he drew from his players! What powerful momentum and compelling rhythms! Though it is almost always tempered, for example, by string-led more meditative moments, finely judged.

The second movement, slower in tempo and more calmly sombre and even beautiful, but no less biting even if there are no clues as to their emotional origin. The third movement is the traditional Scherzo, a symphonic movement that I used to enjoy in my youth, but often less these days. But this scored high with me; a most energetic and colourful performance, evoking in very quick triplets, a spirit of chaos with dark, muted brass, before the sudden mysterious subsiding just before the close, leading with no pause to the Finale, Allegro molto. It too is full of starkly contrasting episodes, often pulsing, trombone-led, to be followed by beguiling, muted strings: an extraordinarily arresting passage, that continues for some time before the return to the pulsing passages that with MacMillan became hypnotic, even nightmarish.

This great performance confirmed how much I love this symphony, with the fifth, my favourites. I place it very high among Vaughan Williams’s works; it was a privilege to hear it played by such an orchestra under a conductor so much attuned to the composer’s spirit.

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