Splendid Bartók; evocative New Zealand piece; guitarist substitution perhaps not a misfortune

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor), with Pablo Sáinz Villegas (guitar)

Leonie Holmes: ‘Frond’ from Three Landscapes for Orchestra
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 29 July 2017, 7.30pm

The programme for the concert obviously did not appeal to everyone; there were a lot of empty seats, and even more after the interval when it became obvious that many devotees of the guitar, and of the Rodrigo work, did not wish to encounter Bartók, which was a great shame.  Not so tonight’s soloist, who joined the audience after the interval of this, the final concert of his tour.  He made apparent how much he had enjoyed working with the NZSO.

Leonie Holmes’s work was written in 2004, and recalls her feelings as a child in the bush.  It began with a tubular bell sounding, and a single violin, reminding me rather of a karakia.  Then piccolo was added, and strings entered quietly, followed by some of the brass, solo cello and piano.

Harp, celeste and percussion all had their moments, and there were extensive passages for solo and duet violins plus cello..  Xylophone and marimba both had important roles.  The piece ended in mid-air, with the piccolo.

I found the short piece (11 minutes) evocative and attractive; it was played with impeccable attention to detail.  It is worth noting here the important role played by Kirsten Robertson, as player of both piano and celeste.  She had to do a lot of moving between the two instruments – but the composer had spared her from having to play both at once!  Her playing was lucid and contributed a great deal to the work.

Since a considerably smaller orchestra was needed to be set up for the concerto, conductor Alexander Shelley took the chance to speak to the audience.  He spoke briefly but interestingly about each of the works on the programme.  He commented that our solo guitarist was ‘one of the best alive.’

Initially I was disappointed at the change of programme (due to the illness of the scheduled soloist) from a new guitar concerto by Howard Shore, of LOTR fame to the rather hackneyed Rodrigo concerto.  Not that I have heard it performed live, but it is programmed far too frequently on RNZ Concert.  The Shore was premiered in Canada quite recently, by the intended soloist for this concert, Miloš Karadaglić.  Wikipedia rates the Rodrigo as ‘easy listening’, and I daresay the work by the prolific film composer might well have been in the same category.

However, I tried to listen with fresh ears, and the delight of watching the orchestra, and even more the soloist in action soon charmed away any ennui.  To watch Villegas play was to be astonished; his fingers at times flew faster than the speed of light.

The concerto begins with an introduction from the soloist with flamenco-style strumming of chords, the strings of the orchestra playing spiccato beneath.  Very quickly we were introduced to the great range of dynamics this guitarist is able to produce from his instrument.  The memorable themes are repeated rather frequently.

The second movement opens with a most effective, wistful theme from cor anglais, accompanied by guitar.  This is repeated and varied.   The different timbres of the two instruments is most appealing.  Villegas produced a remarkable, soulful tone when using vibrato, and when playing pianissimo.  The final movement recalls courtly dances, but in a chirpy manner.  Strumming is interspersed with melodic use of individual strings, and includes a brilliant cadenza for the soloist.

The audience greeted the performance firstly with absolute silence through the playing, and secondly with enthusiastic applause at the end, many standing.  It was only then that it was pointed out to me that there were two microphones at the edge of the small podium on which the soloist was seated.  The amplification was very sensitively done, and not apparent through the performance; thanks to the composer very seldom having full orchestra and soloist playing together, it could have passed not being amplified in a smaller auditorium.  The MFC is rather too large for it to be the case here.

Our superb soloist then played quite an extended encore: a Jota, or Aragonese dance, made famous in orchestral circles by the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka’s Jota Aragonesa written in 1845.  I did not hear any composer mentioned for this one – was it the soloist’s own improvisation on a traditional dance theme?  It was electric; lively, and much fresher in character than the Rodrigo.  Its playing included some astonishing techniques, such as fingering notes with the left hand, which sounded, while the right hand was rapping the body of the instrument.  There were many variations incorporated.   An enraptured audience rose to cheer this astonishing performer.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is described by Wikipedia as one of his best-known, most popular and most accessible works.  It was also one of his last.  In five movements, it truly lives up to its name, highlighting different sections of the orchestra, constantly passing between sections to give wonderful variety and contrasts; probably more variety of this sort than any symphony in the canon.

The sombre opening of the Introduzione to the first movement is even ominous. Chromatic woodwind and incisive brass followed.  Two harps added to the variety of aural pleasures as the andante non troppo and allegro vivace sections of the movement proceeded.  Hungarian folk melodies appear – and elsewhere in the work.

The second movement, called (in Italian) ‘Game of couples’ (i.e. pairs of instruments), allegretto scherzando opened unusually with bassoon, along with percussion and soon other woodwind instruments.  The character was of a slightly lugubrious dance, followed by a brass choir playing a hymn-like sequence.  Still the side-drum kept tapping its irritating little rhythm, as if drawing attention to something more ominous that was about to happen.  There is much pizzicato for the lower strings.   Later, the movement is loud and passionate.

The third movement (Elegia) introduces many colours, while the humour is apparent in the fourth (Intermezzo interrotto), with syncopated strings and a raspberry from the tuba.

In the finale, there are fugal passages intermittently; one in which bassoons and clarinets feature prominently.  Harps had a brief moment to themselves before another fugal section, beginning  for strings only.  All was magnificently played.  A splashy, somewhat bombastic ending finished this work of many exotic and exciting sounds.  Certainly some passages could be regarded as discordant or atonal, but there is much that is cheerful, even humorous.  Yet other sections sound like traditional symphonies.  There were many opportunities for players to shine as soloists or sections and they were rewarded by the conductor walking around the orchestra giving individuals and groups their own separate bows to the applause.

The programme notes shall have the last word: “ Triumphant, fantastically detailed and unfailingly optimistic, this is the work of a composer at his very best”.




One thought on “Splendid Bartók; evocative New Zealand piece; guitarist substitution perhaps not a misfortune

  1. David McCaw says:

    To adequately represent the wonderful tone and dynamics produced by this phenomenal guitarist I have to confess that the microphones mentioned were there solely for our RNZ Concert broadcast and didn’t contribute one decibel to the sound the audience heard in the auditorium. Villegas played without any amplification as Rodrigo intended and the composer’s scoring took care of the rest. I completely understand when this inference is drawn but wanted to put the record straight because Pablo Sainz Villegas was clearly the real deal.
    The encore was ‘Gran Jota’ by Francisco Tárrega.

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