Entertaining concert, mixing symphony with jazz and a witty film score from Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Justin Pearce

Mozart: Symphony No 25 in G minor, K 183
Mussorgsky: Songs from The Nursery ( with soloists; Janey MacKenzie and Luka Venter
Jazz standards: Chatanooga Choo-choo and Nature Boy, sung by Cole Hampton
Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije Suite

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 24 September, 2:30 pm

One might have considered this an unorthodox programme, starting with a well-known Mozart symphony, ending with Prokofiev’s delightful Lieutenent Kije Suite and in between, songs by Mussorgsky and two jazz standards.

The Mozart symphony is known as the ‘Little G minor’ Symphony to distinguish it from the big one, No 40. But it became easier to distinguish after its arresting opening was used as the introduction to the fictitious, misleading film on Mozart and Salieri, Amadeus (based on Shaffer’s play). It’s unusual in being scored for four horns, as well as the usual strings and pairs of oboes and bassoons. The four horns proved something of a burden, as I had to assume, charitably, that there’d been inadequate time to rehearse. I even came to think that it might have been better to strip the horns back to two or to replace them with clarinets, or other instruments. However, some of the problem could well have been the unforgiving St Andrew’s acoustics.

Their fanfare-type opening was not a happy affair, and the accompanying strings were asked to play with excessive force, no doubt to balance the horns. Most of the later passages for horns were somewhat more restrained, but still problematic. Those elements apart, subsequent playing by strings and woodwinds was very nice and in all other respects the orchestra handled the score with considerable finesse; the subsequent movements, especially the Andante second movement, were very well played, with a charming, placid feeling.

Chattanooga Choo Choo
A set of songs followed, all arranged by conductor Justin Pearce: Chattanooga Choo Choo, made famous by the Glen Miller Band during the Second World War. Then five of Mussorgsky’s songs from The Nursery and finally a song new to me, Nature Boy which has a rather curious provenance.

The railway theme remains significant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a half million population city on the Georgia border. In keeping with the fame that the city derives from the song, there’s the fine Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and a well preserved Terminal Station, now a hotel, though like most of the United States, there are no trains either in the city or intercity connections – how miserable for the visitor – even worse than New Zealand!

A big band was assembled for the occasion, the winds somewhat reflecting Glen Miller, though with only one saxophone. But we had strings, as well as trumpets, trombones, the four horns (now happy enough), plus a tuba. The amplified singer, Cole Hampton, was somewhat outclassed by the band, though I doubt whether it would have helped simply to turn up the volume. So the words, charming to any train buff, narrated a young man’s journey from Philadelphia through Baltimore and (North) Carolina, to meet his life’s partner at Chattanooga (at which one of the city’s several terminals?), were rather lost.  Pressed all my buttons: I enjoyed it.

The Mussorgsky of Boris Godunov doesn’t at once prompt thoughts of nursery songs, but these are a delightful, beguiling set that evokes childhood, demonstrating the composer’s multi-facetted genius. They were shared between soprano Janey MacKenzie and tenor Luka Venter; at once they created an intimate, slightly droll atmosphere, viewed through the eyes and ears of particular children. For some of the songs the orchestra proved rather too weighty though it might have been justified in the encounter with the beetle. Both singers involved themselves happily in the little tales.

The last song, again from the jazz world, was unfamiliar to me. Nature Boy was composed by one George McGrew who adopted the name eden ahbez, all lower case, e e cummings-style. Nat King Cole made it famous in 1948. I felt that, again, the orchestration was out of keeping with the subtle and atmospheric character of the song and my impression was rather supported when I read, in the usual source of information, that the arranger for Nat King Cole’s recording for Capital Records used flute and strings. In the context of jazz or pop music of the time it was unusual and an interesting discovery, for me.

Lieutenant Kije
To perform Prokofiev’s delightful Lieutenant Kije suite (drawn from the music for the eponymous 1934 Soviet film) was great idea. I doubt that I’ve heard it performed live before. My first hearing was as background music to a 1958 film, The Horse’s Mouth, based on the Joyce Cary novel, directed by Ronald Neame and featuring Alec Guinness. I’d have seen it shortly after its release and it immediately grabbed me of course, both on account of that characteristic British post-war, comedy film era, as well as its subject – a zany story of an eccentric artist; and the music.

I can’t help reproducing a quote from a website that I found, seeking to check my memory.

It’s by Ian Christie, Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck College: “… [The Horse’s Mouth] sparkles with conviction and eccentricity—at least that’s how it struck this avid young provincial filmgoer, who had never been inside a pub, let alone heard any of Prokofiev’s music, in 1959. It stayed in my memory, but only later did I come to realize why the qualities that distinguish it are the very reasons that the film remains neglected by British film historians.” And later in the essay he describes the film : “…as part of an English tradition of revolt against cozy middle-class philistinism.”

Lieutenant Kije has, of course, also been used in many later films, but one’s first experience is usually the most memorable. By the way, its spelling doesn’t comply with normal transliteration from the Russian, Киже which would be ‘Kizhe’ – sounding as in ‘measure’; The ‘j’ is the letter used in French transliteration of the sound, as it had been first published in France.

The performance was surprisingly polished and re-created the character of the delicious music much more successfully than I’d thought likely from an essentially amateur orchestra. Right from the start, with a solo trumpet (Neil Dodgson I suppose) sounding from behind the scenes, I was aware of something special. The very particular orchestration was captured, and I have to express delight at the horn playing: it was as if the music’s eccentricity had inspired skills and a singular affinity. Double basses held the limelight for a few bars; the tenor sax struck the right tone and there were nifty remarks from the xylophone. Most striking of course is the sleigh ride – Troika – a term sadly, forever blackened by the harshness of the intransigent trio of torturers working their financial austerity, from the IMF, ECB and EU Commission of recent years. But the real thing transcends that unfortunate borrowing.

The performance was a small triumph for the orchestra and conductor, and a delight for the audience.


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