“The Three Altos” – scenes of glory and achievement for the viola here in Wellington

The Three Altos – a Viola Spectacular with the NZSO
The 44th International Viola Congress, Wellington, NZ

ROBERT SCHUMANN (arr. Mclean – Marchenbilder Op.113 (world premiere)
Roger Myers (viola)
ROBERTO MOLINELLI – Lady Walton’s Garden (world premiere)
Anna Serova (viola)
BORIS PIGOVAT – Poem of Dawn (New Zealand premiere)
Anna Serova (viola)
WILLIAM WALTON – Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Roger Benedict (viola)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Monday, 4th September, 2017

This concert marked the conclusion of the 44th International Viola Congress, one which brought aficionados from everywhere in the world to Wellington for no less than five days of intense viola interaction. Co-hosts for the event were Professor Donald Maurice, and NZSQ violist Gillian Ansell, both distinguished teachers of the viola at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington. It was no wonder that, with fifty-plus events scheduled for the five days, the prospect of the Congress was, for Gillian Ansell, “nothing short of viola heaven!”

The concert, featuring three internationally-acclaimed viola soloists performing individually with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, made a fitting conclusion to this five-day whirlwind of meetings, seminars, workshops and chamber concerts. Two of the presentations were world premiere performances – Michael McLean’s orchestral arrangement of Schumann’s Märchenbilder Op.113, and Roberto Molinelli’s Lady Walton’s Garden, a three-movement work whose individual sections are named after plants and flowers from Lady Susana Walton’s garden, La Mortella, on the island of Ishia, near Naples; while a third, Israeli composer Boris Pigovat’s 2013 work Poem of Dawn, here received its New Zealand premiere. Not unfittingly, the fourth work was a viola classic – Sir William Walton’s much acclaimed 1929 Viola Concerto.

We were fronted up to by a couple of speakers before the music got under way, the first being the Hon. Chris Finlayson, who, in introducing himself as a representative of the Government, told us quite categorically (besides welcoming us to the concert and paying tribute to those here in Wellington who had organised the Viola Congress) that one could still be a classical music-lover despite being the Attorney-General! We then were addressed briefly by the newly-appointed Director of the NZSM, Professor Sally Jane Norman, who similarly paid tribute to the organisers of the Congress and the evening’s concert, describing the event as “a strong cultural resonator for Wellington”, and causing wry amusement with her description of the city as “a world famous wind instrument” – a nice touch!

These pleasantries having been deftly expressed and duly registered, we settled down to the evening’s music, beginning with the first of the evening’s “premieres”, Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder Op.113, arranged for viola and orchestra, with soloist Roger Myers, and with Hamish McKeich conducting the NZSO. No composer of my listening experience proclaims his character more readily in his music than does Schumann, the opening Nicht schnell expressing that curiously unique melancholic lyricism so characteristic of the composer which at once gives and conceals, emotes and holds in check, a scenario of unquiet impulses and counter-impulses which, allowed to get the upper hand, as in Schumann’s unfortunate case, can lead to undermining disturbance. Scored for an orchestra these impulses seemed rather less obsessive, if more discursive – but the general effect was attractive, more “comfortable” than the chamber version.

The vigour of the Lebhaft’s march was transformed midway into a skitterish galop, a twisting phrase thrown this way and that by soloist and orchestra, the music’s angularities given plenty of swagger by the players. Then, it was the turn of the following Rasch, which music expended comparable energies, Roger Myers’ finger-fleetness given a workout by the driving triplet rhythms set against a striding orchestral accompaniment.

After these vigorous expenditures, the benediction of the finale cast a dream-like spell over the hall, with Schumann come into his element here as a composer of “the soft note for he who listens secretly” – a quote normally associated with the Op.17 Fantasia for solo piano, but just as applicable to the hushed, inward musings of the viola and the accompanying strands and counterpoints – as if the music’s questing spirit has found its resting-place. In some moods the sounds might be thought of as religious, while in others the music’s lullabic trajectories might evoke deep nostalgia. Roger Myers’ playing and the orchestral support under Hamish McKeich winningly encompassed both possibilities.

In view of the ostensible subject-matter, I was expecting something far more Delian from Roberto Molinelli’s “Lady Walton’s Garden”, but was obviously out-of-synch with both the times and the context – this was no languid, heavily-scented “In a Summer Garden”-like evocation, but a lively, infectiously physical delineation of joyous energies, especially so during the work’s first movement, subtitled gincko biloba (the first of three such names). The new soloist was Anna Serova, and her poised, finely-crafted viola-playing here, suggested, perhaps, an agent provocateur, the conduit through which the garden and its verdant energies were expressed.

The second movement, Victoria Amazonica (the largest of the water-lilies) appropriately conjured up liquid, dreamy harp-coloured textures at the outset, but graduallly burgeoned into a full-blooded exploration, by turns romantic and acerbic, with passing gypsy caravans and angular, 7/4 dance rhythms, the soloist all the while registering and commenting on the order and passing of things. Breaking this exotic spell was the final movemento, a tango, subtitled palo borracho (‘drunken tree”), music with “driven” rhythms suggesting an exotically-set drama, with the soloist a kind of domesticated gypsy fiddler, or even a cafe violinist. Matters came to a head when Serova suddenly set down her violin and whirled into the arms of a tango-dancing partner who, it seemed, had appeared from nowhere! The only problem, review-wise, for me with the violinist exchanging her role of musician for that of dancer, was the ensuing unexpected distraction of having to surrender one’s attention to the sight of a beautiful woman dancing a tango – the music from that point on, was……er – well, it seemed OK!

After the interval had realigned the balance of my critical sensibilities, I was ready to re-encounter Anna Serova as a viola soloist once more, in this instance giving us the New Zealand premiere of a work by Boris Pigovat Poem of Dawn, a work dedicated to the violist. Already known to New Zealand audiences through his searing, no-holds-barred Requiem, performed in Wellington by Donald Maurice and the Vector Wellington Orchestra in 2008, here Russian-born Pigovat, to my surprise, gave us a glimpse of another, less confrontational side to his creative personality, in this radiantly-scored, rhapsodic work, the opening gathering up and engaging our sensibilities as it meant to go on, with raptly meditative solo instrumental lines, supported by touches of ambient magic in the orchestra all of which seemed to constantly evolve, moving us from realm to evocative realm, a tour de force of post-modern romantic orchestral writing! To my unprepared ears the music in places bordered on the schmaltzy in its directly emotional gesturings, albeit extremely high-class schmaltz! I’m certain that my reaction to the piece at the time was coloured by my having a different kind of expectation of what a previously unheard work from its composer would sound like!

I had no such problem with the Walton Viola Concerto that concluded the formal part of the concert. In this work, solo instrument and music deliver a near-perfect match of sound and emotion, the opening movement achieving miracles of a “gradual awakening” of things and their exploration, with both feeling and intellect brought into play. Roger Benedict’s performance with Hamish McKeich caught this tantalising interaction with plenty of whimsy allied to executive brilliance, even if some of the soloist’s energetic double-stopping came slighty adrift intonation-wise amidst the cut-and-thrust exchanges with the orchestra. But how beautifully the players ‘floated’ and then energised the movement’s lyrical main theme, song mingled with dance, as it were, the music leading one’s interest on while keeping up enigmatic appearances. Whether the middle-movement scherzo reveals or further conceals through diversion or entertainment depends on how one views its rumbustious character, as a Janus-faced mask or an ecstasy of brief abandonment! Whatever the case, the music was here given for all its character was worth, the soloist’s material jaunty and insoucient, and the orchestra’s brassily rumbustious episodes joyous and life-enhancing!

But it’s the finale which truly proclaims this music’s greatness, as it did, here – the opening bassoon’s jauntiness was carried along by the other winds and the soloist, the viola alternating rhapsodic inclination (as “English” as the work gets!) with an undertow of restlessness driven by the strings and augmented by the winds. Soloist and orchestra continued this volatile alternation between the two states, Roger Benedict’s viola here delving into the depths with long-breathed lines as readily as charging impulsively forward towards a kind of running skirmish with the orchestra, the music spectacularly expending its energies with a passionately-declaimed phrase capped off by a solo trumpet – splendid stuff! The soloist’s subsequent re-entry, with its gradual upward progression towards “the inverted bowl we call the sky” was lump-in-the-throat stuff, as was the return of the work’s very opening theme, with viola and orchestra each claiming the other as “belonging”, in a deeply satisfying, but still mysterious kind of fusion – we all sat spellbound at the end, in the embrace of the music’s enigmatic concluding silence. I’d always wanted to hear this work “live” and wasn’t disappointed!

Afterwards, the NZSO’s Principal Viola Julia Joyce joined the evening’s three soloists in an arrangement of a Piazzolla Tango, which, as the saying goes, brought the house down, thus, in a suitably festive manner, concluding a similarly festive occasion!

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