Orchestra Wellington out-performs the fireworks with a stunning “Petrouchka”

Orchestra Wellington presents:

TABEA SQUIRE – Colour Lines (commission from Orchestra Wellington)*
CARL NIELSEN – Violin Concerto Op.33
IGOR STRAVINSKY – Petrouchka (Ballet – Revised 1947 Edition)

Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley (Alison Eldredge – director)*

Andrew Atkins (conductor)*
Suyeon Kang (violin)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Saturday 4th November, 2017

Audiences can be curiously unpredictable, on occasions exhilarating and galvanizing masses of energy to be part of, caught up in the excitement of either enthusiastic or rapt responses to some performances, (especially those involving soloists) and then for no apparent reason, every once in a while, strangely under-responsive. Why this sudden out-of-the-blue observation, going a little against the grain of my normally unrelieved positivism as a music reviewer?

It was Saturday’s Orchestra Wellington concert that left me feeling a little bemused, after I’d experienced warmth and enthusiasm aplenty on the part of the audience in response to the efforts, firstly, of the youthful Sistema Strings, playing both a group of demonstration pieces and taking a vital role in composer Tabea Squire’s newly-commissioned work “Colour Lines”, and secondly, violinist Suyeon Kang, in giving us a rapturously beautiful performance of that concert-hall rarity, the Nielsen Violin Concerto, with plenty of tensile strength and winning gossamer-woven lines.

In each of these cases the performers’ energies were accorded the kind of reaction from the listeners that reflected the music-making’s outstanding and warm-hearted qualities. However, I thought that, on the same performance “Richter-scale”, the audience’s reaction to the concert’s second half, a breathtakingly brilliant realisation by orchestra and conductor of Stravinsky’s music for his ballet “Petrouchka”, by rights ought to have been something along the lines of a twenty-minute standing ovation!

That such a stunning realization of the work didn’t seem to me as forthcoming as it fully deserved could have been because (1) there had already been a lot of applause in the concert already, due to the presence of the Sistema students, (2) the remarkable violinist Suyeon Kang had already taken the lion’s share, with her gorgeously elfin-like performance of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto (including a round of spontaneous applause at the first movement’s conclusion) and (3) Petrouchka of course ends not with a Firebird-like bang, but with a subdued whimper, from which listeners have to then re-activate those glowing embers of enthusiasm and get them bursting into flame once more. So the audience response conveyed what I thought W.S.Gilbert might have described as “modified rapture”, instead of conveying (as I and a colleague afterwards were both feeling) a sense of “Did we really hear that? It was mind-blowing!”

Overall, the concert’s trajectory lent itself to a kind of “from seeds to forest giant” progression, with tremulously awakened beginnings demonstrated by the cutest brigade of junior string-players one could imagine, all under the sway of their director, Alison Eldredge. All of these were introduced by Orchestra Wellington Music Director, Marc Taddei, and included OW’s assistant conductor Andrew Atkins (unfortunately not credited in the programme for his efforts with both the Arohanui Strings, in their introductory items, and in directing the combined ensemble in the commissioned piece “Colour Lines” by Tabea Squire).

This was a work whose composer conceived as involving both the student players and the orchestra proper, by using ‘”free-time” notation in places to allow the younger players the means of continuously contributing to the music’s texture. A chorale which appears in various guises during the piece eventually blends with the younger musicians’ efforts. I was struck by the confident orchestrations throughout, a definite character emerging with each of the sequences, making for strongly-etched contrasts (scintillating upper strings are then “cooled’ by the winds near the opening, before a lovely dancing interaction develops between strings and winds beneath warm horn tones, the latter then assuming a ”stopped” out-of-phase effect which kaleidoscopes the music into yet another world of wonderment).

I recall both my Middle-C colleague Rosemary Collier and myself being delighted by Tabea Squire’s work for string quartet “Jet-lag” at a 2014 concert, a piece with something of a similar sharply-etched sense of character, obviously wrought by a composer with an ear for textures and the on-going ambiences. What mischief, and indeed, even danger, was let loose with the burble and ferment generated by the brass in their “hornets’ nest” sequence! – again contrasting with the nobility of the chorale voiced by those same instruments not long after – reminiscent of Hindemith, here, as the strings muscled up to join with the tutti in gestures of satisfying finality, snappy and definite. I thought the music most skillfully and confidently focused and blurred its edges all at once, throughout, as the title suggested it might.

Relatively unknown compared with its Nordic cousin written in 1904 by Sibelius, the slightly later (1911) Violin Concerto of Carl Nielsen’s proved equally as strong and fascinating a work, and certainly as difficult to play, if not more so. Like Sibelius, Nielsen was himself a violinist, though neither composer would have attempted to perform his own concerto, despite Aino Sibelius describing her husband’s playing of the work’s solo part during its composition as “on fire all the time.….he stays awake all night, plays incredibly beautifully,…he has so many ideas it is hard to believe it….”

Nielsen’s work, unlike Sibelius’s, turned away from the standard three-movement concerto form, the composer casting the work in two large movements, each with a slow and quicker section (some commentators alternatively describe the work as having four movements). The music began strongly, dramatic and declamatory, the soloist (South-Korean-born Australian violinist Suyeon Kang) meeting the orchestra’s initial challenge with full-throated recitative-like passages whose striking quality of tensile strength and flexibility of phrasing instantly compelled and held one’s attention throughout. I wondered whether, in the big-boned virtuoso sequences, Kang’s tightly-woven silken tones would fill-out sufficiently to provide a sufficient match for the orchestra’s more assertive gestures – but such was her focused concentration her instrument seemed able to “inhabit” the music’s dynamics in an entirely natural and unselfconscious manner. From these trenchant responses right through to the Elgar-like lyricism of the Praeludium’s final musings, she held us in thrall.

Nor did she shirk the physicality of the jolly “cavalleresco” opening of the allegro, with its vigorous exchanges, rapid running passages, and sudden moments of introspection, all leading to a solo cadenza which mirrors the quixotic moods which have gone before in the music, before dancing back to the allegro’s lively theme. And such was the breathtaking skill with which she swung into the movement’s dancing coda, and traded playful feints and gestures with the orchestra right to the end, that the audience responded with some spontaneous unscheduled applause (to which Marc Taddei, after acknowledging the soloist and the clapping, remarked “But wait! – there’s more!”).

The slow movement featured lovely playing throughout the opening sequences from the winds, joined by the horns, and some beautiful Sibelius-like accompaniments in thirds for the soloist, whose utterances seemed bent on expressing some kind of private sorrow. The horns offered comfort at various points, as did the strings, so that the music’s abrupt recourse to a kind of droll waltz seemed almost Schubertian in its stoic, at times quirky and humourful resignation, the orchestra occasionally launching into moments of mock seriousness, none of which last for very long. One thunderous episode provoked an angular cadenza from the soloist, during which, at one point, she played simultaneously a drone bass, a repeated pizzicato note and some bowed figurations, all most divertingly and unselfconsciously. It was a remarkable performance from all concerned, and fully deserved a response which matched in enthusiasm that given to another Korean musician in the MFC just over a week ago, Joyce Yang, after her Rachmaninov concerto performance with the NZSO.

We reformed after the interval to the sounds of fireworks outside, which were soon well-and-truly put in their place by a performance of Stravinsky’s eponymous ballet “Petrouchka” from Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington which I couldn’t imagine bettered in terms of precision, skill, atmosphere and overall theatrical and musical impact. Every sequence, every scene, every tableau came alive, the music-making bringing into being both dance and drama, and forming a kind of triumvirate of successful evocation of artistic achievement. At its conclusion I felt sympathy for Marc Taddei and all the players who deserved to be brought to their feet and given individual acknowledgement – but the trouble was, there were too many of them! Nevertheless I thought that all the winds and all the brass players were simply heroes, and that Andrew Atkins deservedly got his dues after all, for his superb piano-playing. Very great honour, of course, to Marc Taddei and his all-encompassing direction of the score. For all these reasons and more, I could have clapped for much, much longer!











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