Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ewan Clark with David Bremner (trombone)
Lilburn: Suite for Orchestra (1955)
Tomasi: Trombone Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 43
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Sunday 10 December, 2:30 pm
Lilburn’s Suite for Orchestra was composed for the Auckland Junior Symphony Orchestra in 1955. Thus it was a sensible piece for a non-professional orchestra, though that is not to suggest that its wide-ranging moods, brilliant orchestration and rhythms that range widely from the utmost subtlety to the unusually boisterous are not very taxing.
Subtle brass playing is rarely a highlight of amateur orchestras and it was trumpets and trombones that had some difficulty in adapting to ensemble expectations, particularly in the opening Allegro movement. However the large string sections and both the horns (four of them) and woodwinds contributed the sort of sounds that are recognisably Lilburn. The middle movement, Andante, offered rewarding opportunities to oboes and horns; while the orchestra’s timpani has been problematic in this church in the past, Alec Carlisle’s handling ensured its role was perfectly integrated in the orchestral texture.
The fifth movement, Vivace, is a delightfully scored dance in Latin rhythms – Mexican I guess, which is no doubt the reason for J M Thomson’s programme notes for William Southgate’s recording remarking on a Copland influence (I imagine, with El salon Mexico in mind; a solo trumpet sounded very idiomatic). Conductor Ewan Clark gave the players their head in this movement and the result was perhaps a rare occasion when Lilburn lets rip – not too much, mind you. However, the performance was a happy opportunity to witness a not often heard aspect of his personality, and it was also sufficient to make the audience aware of the composer’s international stature.
Henri Tomasi (French, not Italian; of Corsican origin) flourished through the middle of the 20th century; he wrote a number of concertos, mainly for winds, and this one seems to have gained popularity. The opening movement is in triple time, entitled Andante et scherzo – valse, and this gave the piece a dreamy quality. David Bremner’s programme note mentions jazz influences – Tommy Dorsey in particular, though I tended to listen for French influences. Debussy and Ravel are there though not dominant, and there are rather more suggestions of later French composers such as Ibert or Jolivet; but Tomasi’s language, while essentially tonal, melodic in a Poulenc sort of way, sounds more radical, testing than either – more acidic, harmonically complex.
There were interesting forays for most other instruments. One interesting event was a sudden break off in the middle of the second movement (Nocturne) which had been going along in a calm, bluesy manner: a trombone breakdown. A gadget called a trigger broke; it enables the player to obtain low notes by diverting the sound back through the tube behind him instead of fully extending the slide forward. Since none of the orchestral trombonists was playing, one of those instruments came to the rescue. So it continued its rather charming (Ellingtonian, I thought) way.
The last movement too was rather diverting, though Bremner didn’t pull off a comparable stunt; here, there were offerings from side drum, timpani, xylophone…, all ear-catching, quirky and attractive.
I’d like to explore Tomasi’s other music.
Then came the main course: Sibelius’s Second Symphony. The work opened very promisingly, as we were drawn in with those expectant, pulsing strings and the oboe and then the four rapturous horns; and the strings long legato lines, handled with gentle emotion. This was the first Sibelius symphony I heard played live by the then National Orchestra in the 1950s, and still a feeling of rapture overcomes me.
The second movement is announced almost threateningly, with a startling timpani fanfare, followed almost silently by a longish pizzicato episode that emerges slowly from basses then cellos, overlaid by questioning bassoons. Its rather rhapsodic character – it’s labelled Tempo andante, ma rubato – and its increasing grandeur involved much from the fine horn section; and though other brass didn’t always blend in the otherwise good ensemble, the whole was certainly more successful and more beautiful than the sum of its parts. The slow movement runs to around a quarter of an hour and to hold audience enraptured throughout is a considerable challenge for a conductor, one that Clark met admirably.
The emotional crux of the scherzo movement, Vivacissimo, is the contrasting string of nine repeated notes (B flat?, and repeated a semi-tone higher) from the oboes and these were beautifully played. And the transition from a further evocation of those repeated notes through the steady build-up to the grand opening out into the Finale, Allegro moderato, remains just another of the glories of the work that I have simply never tired of, and although this was not to be compared with the many magnificent performances that one has heard by professional orchestras, live and recorded, any performance that seems driven by an awareness of the emotional and spiritual splendour that Sibelius conceived here, simply works. This one did.