Camerata’s “Haydn in the Church” series throws open the leadlights

Camerata presents:

HAYDN – Symphony No.7 in C Major Hob:1/7 “Le Midi” (Noon)
DVORAK – Serenade in E Major for String Orchestra Op.22

(Leader, Anne Loeser)

St Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

Friday 23rd March 2018

Venues for concerts are obviously part-and-parcel of the experience of listening to and enjoying live music. They can be relatively unobtrusive, allowing the audience’s attention to focus primarily on the musicians and their playing of the music; or they can provide “added value” to the experience, either visually or acoustically – in the happiest of cases both the concert’s sight and sound are positively enhanced by the surroundings.

These musings were inspired by my attending the latest concert presented by Camerata, which took place in the recently refurbished church of St.Mary of the Angels in Wellington. Since its formation in 2015, Camerata has mostly alternated performances between different churches, as befitted its “Haydn in the Church” Series featuring the rarely-performed early Haydn Symphonies. I’ve previously attended the ensemble’s St.Peters-on-Willis concert in 2016, at which the delicious Symphony No.3 in G Hob:1/3 was given, in what sounded to my ears like an ideal performing environment for this music. I was disappointed not to be assigned by “Middle C” the task of reviewing the group’s next concert, in the same venue the following year, as much for the repertoire (including Haydn’s Symphony No.4 in D Major Hob:1/4) as for its performance and its
attendant ambiences.

Still, I did get to hear Camerata’s “take” on Symphony No. 6 in D Major Hob:1/6 “Le Matin” (Morning), later in 2017 – I assumed that the concert didn’t have a “Haydn in the Church” subtitle this time round  because of the venue chosen (the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University’s NZ School of Music), due to the programming of a Mozart piano concerto, which required an instrument not readily available in most churches. However, the series had its subtitle restored for the ensemble’s most recent concert, featuring Haydn’s Symphony No.7 in C Major Hob:1/7, whose nickname “Le Midi” (Midday) carries the “day” theme forward from the previous work’s  “Le Matin” (Morning). And the venue was the aforementioned St.Mary of the Angels church in Boulcott St.

I’d heard, pre-concert, that the group was looking forward to the occasion because of what was called the “stunning” acoustics of the venue evident at rehearsal – certainly the opening chords of the Haydn Symphony which began the concert had a warmth and bloom which arrested the ear, and these same things were carried over to most of what followed. I will, however, risk sacrilege (appropriately) by saying that I thought the St. Mary’s acoustic a shade TOO ample for some of the quicker music’s clarity to come through, and that I did prefer, by a whisker, the sound that I heard at the St.Peter’s-on-Willis venue, with its greater immediacy (players and audience much closer together there, as well).

Having gotten that nit-picking and admittedly subjective remark off my chest, I can proceed with a clear conscience, reporting that the instruments throughout the work’s introduction sounded fabulous, horns rich and rounded, winds very open-air, and strings warm and resonant. The ensuing quicker music did bring out the spaces’ reverberation, but not excessively so – the playing’s dynamics still came across as varied and impactful, with the sound in tutti having splendid girth.

For the slow movement, Recitativo/Adagio, the horns were supplanted (if that’s the right word!) by flutes, whose colourings took on a kind of celestial resonance in places, the acoustic’s generosity here working to the music’s advantage. Leader Anne Loeser’s solo violin was kept busy throughout with expressive oboe-supported recitatives, alternating at one point with uncannily Vivaldi-like passages from the strings, and then taking up some heartfelt duetting with the solo cello (lovely work from both Loeser and Ken Ichinose) – the music alternating moments of enchantment with more vigorous and determined purpose, as if telling a kind of story with descriptive asides.

As befitted the vigorous, out-of-doors aspect of the music, the horns returned for the Minuet, the opening having a splendid muscular “strut” befitting a dance, while the horns’ “echo” phrases, together with the oboes, gave the vistas plenty of spacious ambience. The Trio of the work gave particular pleasure due to the magnificent playing of the double bass soloist, Matthew Cave, who, accompanied discreetly by strings and oboes, and later, the horns, exhibited both technical dexterity and a singular feel for the shape and flow of his sometimes angular figurations.

The finale was launched most spiritedly by a pair of violins, exchanging phrases with the whole ensemble, and then handing over to the flutist, who had rejoined the band, and who, hardly able to believe her luck, executed several most exuberant-sounding runs before being “caught up” by the ensemble. The music was filled with wit and fun, amid several dynamic and textural surprises, horns and oboes having turns to shine with their pairings in thirds, and the flute (Karen Batten in sparkling form) in places quite irrepressible! After the repeats had given us great delight all over again, the strings finally took control, amid whooping horns and piping winds whirling the music to its conclusion!

From Haydn to Dvorak there’s a hundred-plus years of profound political, social and artistic change, which one might think would engender a chalk-and-cheese kind of difference in their music. But both composers could summons up a bracing, out-of-doors kind of expressive mode alongside their more formal structural inclinations, which gave some commonality of spirit to both the symphony we’d just heard, and Dvorak’s lovely, and in places wonderfully air-borne Serenade for Strings.

Dvorak wrote the work during a particularly happy period of his life, and the music displays this contentment in no uncertain terms – at the very beginning of the work the players ”enabled” rather than began the work, it seemed, with the acoustic both helping to fill out the more full-throated phrases and imparting a mystical halo of sound to the softer sequences. The gently-dancing second subject had grace and poise, varying the trajectories sufficiently for the return of the opening to be a most winning moment.  By contrast with all of this, the second movement was a Waltz, one whose first section was quizzically constructed of five-bar phrases, though containing nothing that any dancers would trip or stumble over – the playing readily evoked the exhilarating swirl of bodies in partnership, with the high string notes always sweet, never strident. A more conventionally-paced Trio section inspired some tenderly-phrased and nicely gradated playing, the sequences beautifully “nudged” in places for a more impulsive effect.

The ‘cellos excitingly hit the ground running with their opening notes of the Scherzo, whose “terraced” scoring created different spaces and vistas between the music’s lines, while the playing’s more circumspect treatment of the second subject imparted a lovely lilt to the music along with a tinge of regret. In the Trio, with its broader phrases, I would have liked more elbow-room allowed those downward intervals at the phrase-ends, instead of the “snap” treatment they were given – to my ears the effect was rather severe, instead of the feeling of poignant regret a gentler descent each time would have imparted. I did, however, note that the composer’s instructions were for the trio’s music to be played without any lessening of tempo…… (“Bah! – composers! – what do they know?” I sometimes find myself thinking at moments like these!).

I thought the slow movement’s opening lines very Tchaikovsky-like, so very beautiful – and especially so here, with the music’s heartfelt reaching towards the tops of the phrases, followed by their dying fall. The cellos take up the melody’s reprise so very eloquently, after which the violins “prepare” for their final ascent with focused, and finely-gradated purpose, before singing the great arched-over contourings for all they’re worth! – a wonderful moment! After this the gentle final undulations concluded the movement with a simple gravitas all of their own.

The “snap” of the opening kicked in the finale’s music excitingly, despite the instruments being not quite together, to my ears, the first time round (amends were naturally made a second time!) Anne Loeser had told us in her introductory remarks that the composer was fond of trains for practically all of his life – and perhaps in this movement it’s possible to imagine that the sequences of repeated rhythmic figures which build excitingly over a repeated droning note towards a rip-snorting climax might be mimicking the sounds of an approaching steam engine. Whatever the case, the ensemble bent their backs towards giving both this passage and the syncopated rhythms of the second subject group plenty of “grunt” –  the glow imparted by the excitement gave the reprise of the work’s very opening a melting homecoming quality, at once drenched with sentiment and perfectly poised. It enabling the coda proper to burst in and carry away our sensibilities in a flurry of energetic excitement and exhilaration – “an expression of happiness so intense it sometimes brings tears”, as a commentator whose words I once read long ago said of one of Dvorak’s pieces. It was that kind of intensity that helped to make Camerata’s playing throughout this concert such a memorable experience.

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