Te Kōkī New Zealand School Of Music presents:
Music by Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy and Lilburn
BRAHMS – Tragic Overture
BEETHOVEN – Concerto for ‘cello, violin and piano with orchestra
DEBUSSY – Nocturnes (excerpts) – 1. Nuages 2.Fetes
LILBURN – Suite for Orchestra (1955)
Te Kōkī Trio : Inbal Megiddo (‘cello), Martin Riseley (violin), Jian Liu (piano)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Kenneth Young (conductor)
Tuesday, 17th April, 2018
There was palpable excitement among those gathering within the none-too-spacious vistas of St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church for the most recent concert given by Te Kōkī New Zealand School Of Music’s Orchestra with conductor Kenneth Young, most certainly due to the event’s extra attraction in presenting the fabulous Te Kōkī Trio as guest soloists in Beethoven’s wondrous Triple Concerto! – of course, each of the Trio’s soloists are currently heads of their respective instrumental disciplines at the School of Music in any case, which somehow added to the integral splendour and prestige of the occasion.
Under Kenneth Young’s tutorship this orchestra has seemed to me to gradually develop over the years the skills and confidence needed to tackle works from the standard repertoire which I would have considered ambitious to a fault for student players to even attempt, and proceeded to bring them off with considerable elan. True, the students always appear to have heart-warming support from their various tutors in performance, even when the latter are performing as soloists – we noticed, for example how both Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Martin Riseley (violin) from Te Kōkī Trio joined the full orchestra after the interval, in the wake of their Beethoven performance – and I feel certain that Jian Liu (piano) would have done the same had there been a keyboard part for him to play! But there were a number of others, whom the programme rightly named, spread across the various disciplines, whose presence in the band would have been empowering, to say the least!
It’s a scenario which seems to augur well for continued first-class performances by New Zealand orchestral musicians in this country, let alone develop the players’ individual instrumental skills for solo and smaller ensemble work. What we’re all waiting for in Wellington, now, is a venue that’s rather more accommodating spacious than St.Andrew’s for orchestras such as the NZSM ensemble, without resorting to the capacious vistas of the MFC – which can even dwarf both Orchestra Wellington and the NZSO, depending on the numbers required for particular repertoire. So, how far advanced is the Town Hall’s promised earthquake restoration project, again?
This evening we were given an eclectic programme, each piece a challenge for the players in its different way, as befitted the concert’s purpose. First up was the hoary old Tragic Overture, by Brahms, which I confess I wasn’t heart-thumpingly excited about hearing – possibly because I’ve sat through many an “auto-pilot” performance of this music, seeming to amble through its paces with little “edge” given the attack, phrasings or rhythms, “standard fare” at its worst. Happily, Ken Young and his players obviously had no intentions of the music being made to sound anything other than totally enthralling, right from the first note – the attack of those first two chords was electrifying, the ensuing atmosphere charged with expectation, and the focused trajectories of the music that followed leading urgently and surely towards drama and excitement.
Conductor and players brought about this state of things by keeping the focus the whole time on where the music was headed, and then committing themselves to realising those cadence-points with the utmost concentration and urgency. Consequently, the music became the conduit through which all the efforts of the players passed, the result feeling like a kind of “living entity”, instead of merely a well-polished run-through. The passionate urgencies of the string-playing in the first, agitated section were beautifully contrasted by the poised eloquence of the winds during their more lyrical sequences mid-work, the oboist the most prominent of a number of heroes, here. The winds all made characterful and plangent contributions right up to the heart-warming burst of sunshine from the horns that allowed the violas their generously-phrased moment of glory before handing over to the violins.
There was no let-up, no slackening of tensions right up to the end of the piece, with the strings again squaring up to the conflict and matched by the winds’ and brass’s darkly passionate colourings and the timpani’s steady underpinning of the climaxes. If all performances of this work evoked such a spirit among orchestral players, I would happily change my tune regarding the music – here, the piece was made to bristle and boil, its trenchant sounds recreating a living sense of tragedy.
Having been nicely “primed” by these expressive urgencies, we were all the more expectant of the delights that the next piece of music would bring – Beethoven’s warm-hearted Triple Concerto, which brought to the performing platform the three aforementioned soloists from the Te Kōkī Trio. With a grand piano and two other places for string soloists required in front of the orchestra, the auditorium’s capacities were put under some stress, though with the help of the upstairs balcony, everybody seemed to fit in, just! As well they did, because the performance was of an order that will, I believe, give rise to reminiscences of the “Ah! – you should have been there to hear…” variety from among those present, in years to come.
The opening orchestral tutti is, quite simply, for me, one of those “squirming-with-delight” sequences whose ambience evokes a kind of cosmos eminently receptive to human habitation, a state of potential being amply filled by the arrival of the soloists, one at a time, here, all personalities in their own right, and imbued with interactive skills of all kinds. Inbal Megiddo’s ‘cello was the first to “appear”, brightly-and eloquently-voiced and very much at one with Martin Riseley’s violin, both relishing their triplet figurations that prepared the way for the piano. Jian Liu’s playing straight away had a matching, bright-eyed eagerness which readily gravitated to the mode of enthusiastic exchange that characterised most of this movement.
To reproduce all of my scribbled notes regarding this performance (I was, I confess, somewhat carried away by the sheer eloquence of the playing from both soloists and orchestra) would be sheer folly, like comparing prosaic mutterings to Shakespearian poetry – so I will confine myself to comments which somehow convey a sense of the whole. I particularly enjoyed Inbal Megiddo’s playing at the top of her range, with Beethoven making sure the instrument could be heard at nearly all times; and both hers and Martin Riseley’s violin-playing created a teasingly entertaining combination of exchange and unanimity in their passagework, with Jian Liu’s bright-toned piano adding both colour and a multi-voiced aspect of character to the discourse. This reached its first-movement apex both at the climax of the “development” section, and towards the end, with a “sighing” three-note descent leading to the coda, the three soloists scurrying through their firstly upward and then downward scales with great alacrity, amid crashing orchestral chords – so exciting!
The slow movement exuded pure romance at the outset, the orchestral strings’ rapt tones preparing the way for the ‘cello’s singing entry – a treasurable moment! The gently undulating piano followed carrying the melody forward, with violin and piano singing in tandem, before the violin was allowed ITS moment – honour was thus satisfied, the orchestra then essaying a dark and mysterious clarinet-led Weber-like sequence, which brought the soloists in singly by way of arpeggiated musings. Of a sudden, the ‘cello seemed to want to go out and play, and it was all on again, via the finale – though on this occasion I thought Inbal Megiddo’s playing more dutiful-sounding than enthusiastic with her introduction, a beginning that didn’t quite for me, launch things with sufficient “gusto”. It took the orchestra to really set the polonaise-like rhythms on fire, though once the soloists reached their concerted “racy triplet rhythms” passage, punctuated at the end by the orchestra, things found their “stride” with a will, and there was no looking-back!
In fact the playing of the finale from here on generated tremendous momentum, which was thrilling in its own way, though I ought to register my fondness (excuses, excuses!) for the legendary, but much-maligned Karajan-led EMI recording of the 1970s with its starry lineup of Russian soloists, because of the po-faced “schwung” created in parts of that performance’s finale, particularly those minor-key polonaise-dance sequences. Here, by contrast, it was all thrust and counter-thrust, with those racy triplet-rhythms sounding positively dangerous at the performance’s speed, the risk-taking element inextricably tied up with the music’s joyous quality.
As for the helter-skelter coda (or rather, Coda No.1!), we simply gripped the sides of our seats and held on as Martin Riseley’s violin raced forwards, gathering up both ‘cello and piano, and challenging the orchestra to continue the chase, which they did, most excitingly! After various soloistic ups and downs, the piano introduced “Coda No.2”, a return to the polonaise dance rhythm, punctuated by great chordings from the orchestra and a brief frisson of skittery triplets from the soloists, and we were home, to the accompaniment of deservedly rapturous acclaim from all sides!
We all needed the interval to let off some rhapsodic steam in the direction of anybody else who would listen (most of the others were busy doing the same thing!). Once done, we gradually brought our metabolisms back down to normal from fever pitch, and settled back into our seats for the very different musical offerings of the concert’s second half.
The first of Debussy’s Nocturnes, Nuages (Clouds) began as if the sounds were reconstructing New Zealand poet Dennis Glover’s words in music – “detonated clouds in calm confusion lie”, with winds and strings enabling the phrases and textures confidently yet sensitively, the cor anglais mournfully repeating a motif that practically became a mantra for the scene, while the strings wove diaphanous sounds whose intensity varied as if controlled by unseen magic, the horn calling from a kind of fairy-nymph land of promise, and the winds floating their airborne phrases with great surety, a blip or two of no consequence against the steady evocation of timelessness, here beautifully realised by conductor Young and his players.
As for the second piece, Fêtes (Festivals), it straightaway seized our sensibilities by the ears, with the strings’ joyous clarion-call attack, infectious tarantella rhythms featuring excitable winds and great brass shouts reinforced by timpani, with a spectacular flourish from the harp and percussion re-igniting the music’s thrust in a different direction – all so visceral and scalp-prickling! After we got further excitable exchanges between winds and strings – the latter barely able to contain their growing excitement – the distant procession’s sounds suddenly fell magically upon our ears from the harp and lower strings (Ottorino Respighi surely had this passage in mind when writing the last of his “Pines of Rome” in 1924), the remote brass calls creating magical vistas as the music moved forward, Ken Young controlling his forces like a general, and his troops marshalling their various forces with a will. Horns shouted a welcome to the oncoming commotion, and the percussive sounds loomed ever closer (cymbals and side-drum splendidly giving voice) as the procession tumultuously passed through the scene and was eventually swallowed up by it, with ambient echoes resounding, and the festival rounding off its celebrations.
Festive sounds of a different kind were then brought into play for the concert’s finale, Douglas Lilburn’s 1955 Suite for Orchestra, a work written for the then Auckland Junior Symphony Orchestra, whose members must have found its playful angularities something of a challenge at the time. Lilburn composed the work while under the spell of the music of his older American contemporary, Aaron Copland, whose influence can be discerned in places, most noticeably in the finale. (Later, after some less-than-positive contact with the American, and an abortive visit to Tanglewood in the United States, to attempt a meeting with him, Lilburn seemed “cured” of any such further inclinations towards homage in that direction!).
In five shortish movements, Lilburn demonstrated the orchestral mastery he was soon to famously turn his back on, and explore what he called his own “total heritage of sound, meaning all sounds, and not just the narrow segment of them, traditional, imported, that we’ve long regarded as being music….” He meant, of course, an electro-acoustic sound-world, and made good his determination, to the bemusement and bewilderment of those who considered he hadn’t yet finished exploring what he had to say in traditional forms. For now, here was a playfulness and ease of expression worthy of any of his off-shore contemporaries, including the strangely deprecatory Copland – the opening Allegro of the Suite squawks with unashamed delight in places at the joy of setting such sounds into play, raucous, assertive, droll, sentimental and skittery, a “like it or not” spirit very much at large.
The Allegretto was a lovely, angular Waltz, the players tossing their pizzicato notes across the orchestral platform, as strings and winds shared a serenade that had a whiff of “Old Paint” and its like, amid the rhythmic angularities – in places Lilburn’s almost Bartok-like humour of deconstruction came across splendidly, the lower brass adding a droll “Concerto for Orchestra” touch before the end. The brass began the Andante with slow, rising chords, echoed by the winds, as the strings intoned a plaintive melody, one which build to epiphany-like intensities at the end – a lovely, intensely-felt performance!
In complete contrast was the somewhat skeletal opening of the Moderato which followed, bleak winds and angular timpani giving way to a kind of “road music”, Young and his players firmly establishing those ambiences characteristic of their composer, here “at large” in the midst of landscapes he loved. And what fun everybody had with the concluding Vivace, the playing generating an orchestral energy which swept listeners along with dancing feet – a true Antipodean hoe-down! The sudden changes of atmosphere were breathtaking in their short-lived, but powerfully-focused moments of hymn-like serenity amid the riotous festivities, whose concluding shouts made a celebratory conclusion to a memorable concert!