Dvořák with Rolf Gjelsten wins all hearts at Wellington Chamber Orchestra concert

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
DVOŘÁK – ‘Cello Concerto in B Minor Op. 104
BRAHMS – Symphony No.2 in D Major Op.73

Rolf Gjelsten – solo ‘cello
Rachel Hyde – conductor
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church

Sunday 24th June 2018

As part of the “run-up” to this particular Wellington Chamber Orchestra concert, its second of the current year, the Orchestra circulated on-line a truly inspiring issue of its occasional newsletter, Notes, one which I was delighted to get, in view of what was “coming”.  It featured a heartwarming contribution from the concert’s soloist, Rolf Gjelsten, who’s of course the ‘cellist of the much-acclaimed New Zealand String Quartet. His love for and anticipation of playing the Dvořák concerto came across strongly, as did his delight at the prospect of working with the orchestra once again (a previous collaboration involved the Brahms Double Concerto), due to the inspiration he readily derived from working with amateur musicians, who play “for love” (as the word “amateur) suggests.

Regarded generally as the greatest of ‘Cello Concertos, Dvořák’s work dates from his years in the United States, and was written over the period 1894-95. The work was supposed to be given its premiere by its dedicatee, Hanuš Wihan, but several disagreements between composer and dedicatee resulted in an impasse which delayed the work’s public appearance. By the time things were sorted out, Wihan was unavailable, and the concerto was eventually given its first performance by another ‘cellist, Leo Stern, in 1896, in London, with Dvořák conducting.

The work enshrines something of a personal tragedy for the composer as well, in the form of an excerpt from one of his own songs quoted in the work’s slow movement, “Kez duch muj san” (“Leave me alone”), the first of a set composed in 1887-88, and a favourite of Dvořák’s sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová. Dvořák had fallen in love with Josefina some years before, but his affections were not returned, and he eventually married Josefina’s younger sister Anna.

However, his feelings for his sister-in-law remained, as when news came to Dvořák, while still in the United States, of Josefina’s illness, prompting his inclusion of a quote from the song in the work as a tribute to her. Shortly after the composer and his family returned to Bohemia, Josefina died, and the sorrowful Dvořák rewrote the coda of the concerto to briefly include a further reminiscence of the song, in the composer’s own words, “like a sigh”, before the whole concludes “in a stormy mood”!

Great was the sense of expectancy in St.Andrew’s prior to the appearance of soloist and conductor for the concert’s first half, akin to what I had felt in this same venue a couple of months previously at an event featuring the NZ School of Music Orchestra and the musicians of Te Kōkī Trio playing Beethoven’s grand and celebratory Triple Concerto. This time there was a single ‘cellist, albeit a resplendent-looking figure in his purple shirt, the New Zealand String Quartet’s Rolf Gjelsten, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause and settling himself and his instrument ready to play.

Despite a touch of nervousness at the beginning, with the clarinets a tad ahead of the beat, and the winds playing a swift, featureless legato, without really “phrasing” their lines, the music settled down at the first tutti, conductor Rachel Hyde holding her forces together splendidly, and continuing the flow right up to the entry of the horn with the beautiful second subject. Here it was most winningly played and phrased, and answered as warmly by clarinet and oboe, with the strings then chiming in, bringing a great surge of emotion to the proceedings.

From the moment of Rolf Gjelsten’s first entry, “owning” the concerto’s opening theme without resorting to over-emphasis, I was aware of the prominence given the wind instruments here, a balance which, to my great delight, continued throughout the work. In a live performance of this work one realises by comparison the extent to which soloists on recordings are “over-miked”, creating a sound-picture which distorts the reality of scale between solo instrument and orchestra. Here Gjelsten instead seemed as concerned with allowing other players to “speak” as realising his own tones and phrases, often playing as if accompanying and letting through other solo or ensembled lines. It all conjured up a fresh, out-of-doors feeling, the music-making characterised by a delight of different timbres in places and some hushed, very “aware” accompaniments, with nice work in places from solos such as from the flute.

The great moment of the soloist’s spectacular upward glissando and the following, suitably grand welcoming orchestral tutti was brought off with tremendous elan, the transitions from these to more poetic realisations bringing forth miracles of sensitive playing from all concerned before the eventual triumph of the brass. The conclusion was a bit raucous-sounding, but I think it goes with the territory in the venue’s relatively confined spaces (surely making the restoration of the Town Hall a matter for ever-burgeoning urgency).

By this time in the performance we were confidently awaiting (and got!) a lovely rustic wind-blend of sounds at the slow movement’s beginning, the ‘cello joining in as if breaking into spontaneous song! The clarinets sounded especially mellifluous, supported solidly by the lower brass. The soloist played and phrased with compelling candour, as if confiding in us the music’s private thoughts, a heartfelt episode which culminated in a passionate orchestral outburst of great weight, strings unified in emotion and winds subsequently realising all kinds of detailed responses (including the quotation from Josefina’s “song”), with flute and bassoon strong and steady, and the horns so eloquent, almost Wagnerian in places! All credit was due, I thought, to conductor and players for their concentration and involvement throughout this section, which produced a kind of frisson, a glow of music-making at once intimate and far-reaching, the composer’s thoughts of his lost love poignantly evoked amid light and shade. Towards the end a shadow briefly cast its effect on the music before fading away amid dulcet wind tones.

A quick march jolted us out of our reverie at the finale’s appearance, with great urgency and excitement impulsively generated, even the soloist racing momentarily ahead with his double-stopped melody, though he was soon gathered in!  To my ears it all sounded slightly hectoring at this pace, especially so in the wake of the previous movement’s easeful  flow – however, relief was at hand with the lullabic episode that followed, Gjelsten’s eloquent tones matched by the clarinet with other winds and the strings eventually floating in their strands of airborne fancy. What then really uplifted the spirits was the appearance of a new episode involving the soloist’s unashamedly yearning treatment given a new melody, which was then repeated as a duet between the ‘cello and the concertmaster’s solo violin. It wasn’t a quote from “the song” itself, this time, but surely indicative (in fact, candidly so) of a kind of longed-for partnership of hearts and souls. A great moment came when the orchestra triumphantly asserted the tune’s suggestion of a consummation of sorts (Gjelsten’s playing fiery and intense, here!), with the brass suddenly announcing a kind of “Promised Land” to view, everything strangely reminiscent of “Parsifal”, an impression to do with perhaps a similar kind of longing……

What followed was given to us with remarkable power and poignancy from all concerned, a kind of thoughtful summation of the concerto’s emotional territory, the ‘cellist musing, winds characteristic-sounding in thirds, and distant trumpets calling the heart home, with solo violin again joining the cello in a brief moment of rapture, one leading to a stab of pain from the winds and a cry of sorrow from the ‘cello – vast expanses of a life, its joys and vicissitudes, all regarded in mere seconds before the ‘cello acknowledged the inevitable and surrendered to the orchestra for the last word.

It was perhaps unfortunate that anything had to follow such a “complete in itself” experience!  Ironic, too, that it was the music of Brahms, one of Dvořák’s staunchest supporters, with which the orchestra had, on one level sensibly, opted to continue the concert, but which exerted an entirely different set of demands. The performance of this, the composer’s Second Symphony, had many good moments, the conductor and players having plenty of success with the long, sinuous lines of the music, with some of the instrumental solos falling most gratefully on the ear throughout. It seemed the chief difficulty experienced by the players came with the tricky rhythmic dovetailings the composer delighted in, resulting in sections every now and then getting “out of sync” with one another, and sometimes in places that one wouldn’t expect to be problematical.

The first movement was nicely shaped by conductor Rachel Hyde, encouraging those long, lyrical lines and dovetailed exchanges between strings and wind which give the music a certain pastoral quality. I thought a certain “robust” rhythmic quality wasn’t pronounced strongly enough in places, with the players allowing the figurations to “hurry” at moments where they should have remained steady and “pointed” – difficult to achieve in music as deceptively benign as this! The movement’s central section caught the growing excitement of the composer’s writing, with great growls from the brasses at appropriate moments, while the concluding section featured a nicely-detailed horn solo, rich string sounds and perky oboe-playing.

The second movement’s declamatory opening from the strings received steady support from winds and brass, the ‘cellos and violas rich and warm in the big, almost Elgarian second-subject melody before handing over to the violins. Here, again, a stormy middle section cast shadows mid-movement, with timpani and brass underpinning the powerful statements, the conductor securely holding the last and most powerful utterances together, and allowing the winds space to solemnly announce the portentous timpani-reinforced coda.

After this we needed some light and warmth, and the perky and playful oboe, supported by flute and clarinet lines, lifted our spirits, as did the strings also, at first, with their skipping figures, the ensemble coming unstuck only at the sequence’s end, when the winds, with their Mendelssohn-like interjections brought order and security once again. The strings managed the “darkening” of the music beautifully, though the energies of the vivace section meant trouble in the playground for a few moments! The oboe called order for the last time, supported by the winds and strings, including the horn, and quiet and calm was restored.

After the expectant opening chord, lots of bustle and sotto voce business began the finale, the strings slightly “jumping the starter’s gun” but the race then finding its own joyous striding momentum, the clarinets and supporting splendidly giving notice of some oncoming crossroads, characterised by some shapely and sonorous playing from the lower strings with their contrasting melody. Again the winds steadied and focused the ensemble, their teamwork and detailing a delight, enough for the players to rally towards the end and, encouraged by Rachel Hyde, “let it rip” throughout the coda to exciting and satisfying effect.

In retrospect, whatever the orchestra performed throughout the concert’s second half would have, I think, seemed relatively effortful and hard-won, following such an inspired and beautifully-wrought first-half performance. Incidentally Rolf Gjelsten unobtrusively took his place at the back of the ‘cellos throughout the second half, bringing an appropriate kind of “oneness” to the afternoon’s events, an occasion of whose achievement the orchestra itself could be justly proud.



One thought on “Dvořák with Rolf Gjelsten wins all hearts at Wellington Chamber Orchestra concert


    Gosh, I so missed out not being there for this concert! Mind you, I knew it was going to be a humdinger when I was lucky enough to attend a couple of rehearsals so I shouldn’t really sulk ! How lucky was I for that sneak peek!
    Shirley Croucher.

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