NZSO in splendid form under Harth-Bedoya with Brahms and Tchaikovsky

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, with Stefan Jackiw (violin)

Brahms & Tchaikovsky
Farr: He iwi tahi tātou
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no.4 in F minor, Op.36

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 23 June 2018, 7.30pm

It is always a case of pleasant anticipation when a new Gareth Farr work is to be performed, and this was the case again.  Farr’s piece was commissioned by the NZSO to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first landing in this country, which occurs next year (he departed from Britain in 1768).

The title comes from Governor William Hobson’s greeting to Maori chiefs as they came forward to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.  In English it is ‘We are all one people’.  Farr stated in the programme note for this short work ‘It is about the unique cultural diversity and energy that makes this country what it is’.

The piece began with a bouncy, rhythmic background to a cor anglais melody.  Percussion and pizzicato strings sustained the rhythm, then strings switched to bowing followed by a cello quartet.  More volume was created by the brass joining in, and tubular bells.  Drummers had perhaps the most exciting role, and we had some native bird calls from a flute.

There came sounds of military confrontation, doubtless the New Zealand Wars, with gong, side-drum and tuba.  These sounds gradually faded, and the tubular bells returned.  The music ended with a huge blast of sound, perhaps denoting a positive future.

Through many nuances this music spoke, and was splendidly performed by the orchestra.

The Violin Concerto is one of the tops in the repertoire.  I know it well through recordings and radio, but have not so often heard it performed live.  Here it was played by young American Stefan Jackiw, of Korean and German heritage.  It was quickly apparent that he is a violinist of great skill and talent.  The music was always beautifully rendered, with attention to detail, beauty of sound, and impeccable tuning and rhythm.  He was deft, and thoroughly on top of the music.  Occasionally, early on, he was overpowered by the orchestra.

He captured beautifully the rather plaintive quality of the solo part in the first movement (allegro ma non troppo).  The large body of orchestral strings were solid and unified, delivering an excellent structure above which the soloist performed brilliantly.  His demanding solo part in this movement was executed with skill and musicality.  The cadenza was thoughtful and subtle, even tender, as well as revealing technical wizardry.  Some of Brahms’s most graceful and memorable music is to be found in this concerto.

Prominent for me in this concerto, despite the magnificent orchestra and violin work, is Brahms’s wonderful writing for woodwind.  This was evident right at the beginning of the first movement.  The second movement (adagio) opened with the wonderful oboe solo, accompanied by the deeper woodwinds and horns.  The violinist takes up the theme and varies it, against a background of quiet strings and haunting woodwind interjections.

The movement develops with increasing brilliance, but that beautiful, nostalgic theme on the oboe returns, with its bassoon accompaniment.  Then the violin rose to an emotional climax and subsided to an exquisite ending.

The mood changes completely in the finale (allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – poco più presto), and we are whirled into a lively Hungarian dance.  The soloist decorates the theme spectacularly.  The dance becomes fast and furious before the end.

Jackiw generously applauded the orchestra, as its members did him, very warmly, while the audience applauded and cheered him heartily.  He played an encore, Largo from a violin sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach.  It was played with beautiful tone and sensitivity; it included some very quiet passages.

The final work was Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a work full of fire and passion.  The portentous ‘fate’ motif from the brass at the opening – first trombones and then trumpets play andante sostenuto, but the tempos changes to moderato then later andante again, and finally allegro vivo.  It is a long movement.  The juxtaposition of a wind melody against stuttering strings is a striking touch.  The tuba made itself felt; the whole orchestra blazed forth in a grand manner.

Quiet soon came, with lovely woodwind solo passages that seem to be out of another world from what preceded them.  Strings follow in kind, but the woodwinds have the foreground.  Then it was back to bombast and big themes and gestures for the whole orchestra, and a return of the fateful brass theme.  The full-bodied music returned again.  There were more delicious woodwind and horn solos and ensembles.  A rousing windup ended this monumental movement.  Tchaikovsky was certainly a great orchestrator.

The second movement (andantino in modo canzona) begins with an oboe solo against pizzicato strings.  Cellos then take up this very romantic theme.  Changes of key add to its somewhat mysterious quality.  There are many variations, and as the theme is passed around the orchestra, another theme arises, more playful than the first.  With the addition of brass, it too becomes grand.  The clarinet features, followed by bassoon.

The third movement opens with a long section of magical pizzicato from all the strings, which is interrupted by the woodwinds with a jolly theme, and their echoing the strings’ pizzicato theme.  Finally, it’s the brass’s turn, and the strings pluck again.  The whole is imaginative and effective, with much variation of dynamics.

All join in for the rambunctious finale (allegro con fuoco).  There is a quiet section, and a return of the ‘fate’ theme.  Cymbal claps are part of the dramatic effects that follow, with repetitions of earlier music.  This was an aural spectacle!

Features of the orchestra playing under Harth-Bedoya were delightful pianissimo passages, and plenty of bite and alacrity in the strings.  The orchestra was in splendid form. A shame that there were quite a lot of empty seats downstairs for this concert.


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