Jaime Martín and National Youth Orchestra on full throttle as percussion and brass deliver excitement and panache

NZSO National Youth Orchestra, Jaime Martín (conductor); Todd Gibson-Cornish (bassoon))

Falla: Suites ! & 2 from The Three-cornered Hat
André Jolivet: Bassoon Concerto
Josiah Carr: redwood
Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1945 version)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 6 July 2018, 6.30pm

It was a joy to see young people making fine music so well, and enjoying it, and to observe, too, the number of young people in the audience responding most enthusiastically – but a pity to note many empty seats.  However, let us hope that the younger members of the audience will, as a result of this experience, attend concerts by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, especially as they qualify for cheaper seats, under the ‘Pay your Age’ scheme.

Spanish conductor Jaime Martín exuded enjoyment of both the music and the orchestra.  Under his direction, and with the skills of the young players, everything possible was extracted from the music, including detail I have not noticed in previous hearings of some of the works.  The playing throughout was proficient and confident.  Great percussion playing, and plenty of demand for it was a feature of the concert.  Notable was Martín’s conducting style, which was expressive yet very precisely pointed in his use of the baton – it was not merely an extension of his arm and hand, as is the manner with too many conductors.  It was a pleasure to watch his stick having an elegant life of its own.

It was appropriate for him to conduct music of his countryman, Manuel de Falla.  These Suites are colourful and varied.  It was fitting, too, that in a concert featuring a bassoon soloist that the Falla Suites have passages in which the orchestra’s excellent bassoonists take prominence.

The first Suite is made up of 5 movements, the second of 3.  The movements alternate between rowdy dances and somnolent, restful moments.   For example, after the sleepy movement on what must have been a hot ‘Afternoon’, comes the ‘Fandango’, which is the Dance of the Miller’s Wife.  Here, there were excellent wind solos, with superb dynamics, including marvellous crescendo and decrescendo passages.

Next came the bombastic Magistrate, portrayed by magnificent bassoon playing, followed by a sonorous oboe, for the Miller’s Wife.  Trombones and cymbals add excitement to the score.  The percussion section adds greatly to the whirling character of the dances, especially with castanets and glockenspiel.  An outstanding horn section of the orchestra had plenty of opportunity to shine, too.

The audience’s enthusiasm the end of the Suites was amply justified.  The conductor got each section to take a bow – especially the horns, the percussion, and the trombones.

The otherwise excellent programme notes by Sarah Chesney gave me a little amusement when it came to the biography of French composer André Jolivet.  His dates were given as 1905-1947.  The text notes that the society ‘La Jeune France’ that he was part of, had wanted to ‘create modern music that embodied both spiritualism and humanism…’  It appears he was successful in the quest for spiritualism, since it allowed him to continue composing music until well after 1947!   (The digits were reversed: he died in 1974.  And I think spirituality was meant, rather than spiritualism!)

I heard a radio interview with Gibson-Cornish the other day, in which he said that the concerto was very difficult, and he had not performed it before.  He hails from Christchurch, and is currently principal bassoonist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to which role he was appointed at the age of 21, in 2016  He is a former member of the National Youth Orchestra.  The concerto is relatively short, having two movements, but each was made up of a slow section followed by a fast one.  The orchestra was vastly reduced, comprising strings, including two harps (who also played in the other works) and piano.  The strings produced a lush sound.

The bassoon solo part was quite high-pitched much of the time, but used the entire gamut of the instrument’s range.  The piano uttered some ungrateful chords, as well as jazzy rhythms.  The bassoon soloist played from memory.  The conductor did not use a baton, conducting this smaller ensemble.

The beginning of the second movement (largo cantabile – fugato) had the bassoon making sweetly sonorous sounds against gently lilting strings which became sultry.  The piano’s passages were always interesting, and often quirky, as were the soloist’s; he played with splendid tone and great panache.  It is rare to hear the bassoon as a solo instrument; to hear it played in such a refined and musical manner was a pleasure.

Amid tumultuous applause from orchestra and audience, Gibson-Cornish handed his large bouquet to the orchestra’s Concertmaster, Wellingtonian Claudia Tarrant-Matthews.

After the interval came the premiere of redwood by Josiah Carr, the NYO’s Composer-in Residence, 2018.  It was of approximately 8 minutes duration.  The orchestra was back to its full strength of 80 players.  Here again, the percussion were prominent; there were notable passages for a single cymbal and for gong, drums, strings playing pizzicato, brass, and flute employing flutter–tongue technique.

The opening music was of a weird, ominous effect – as though it were the background music for a spooky film.  The piccolo and gong added to this effect as did Claudia Tarrant-Matthews, playing solo at the highest extent of her violin’s fingerboard.  The orchestra joined in a general cacophony.  It seemed that the Rotorua redwood forest gave the composer overwhelming feelings rather than uplifting ones.

Dark expressions were interspersed with delightful ones, such as lovely harp notes.  However, the piece did tend to reinforce my feeling that numbers of New Zealand composers write in a dark vein.  While researching Jolivet,  I came across the following in Grove (entry for Jolivet by Arthur Hoérée): ‘… they [La Jeune France] were opposed to certain sterile experiments undertaken by mid-European composers … and they sought to ‘rehumanize’ an art that had often become too drily abstract.’  It seems to me that the tendencies they observed are occurring again.

Stravinsky’s music for the ballet, from which he extracted a Suite, revised in 1945, is one of the most vibrant, exciting, joyous musical works of the twentieth century.  It is a marvellous Suite for giving all parts of the orchestra opportunity to shine – which they did.  They made a great start to the performance, with the double-basses murmuring, followed by cellos, violas and brass.  Glissando violins and delightful piano interjections all helped to give a feeling of anticipation.

The Suite comprises twelve episodes; the character of each was well contrasted.  The second episode, ‘Prelude and Dance of the Firebird’ featured brilliant horn playing and a lovely oboe solo.

The strings’ soporific effect was rudely shattered by the colossal loud banging chords of the ‘Infernal Dance’, followed agitated music.  The glockenspiel came into its own again. ‘Lullaby’ was the next episode – a thoroughly sleep-inducing one.  All sections of the orchestra were very busy throughout the work, including the harps.

We were back to slow and subtle, with pianissimo strings.  Then there were grand closing gestures from all the instruments, with brass to the fore.  Amidst the thunderous applause, Martín selected groups of players for their own share of the ovation, and shook hands with a number of individual players. He did this before taking a bow himself.   Numerous returns to the stage were required of the conductor; one was demanded by the orchestral players stamping their feet.

Bravo, NYO!  You were superb, as were conductor and soloist.  There were to be no fireworks the next night (thank you, Matariki whale, for predicting the weather), but on Friday, The Firebird concert gave us works and playing full of fire.

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