Orchestra Wellington’s “The Prophecy” a remarkable musical journey

Orchestra Wellington presents:
The Prophecy – Music by JANÁČEK, BRITTEN and DVORAK

JANÁČEK– Taras Bulba (Rhapsody for Orchestra)
BRITTEN – Piano Concerto Op.13
DVORAK – Symphony No. 6 in D Major Op.60 B.112

Jian Liu (piano)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 7th July 2018

Due to a printer’s mix-up, there were no printed programmes to be had for this concert, conductor Marc Taddei assuring us at the concert’s outset that he would be our guide throughout the evening’s music-making. As it turned out, the only regret at such a state of things one came away with from the concert at the end was having no tangible printed record of or piece of memorabilia belonging to a truly great musical occasion!

None of the three works presented here could be said to be tried-and-true crowd-pleasers or popular box-office drawcards – and yet, here was Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre humming with great excitement and expectation at the evening’s beginning, the venue admittedly not filled to bursting, but with an attendance that must have gladdened the hearts of the organisers at its obvious signs of public interest in the orchestra and its presentations.

On paper, the concert’s musical offerings would have caused the average event promotor in most parts of the world serious misgivings as to their box-office viability – Janacek’s Taras Bulba, Britten’s Piano Concerto and a lesser-known symphony by Dvorak – but those surviving concertgoers with longer memories than others may well have hearkened back to the heady days of John Hopkins at the helm of the NZBC Symphony (as the NZSO was called during the 1960s), when there was a similar excitement and sense of exploration of unfamiliar and untried musical worlds of delight and daring in an established orchestra’s programming.

Oh, well, those of us who value as keepsakes such things as programmes will have to be content with our memories on this auspicious occasion – “and gentlemen of England now a-bed/ shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here” would be an appropriate thought-reminder to conjure up, in years to come. I shall be accused of somewhat gilding the lily with these wafflings, but I can’t help thinking, by way of registering my delight in enjoyment of concerts such as these, how fortunate we in Wellington are at having two accomplished orchestras regularly performing for our pleasure. Though obviously not London, the situation here per capita is very likely comparable!

What, you will be asking by now, was the propellant for such an outpouring of enthusiasm – a single performance or item? –  the whole concert? – or the existence of an orchestra and conductor who are prepared to challenge and enliven and stimulate and even risk alienating their audiences?  The answer is that it’s probably all three of those things, coming together in an upward burst of well-being on my part, and a desire to tell other people all about it. Happily, my anticipation at the prospect of what the concert promised was matched by the performances, wholly predictable but with many fascinating and unexpected detailings.

Once opening formalities were over, the concert began with one of the few orchestral pieces composed by Leoš Janáček, excepting a number of opera overtures. This was “Taras Bulba”, a work which Janáček based on a novel by Nikolai Gogol, set in 16th Century Ukraine, a tale of a Cossack warrior and his two sons. The composer, though a native Moravian, was an ardent Russophile, and asserted that he wrote “Taras Bulba” because (he would echo Gogol’s own lines, here) “in the whole world there are not fires or tortures strong enough to destroy the vitality of the Russian nation”.

Janáček was, of course expressing a kind of Pan-Slavic kinship with the predominant Slavic power, as his own homeland had long been under the dominance of the Austrians, and, like many Czechs, looked to the east for support. He studied the Russian language, belonged to a Russian society in his home town of Brno, and, in addition to Gogol’s work drew inspiration for some of his other compositions from Russian writers like Tolstoy (the “Kreutzer Sonata” String Quartet), Ostrovsky (the opera “Káta Kabanová”), and Dostoyevsky (the opera “From the House of the Dead”).

Cast in the form of a three-movement “Rhapsody for Orchestra”, the music for “Taras Bulba” tells the grim story of the single-minded Cossack leader’s loss of both of his sons during the bitter conflict with the Poles, followed by his own capture and execution – the first movement concerns one of the sons, Andriy, who had the misfortune to fall in love with a Polish girl, and thus changed his allegiances, for which treacherous act he was killed by his father on the battlefield. The middle movement depicts the torture and execution by the Poles of the second son, Ostap, witnessed by Taras Bulba himself, disguised and in the assembled crowd. The final movement tells the story of the Cossacks’ subsequent attack on the Polish forces, and of Taras Bulba’s capture and death by execution, but not before the dying leader utters his prophecy (which gives the movement its name), predicting an eventual victory for the Cossacks in the struggle.

Janáček’s approach to this seemingly unpromising subject consisted of devising brief but telling motifs used in association with themes and characters in the story, and using them both pithily and with great variety. We heard plaintive cor anglais and oboe statements at the first movement’s outset, sharply interrupted by orchestral crescendi, startlingly capped by tubular bells, but then with the emotion reinstated by tender organ phrases. Conductor and players skilfully dovetailed these expressions of romantic feeling (cor anglais, oboe, organ, solo strings) cheek-by jowl with great tensions and savage interjections (crescendi, and brass shouts). Amidst these angular contrasts the playing brought out, by turns, the figures of Taras Bulba (anger, tenderness, implaccable resolve) and his son Andriy (remorse, resignation) which interact with characteristic abruptness, the whole having a kind of brutal, impulsive realism.

Both of the succeeding movements were equally well-characterised, in “The Death of Ostap”, the opposing impulses of triumph and bloodthirsty recompense expressed by the victors’ wild dance of triumph set against the pain and anguish of both Taras Bulba and his doomed son Ostap, as the latter is tortured and then executed. And in the concluding “Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba”, repeated agitations across the orchestra took us into the midst of a battle’s confusions, uncertainties and elations, with triumph and disaster hand in hand – fanfares announced the Cossack leader’s defeat and capture by the Poles, but then the orchestra took up a groundswell of triumphal gesturings as Taras Bulba defied his enemies and predicted a great victory for his people – here, the bells and the tones of the organ joined with the orchestra to make a conclusion all the more jubilant and resounding for being so hard-won!

A much-needed respite from these intensities was provided by the need to bring out the piano and put it in place, after which we greeted the appearance of Jian Liu, the evening’s concerto soloist. Based in Wellington, and working as the Head of Piano Studies at Te Koki New Zealand School of Music, Liu occasionally appears as a soloist or chamber-music partner at local concerts, one of the most notable of recent occasions being as a member of Te Koki Trio in a performance with the School of Music Orchestra of Beethoven’s delectable Triple Concert – see the Middle C review https://middle-c.org/2018/04/nzsm-orchestras-triple-celebration-with-the-te-koki-trio/  However, as opposed to realising the tailor-made aristocratic elegance of Beethoven’s piano part for this work, Liu’s assignment for this Orchestra Wellington concert was of an entirely different order, that of bringing off Benjamin Britten’s virtuosic writing for the solo part of his 1938 Piano Concerto, the work, partly because of its technical difficulties, still something of a concert rarity.

No such impediments seemed to stay the order of the music’s going on this occasion, with everybody, soloist, conductor and players hitting their straps immediately with the opening Toccata – the result was a dazzling “tour de force” of concertante writing, the composer seemingly unafraid to push the brilliance of the writing to its limits (Britten himself gave the 1938 premiere). As for Jian Liu’s realisation  of the solo part, the playing was masterly in its virtuosity, from incisive through to elfin in quality. The players brought off the accelerando leading up to the cadenza with a spectacular concluding crash, leaving Liu to delight and bewitch us with his fantastic command of sonority and dazzling keyboard execution, before the coda gathered up the threads and ended the movement with a flurry of finality!

After this the second movement Waltz seemed here to float in from a dream-world, everything sultry and suggestive, following on from the solo viola’s beautiful melody. The piano elaborated on the material before the pace quickened, the rhythms taking on a spiky, almost grotesque character, Liu’s octave scamperings bringing a Shostakovich-like profile to the music before the orchestra re-entered with a gorgeously over-bright version of the opening theme, as if parodying the original mood!

Britten’s original third movement was called Recitative and Aria, one which he replaced with a piece called Impromptu in 1945.  A Satie-like melody from the solo piano conjured up spacious vistas, holding us in thrall until a cadenza-like flourish introduced a blowsy version of the tune by the orchestra, with arpeggiated piano accompaniment. By that time the piece’s passacaglia character was well-established, with subsequent variations of the theme involving elephantine lower-strings, whose ploddings were magically transformed by Liu, Taddei and the players into elegant waltz-steps, the characterisations coherent and vivid, before subsiding into rapt silences at the end.

Again Shostakovich’s influence seemed to haunt the music when the finale began without a break from the previous movement, the march seeming to grow out of the earth upon which the music moved. It was as if the sounds were a kind of rallying-call, further energised by militaristic skirlings from the winds, the piano’s revelry-like sounds echoing those of the brass and adding to the swaggering mood. Suddenly it was as if the tongue-in-cheek mood had awakened deeper feelings, strings, winds and stuttering brass moving the music on from vainglorious attitudes into and through more confrontational realms, the winds in particular voicing their concerns in no uncertain manner, and the piano screwing up the tensions with increasingly insistent and vigorous hammerings.

And then , as if the sounds had literally exhausted themselves and needed to refresh and regroup, the music all but melted down for a few moments, before Liu’s piano took the lead and re-established the march, underpinned by the percussion, giving the brass their chance of undying glory, with the piano’s help rallying the troops and encouraging the strings and winds to “skirl” for all they were worth! As for the soloist, such scintillating glissandi, and “devil-take-the-hindmost” repeated notes did Liu “throw into” the mix at the concerto’s end! We were stunned, enthralled and finally galvanised by it all – what a player! And, as well, what a performance by conductor and orchestra! What else could the pianist do at the very end but, after acknowledging the applause, point to the keyboard and sit down, and then, amid the sudden hushed silences, bring into being the simplest and most touching of pieces from Robert Schumann’s “Kinderscenen” (Scenes from Childhood), the lovely “Traumerei” (Dreaming)? – a “did we dream you or did you dream us?” moment, wrought of magic.

A blessed interval gave us the space our sensibilities needed to digest these wonders and their brilliant execution, and clear our receptive channels in readiness for Marc Taddei’s and the players’ unfolding of Antonin Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony in D Major. In the wake of the joyful rendering of the Fifth Symphony at Orchestra Wellington’s first 2018 concert, we were eager for more, this time with a work that promised to show an even greater array of fruits from the composer’s patient symphonic apprenticeship.

For myself, I was warmed through and through by both music and performance – the bright, eagerly-syncopated rhythms of the opening woke the music perfectly, the playing straightaway catching that ever-present rustic element in Dvorak’s music in the spacious balances, the characterful voicings of the wind instruments and the “snap” of the often-syncopated rhythms. Marc Taddei allowed his players to subtly “lean into” each of the new sequences, enough to impart a warmth and flexibility to the utterances without loosening the structures, and generally inspiring brightly-toned and affectionate playing. We didn’t get the first-movement repeat, but were amply compensated by Taddei’s and the players’ mellifluous shaping and balancing of the music.

Eloquent winds and silken strings opened the slow movement, answered by an atmospheric horn solo, the music’s flow long-breathed but maintaining the pulse. The minor-key outburst was almost Mahlerian in impact, though the angst was short-lived, the lyrical sweetness returning with a heart-warming reprise of the opening melody by the first violins playing high up, after which the ‘cellos also were given a “moment” with the theme. In complete contrast was the driving Scherzo, a “Furiant” with ear-catching syncopations in its main section (astonishing timpani!), and a winsome Trio, whose exquisite touches were shared by strings and winds (the piccolo particularly charming!).

Though reminiscent of Brahms’ Second Symphony’s finale at the very beginning (the older composer gave Dvorak a great deal of encouragement, with Dvorak’s gratitude to Brahms appropriately and amply expressed here), the younger man was no slavish imitator, as the latter stages of the work made clear. Taddei played the opening in an extremely relaxed manner before launching into an exciting accelerando throughout the transition passage  leading to a restatement of the opening theme, and its broadening once again. There followed an exciting and absorbing symphonic adventure, with conductor and players alive to all of the music’s possibilities and accomplishments, the drama of the material’s “working out” culminating in a sensational burst of joyous energy at the coda, the players  responding to their conductor’s challenging tempi with fire and brilliance! It was heady stuff, and made for an exhilarating finish to a remarkable concert.

One thought on “Orchestra Wellington’s “The Prophecy” a remarkable musical journey

  1. jennifer shennan says:

    Thank you for your galvanised review and detailed discussion of the Britten piano concerto, both as composition and in performance.
    Like you, I was stunned by all of it — and have since managed to find a cd of Stephen Osborne playing it with BBC Scottish…
    but I want a recording of OW with Jian Liu. They are ours and we heard it here…so why in the name of everything was it not recorded?
    Everyone I know (not me) owns a smartphone, and there have never been more clever ways to record & play back this & that …so by what reasoning of false economy did this breathtaking concerto go unrecorded? I think myself blessed to have heard it live …

    Britten was not a pacifist, composing on the eve of WWII, for nothing.

    Jennifer Shennan

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