Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Michael Houstoun (piano)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 14 in E flat, K 449
Gao Ping: Wild Cherry Tree
Dvořák: Symphony No 7 in D minor, Op 70
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday 11 August 7:30 pm
The third of Orchestra Wellington’s 2018 subscription concerts offered an unusual mix of music: nothing unusual about the theme symphony-Composer, Dvořák, and an unfamiliar Mozart piano concerto, but the premiere of a commissioned piece by a Chinese composer with New Zealand associations, no doubt raised a certain curiosity … or misgivings: that may have explained the slightly less-than-sold-out audience – a rarity for this orchestra these days.
Mozart K 449
The Piano Concerto No 14 is the first of the second set of three (K 449, 450, 451) that Mozart wrote after coming to Vienna in 1782; they are regarded as the beginning of Mozart’s period of greatest creativity. No 14 was the first to be recorded in Mozart’s own notebook listing his compositions, from 9 February 1784. It is common to marvel at Mozart’s output of masterpieces from that time, especially the piano concertos (but of course much else, including the great operas) in the dozen years from 1784.
I was actually surprised to find that I didn’t know this piece very well and that the one I had expected and knew well, was No 12, one of the earlier group of three written in Vienna. So this proved a delightful re-awakening to a serious, confident, at the same time, very sanguine work, from the hands of just that kind of pianist, with conductor and orchestra who could do it splendid, totally sympathetic justice.
My initial feeling was the orchestra was perhaps a little too stripped back to ‘classical’ dimensions, though the numbers (12, 10, 8, 6, 3 as far as I could see) seemed fine; but it seemed to invite a warmer, richer sound. So the back and forth motifs between piano and orchestra in the first movement and the sonorities generally might have been a little more robust and fully-fleshed. But the orchestra once more revealed its responsiveness to this engrossing music; and I loved Houstoun’s elegant little ornaments, and the overall joyousness that he managed to draw from its E flat tonality.
The Andantino movement has a somewhat reticent air and to keep audience attention might not have been easy, but it happened, with Mozart exploiting his skills at embellishing and varying working its magic, with Houstoun’s lyrically detailed fingering. I loved the way they handled its final, reticent notes and the non-emphatic opening of the Finale, where a typical, characterful melody takes hold, beguilingly, stretching it till the time for the Coda, triplets, brought it quickly to an end.
Wild Cherry Tree
The main piece in the first half was a premiere commissioned by Prof. Jack Richards from Gao Ping, for some years lecturer in music at Canterbury University. Wild Cherry Tree is based on folk tales and impressions from the region where he was born – Sichuan, the province in south-central China, east of Tibet. The vocal parts, presumably in Mandarin, or the Sichuan dialect of Mandarin, were sung by counter-tenor Xiao Ma and bass Roger Wilson. The first thing to record was the size of the orchestra, normal late-Romantic – four horns, though just double woodwinds and trumpets. But the back row could have marked it as a post-serialist juggernaut, with several keyed percussion instruments, a variety of drums, a set of three tuned gongs, claves and certain items whose names escape me. Their noise, dominated initially by timpani and bass drum, was impressive, but it was often refined by sensitively blended woodwinds, as well as the many more subtle percussion items.
The first of the four ‘movements’ was sung by Wilson whose pronunciation was a matter of admiration, though there remained a European timbre that no amount of linguistic virtuosity, with which he is generously equipped, can disguise. Without recourse to the programme notes, I might have been hard-pressed to attribute the sounds to ‘Snow-capped mountains’. But then, scenic or narrative associations of music often escape me and rarely seem relevant in my appreciation of music, particularly of Asian music which seems to be much devoted to landscape and other visual sources. So I found the orchestral episodes elucidated the vocal parts, and as the music passed, its meaning and emotional qualities and made increasing musical sense.
The second part, ‘Scarlet Horse’, seemed to have set itself challenging subject matter: ‘overlapping romantic relationship between past and present, fantasy and reality, with contrasting visual images… roaming the world on a scarlet horse’. If the theme seemed to be a matter of some obscurity, galloping rhythms enlivened it, and the actual sung episodes delivered by Xiao Ma’s counter-tenor offered a musical experience that felt perfectly matched and coherent. The timbre of his voice, of rare purity and beauty worked persuasively to suggest what we have come to associate with Chinese music even though the pentatonic scale did not dominate the soundscape. Later, the two voices duetted, sometimes in passages that were colourful and animated, sometimes in what I took to be wordless episodes.
The counter-tenor alone sang through the third part, ‘Little Flower’, accompanied by percussion, including the small gongs, marimba and high, delicate woodwinds. flutes. Both voices shared the fourth movement, ‘Under the Wild Cherry Tree’, with the two alternating in a sort of dialogue, charmingly, with delicate string playing, alongside tuned percussion.
This was a challenging score in every way, though not in the avant-garde, contemporary western music sense; there was no doubt that the orchestra’s success with it flowed from some serious rehearsal under conductor Taddei along with the orchestra’s high level of musical skill that can easily be unremarked.
It was Dvořák’s 7th symphony from which the concert’s name ‘London’ derived (though oddly, that was mentioned neither in the season brochure nor in the evening’s programme book; however, it had been mentioned in much earlier publicity). It was first performed in London in 1885 (he made nine visits to England between 1884 and 1896). The composer himself regarded it very highly.
With their decision to feature five Dvořák symphonies this year, Taddei and the orchestra have already shown their flair and affection for his music; I hope that audiences have understood how his earlier symphonies, and not just those numbered 1 to 4 which had earlier been excluded from the canon altogether, have been seriously under-exposed as a result of what I feel is the blind popularity of the Ninth. The Fifth and especially the Sixth have been revealed as very fine works, but the last three are more or less on a par, i.e. to be compared with Schumann’s and Brahms’s, and some scholars rate the Seventh as the best; I’m so inclined as well.
This was a beautiful, sensitive performance that explored all the delicate and meditative aspects of this D minor work, a key that for some reason most composers have used to convey sadness, grief, sometimes anger, certainly, seriousness of purpose. (Mozart’s piano concerto no 20 and Brahms’s first piano concerto, the Choral Symphony, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet, Mozart’s Requiem, Franck’s symphony, Bruckner’s ninth, Sibelius’s sixth, Shostakovich’s fifth symphonies…. )
Those characteristics were evident right from the beginning: sombre, with restless, uneasy melodies, but before long these same ideas acquire a feeling of contentment, with passages that are optimistic and almost joyous, and it slowly subsides to end peacefully. The orchestra captured the greatness of the second movement, with its beautiful, near flawless horn passages, and descending themes that expressed a meditative spirit, a mood that for all the composer’s joyful, Slavonic flavoured music, harbours very a deep pensiveness, and the playing here was both meticulous and moving.
There is also a very special character about the Scherzo which, miraculously, combines the jocular, a feeling of contentment with looming sadness. There is a remarkable persistence of mood and musical spirit throughout the work, with a feeling of inevitability as movement follows movement. That seemed especially strong at the end of the vigorous Scherzo and opening of the very deliberate, serious-minded Finale: the two movements, superficially in tempo, far apart but their moods are so satisfyingly complementary.
I think I have recently lamented the way musical taste gets dominated by a single ‘great’ work by a composer, in each genre, and that’s true for Dvořák; for me this fine performance of the Seventh, emphatically put the New World in its place: not above, but simply in the same class of musical inspiration and integrity as the 7th (and the 8th, which we come to in October; not to mention last month’s 6th which used for a long time to be a cherished cassette tape companion in the car).
The programme might have looked a bit lacking a common theme, with a big, pageant-like Chinese work between a Mozart concerto and the Dvořák; but it proved a wonderfully enjoyable evening.