Some great hits from NZSO’s popular classics concert; a win by a big margin

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Andrew Joyce (cello)

Schubert: Symphony No 8 in B minor ‘Unfinished’ 
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme
Gillian whitehead: Turanga-nui (premiere)
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 September, 7:30 pm

I don’t know what sort of audiences have been showing up at the other ten performances of this concert between Invercargill and Kerikeri, but the thin population in the MFC was a bit of a surprise. There was certainly competition from the rugby on Saturday evening; but there was probably also a more insidious factor: no glamorous overseas soloist; no internationally recognised conductor.

Other inhibitors: a deterrent for the serious musical aficionado was the presence of music likely to be enjoyed by the masses; and at the other extreme, for those with only superficial interest there wasn’t much they might have encountered in film or TV.

The Unfinished
But it was a good try. Schubert symphonies are not much played, compared with Beethoven, Brahms or Mahler; and they should be (a Schubert series from Orchestra Wellington is worth thinking about). McKeich moved elegantly and sensitively through the Eighth, the pianissimi rather exquisite, the interrupting fortissimo interjections a bit too emphatic, but with absorbing attention to its unique spirit. But the end of the first movement arrived too soon; I’m sure Schubert called for a repeat of the exposition.

The second movement hung together very well, with a chance to admire the composer’s orchestral subtleties, especially the winds that now included trombones, with Beethoven’s innovation in his Fifth Symphony 15 years earlier. In all, this was a beautifully evoked account.

The Rococo Variations had a troubled birth, having been subjected to arrogant revision by Tchaikovsky’s professorial colleague at the Moscow Conservatorium, cellist Fitzenhagen.  I didn’t see the relevance of the programme note’s remarks about an arrangement for piano and cello for that was not publicly performed. Furthermore, the notes left it to be assumed that the orchestra used Fitzenhagen’s controversial revised version which has been more played, since its seven sections were named. Andrew Joyce confirmed to me that it was Tchaikovsky’s original, eight-variation version. Among many minor changes, including the deletion of one variation, the main alteration was the Andante sostenuto which Fitzenhagen had moved from its affecting penultimate place to become the third variation in his version.

In fact, reading accounts of its composition and Tchaikovsky’s strenuous objection to the quite major alterations in Fitzenhagen’s unauthorised interference, it is surprising that it took so long for Tchaikovsky’s own version to be first performed, in Moscow in 1941.

The Rococo Variations were inspired by Tchaikovsky’s love of Mozart, and scoring is more limited than the normal scale in the 1870s: just pairs of winds; no trumpets or trombones, no timpani. While the orchestra played with discretion, even distinction, the aural focus was predominantly on cellist Andrew Joyce, who has to be recognised as a cellist of international standing, such was his splendid bravura as well as the extraordinary beauty of tone that he produced. There were moments of dazzling virtuosity, often climbing to the top of the fingerboard, using thumb position and perfect, false harmonics.

The beauty of the orchestral parts were a fine match with the cellist’s playing, and there were no balance problems. It’s fashionable to denigrate the piece as a concerto-manqué, but Tchaikovsky composed exactly what wanted, a homage to Mozart (who never wrote either concerto or sonata for cello), and you can think of it as a half-breed if you like, but it stands convincingly just as Tchaikovsky composed it and I was utterly delighted by the performance.

Joyce’s encore was a tune from the British Sea Songs of the Last night of the Proms. Wasn’t sure I heard correctly: Tom Bowling?

Gillian Whitehead Turanga-nui 
After the interval came Gillian Whitehead’s Turanga-nui which, though the fact was ignored in the programme note, is the third of a ‘Landfall’ commissions by the NZSO that marks Cook’s 1769 arrival (we’re a little previous, obviously, for the 250th anniversary) at Poverty Bay (Turanga-nui-a-kiwa), though oddly, the programme note didn’t mention that. This piece dwelt initially on the arrival half a millennium earlier of another group of strangers.

Much contemporary orchestral music employs a good deal of percussion and this certainly used percussion, but it was never gratuitous, integrated sensitively with conventional stringed and wind instruments. To some extent it was a depiction of landfall, of encounter that turned ugly between human beings with almost no common context, and conflict. Timpani and ethereal strings set the scene but were followed by shrill wind-led agitation; bird-song, flutterings, the dance of the wind. It often astonishes me that the sounds arising in the composer’s head can be translated into actual orchestral sounds, at all. But the feeling created here was of that magic occurring, and that the offerings from marimba and xylophone, trombones and tuba, discreet Maori instruments, flutes and strings, and a particularly evocative bassoon solo, existed just as precisely on paper as in they had in Whitehead’s mind.

The music and its instrumentation quite enchanted me, and I think it enchanted the audience generally. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many a sceptic in the audience didn’t came away with a much greater respect for and pleasure in contemporary New Zealand music than they might have had earlier.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune 
The Debussy; it’s the centenary of his death this year, so he’s being played plenty around the world. In fact, a couple of weeks ago a surprisingly effective version of the Le Faune for flute and piano was played by Diedre Irons and Rebecca Steele at a lunchtime concert, and the day after the present concert, NZSO principal flutist, Bridget Douglas, played his famous little solo flute piece, Syrinx at a Wellington Chamber Music concert. This was a good performance, with much careful and evocative playing by woodwinds and harps. It doesn’t play itself by any means, and there were moments when some of Debussy’s still elusive, mythologizing creation slightly missed its potential.

But the last work, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet symphonic poem, to use the appropriate descriptive term, was a splendid, emotion-laden, orchestrally exciting performance. Curiously, even though there was a full complement of winds, the strings were fewer than is typical in late 19th century orchestral music; it made no perceptible difference. There are things about its orchestration, its near-dissonant harmonies, its structure, not to mention its powerfully emotional, musical inspiration that anticipates the future directions of music as did Debussy’s Faun (only 15 years later). And the tragic passion of its last pages, declining to the subtlest gestures from oboes, clarinets and bassoons, proved a wonderful climax and catharsis.

The programme’s construction might have been a bit unusual, but it worked very well in the end and certainly deserved a much bigger crowd.

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