Great performances of unfamiliar Bartók and major Dvořák introduced by young geniuses

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Christopher Park (piano); joined by Arohanui Strings (Sistema, Hutt Valley), led by Alison Eldredge

Simon Eastwood: Infinity Mirror, for Arohanui Strings
Smetana: The Moldau (Vltava from Ma Vlast)
Bartók: Piano concerto No 1
Dvořák: Symphony No 8 in G Op 88

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 27 October, 7:30 pm

Each year, one of Orchestra Wellington’s concerts is embellished by a contribution from Arohnui Strings, the Sistema-inspired children’s orchestra based in the Hutt Valley. They took their places at the beginning of the concert in the place of most of the regular strings of Orchestra Wellington, interspersed by a few of the professionals to lend some body to the sound. The nerves and excitement of the young players infected the audience too as they opened the concert, under conductor Marc Taddei, with Simon Eastwood’s Infinity Mirror, commissioned for them by SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand music). The string elements were sympathetically scored for the young players while there was supporting music from marimba, xylophone and timpani, creating a happy ensemble.  It was followed by Dvořák’s Humoresque (which is actually No 7 of his eight Humoresques, Op 101), and the young string players clearly relished the chance to play an actual classic of the repertoire.

That was followed by Alison Eldredge leading a dozen or more very young musicians across the front of the stage to play the famous last section of the William Tell Overture, plus a Maori item. All of which occupied about half an hour. As a result the concert lasted till about 10 pm.

Denis Adam
In his opening words, Marc Taddei spoke about the death last week of the man who has for several decades been one of New Zealand’s most important benefactor of the arts: Denis Adam; and he dedicated the performance of the Dvořák symphony to his memory. There have been obituaries in the press and references from all those indebted to his Foundation’s generosity, acknowledging his wide-ranging philanthropy. Middle C must add its name to those by recalling that the Adam Foundation was the leading financial supporter of Middle C when it began in 2008, to enable a website to be created and for the reviews to be collected and printed.

At a more personal level, the Adam Foundation gave funding to support a concert series that I had undertaken: two series of lunchtime concerts, in 2000 and 2002, during the New Zealand International Arts Festivals. It will be recalled that daily lunchtime concerts were an important part of the early festivals, from 1986 to 1998. When the festival in 2000 dropped these popular concerts that gave prominence to New Zealand musicians, I decided to tackle the job, along with my wife, Jeanette. We were very lucky to find a talented manager and planner in Charlotte Wilson (now a RNZ Concert presenter), who in the space of about three months did most of the organising and negotiating with fifteen groups of musicians.

The series was very successful, and a surplus was carried over for another series in 2002. It too ended with a modest surplus which has been used to support classical musical enterprises since then.

The grown-up musicians then took over, with a piece that was my first love as a nine-year-old, hearing it played in the then ‘Broadcasts to Schools’ which had the important effect of implanting classical music sounds, permanently, in unprejudiced, receptive minds: Smetana’s Moldau, the German name of the river which later became known by its proper Czech name, Vltava. The performance captured the moods of the river as it passed through Bohemia’s countryside and towns, but it struck me that it hadn’t had quite the studied attention that either the Bartók or the Dvořák music demonstrated next.

In most ears Bartók’s music can sound more alien and unapproachable than that of any other Balkan/Central European composers (it had not been that way with Liszt whose music has come to be denigrated as not truly ‘Hungarian’). Interestingly, while other composers used the indigenous music of their country in a recognisable framework for listeners in western Europe, Bartók took the more challenging route, sacrificing easy popularity by treating the Magyar music of his country in ways he felt were faithful to its non-Western character.

His first piano concerto was not a work of impetuous, iconoclastic youth as Prokofiev did; Bartók was 45 when he wrote his first concerto (and you might feel that he should have been over his impulse to shock and upset; many great composers were dead by that age!). However, it is a useful weapon in the armory of an adventurous young pianist like Christopher Park; in his hands it was utterly committed: brilliant, fearsome and astonishingly idiomatic.

For the orchestra and conductor, however, the challenge would have been of a very different order; because of its technical and interpretation difficulties it’s rarely performed. Geoffrey Norris, in a Gramophone article a couple of years ago speculated about its treatment:

“Are the concertos rarely performed because they are not popular, or are they not popular because they are seldom performed? In a pragmatic sense, the comparative sparsity of performances could well be explained by finance or, at least, by the demands of orchestral schedules. Particularly in this straitened age when rehearsal costs have to be ruthlessly budgeted, the hours needed to get the First Concerto up to scratch could be punitive. Even present-day British orchestras, acknowledged for their swift, reliable sight-reading, have been known to find a first run-through of the First Concerto troublesome. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is said to be a doddle by comparison.”

In the light of that view of the concerto’s (he’s speaking, mainly, of the first two) difficulties, here we had a part-time orchestra with very constrained rehearsal time, tackling it.

Piano Concerto 1: 1st movement   
While it opens with chilling ferocity, reminiscent of parts of The Rite of Spring, that is not the prevailing character of the piece, for after the hard-hitting piano and timpani and the fierce response from brass, convention is acknowledged with sombre bassoons, bass clarinet, and strings in staccato melodic snatches that offer sign posts that are not hard to recognise when they reappear.

Bassoons soon supply an almost conventional tune and later, they offer a hesitating, rising motif all of which contribute to a structure whose parts become recognisable, almost old friends later on.

I’m tempted to say that the piano has the hardest time of it, but then Christopher Park had had an intensive relationship with it for much longer than the orchestra. He had become its master, hitting all the right keys at the right time, as well as capturing its radically non-western idiom as if he’d lived with it from childhood. For Marc Taddei and the orchestra, in spite of the limited time (equals ‘funding’) available, the music’s alien character seemed of little consequence; almost masking its extraordinary success in keeping pace and meeting the technical difficulties. Each time I was tempted to think a passage wasn’t too challenging, I would be struck by another fearsome orchestral flare-up that demonstrated both Taddei’s impressive grasp of the entire work and our orchestra’s real acumen.

Though I’ve listened to recordings of the concerto, this was my first live hearing and the impact of the real thing was a revelation: the orchestration, the careful, studied employment of particular instruments, to far greater purpose and deliberateness than in much 20th century music.

At the start of the 2nd movement, a discreet side drum presages the piano and one by one, timpani, snare drum, cymbal; then very specific percussion; after a couple of minutes, a lone oboe then a clarinet, flute, bass clarinet, cor anglais, but no strings at all. Though not a conventionally contemplative movement, these sounds stayed with me in the most haunting way. But it was of course Christopher Park’s piano that perpetuated the sense of astonishment, for his feat of memory to start with, for his technical panache and profound intellectual grasp of Bartók’s musical idiom and intent.

An entirely new energy emerges as the 3rd movement, launched by various drums, muted trombones, then the piano; again, always in the limelight, commanding wonderment. The orchestration is always precise, deliberate, and this imposes special demands on players, as more general, indiscriminate scoring can conceal smudges; I won’t say there were none but the energy and tempo were of far greater importance and a matter of both astonishment and delight.

Applause was enthusiastic, and Park played an encore, from an utterly different planet: the 20-year-old Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor (Lento con gran espressione), Opus Posthumus.

Dvořák: the Eighth
The common ground for this year’s series, the last five of Dvořák’s symphonies: No 8 followed after the interval. That distance was vital to settle the head and emotions after the extraordinary impact of the Bartók. No 8 is in the sanguine key of G, not subject to painful soul-searching or grieving. The opening, after the calm introductory cellos, then trombones, released its alternating tuttis and folk-tune like themes in a delightful way. Here was a focused energy, that was perhaps a bit lacking in Vltava; the brass was vivid with precision and clarity, and the strings, perhaps not at quite the strength that a Dvořák symphony demands, were splendidly secure.

But their playing of the lovely woodwind-led second movement, Adagio, was both dynamic and poetic; I always especially loved the slow descending scales on strings with a pensive oboe; the long, near-silences that mark the movement seemed exactly in tune with the composer’s spirit; and there are disturbed moments, of unease, atmospheric horns, throbbing strings. It’s a movement rich in changing emotions: for me the Adagio is the very centre of the work; until, that is, we reach the striking and moving parts of each of the other movements.

As so often with third movements, even one as charming, a sort of waltz, as this, its first phase opens peacefully, followed by the more pensive, though equally beautiful second part – a sort of ‘Trio’ to a traditional Scherzo. Every movement has its striking contrasts between unsullied delight and long moments of uncertainty, regret; and all these phases were clearly and vividly created in a great performance. So the last movement, after its brilliant trumpet fanfare drops to a slow, stately episode with the orchestra’s cellos biting into their rising arpeggios; but suddenly bursting with brio as the whole orchestra creates its own driving version of that arpeggio. The last movement is full of variety, yet with just the right amount of repetition and reflection, with a limpid clarinet handling it wistfully as the end approached.

If I have suggested that earlier parts of the symphony held the greatest intellectual and emotional interest for me, hearing the work live in the hands of Taddei (without score before him) and the orchestra, after many years without the opportunity, bringing it to a heart-warming conclusion through its disparate last movement, renewed my understanding of the wonderfully inventive and universal character of the Eighth Symphony.

2 thoughts on “Great performances of unfamiliar Bartók and major Dvořák introduced by young geniuses

  1. Pauline Swann says:

    What a brilliant write up and once again unbelievable the Sistema Childrens Orchestra and of course Alison Eldridge….Thank you Lindis, as I read felt I was at the concert once again.

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