Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Creative, thrilling and heart-warming conclusion to Orchestra Wellington’s 2018 season

By , 01/12/2018

Orchestra Wellington presents “New World”

MOZART (arr. Busoni) – Overture “Don Giovanni”
MICHAEL NORRIS – Violin Concerto “Sama” (World Premiere)
DVORAK – Symphony No. 9 in E Minor Op. 95 (B.178) “From the New World”

Amalia Hall (violin – Michael Norris)
Andrew Atkins (conductor – Mozart)
Marc Taddei (conductor – Michael Norris, Dvorak)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 1st December 2018

Well, it was quite a night for Orchestra Wellington! – in front of an enthusiastic and appreciative audience at the Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday evening the musicians put everything they had into making the final night of the orchestra’s 2018 concert season one to remember. We were presented with a line-up of pieces which, if perhaps not all sure-fire crowd-pleasers, perfectly expressed the desire of the orchestra’s organisers to provide a rich and varied concert experience! There was a fascinating arrangement of one of Mozart most famous operatic overtures, along with the first-ever performance of a New Zealand work, a violin concerto by Wellington composer Michael Norris, both counterweighted after the interval by what is certainly one of the most popular symphonies of all time, Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony in E Minor, best known by its subtitle “From the New World”.

Before the actual music-making began, Marc Taddei, the orchestra’s Music Director, warmly thanked the audience for its support throughout the year, promising that the about-to-be-launched 2019 programme would continue to deliver the excitement and enjoyment of past seasons – in fact, even more so this time round by, in Taddei’s words, “pulling out all of the stops!” The 2019 season sported the title “Epic” by way of indicating something of the range and scope of the presentations, the conductor remarking that in each case the work or works featured in that particular concert introduced something “important” and “pivotal” to music, significant to the art-form’s development.

As an example (I thought this a particularly mouth-watering prospect!) the opening concert in April of next year was to feature both Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” AND Its rarely-performed sequel, “Lelio, or Return to Life”. Even on its own this choice of repertoire amply indicates the innovative spirit that informs the orchestra’s work in general and pays tribute to its enterprising music director and his supporting musicians and artistic management. A further innovation came with the display of a special recording of the orchestra playing a couple of Beethoven Symphonies (these are “live” performances from previous concerts….) captured on both CD and “180 gram vinyl”, the latter especially striking regarding colour and packaging, giving it extra distinction for a collector, though for some people the former at a mere $16.00 (as opposed to $40.00) might be perfectly viable a souvenir of the orchestra.

So, the 2019 season having been “launched” and associated things been given honourable mention, the concert began, Taddei at this point handing over the “conducting reins” to his Assistant Conductor, Andrew Atkins, who was scheduled to conduct the first item. With gestures whose flowing aspect often reminded one of a bird in flight, but which secured as finely-honed and dramatically-sprung a performance of the music as one could wish for, Atkins got a properly dark-browed aspect from the players at the work’s beginning, followed by an engagingly buoyant rendering of the music’s “giocoso” manner – in fact, Mozart himself interestingly styled the work as both a “dramma giocoso”, a dramatic comedy, and an “opera buffa” (comic opera).

Opera overtures are often linked by their composers to the ensuing stage action, Mozart’s music in the theatre in this case flowing seamlessly into the story’s beginning. However, to be performed like that in concert with no opera to follow would result in a kind of unresolved cadence at the piece’s end – so either the composer or a subsequent editor would “recompose” the concluding sequence to make a satisfying conclusive ending to the music. This time round, however, the orchestra played a version I’d never encountered before, one arranged by the brilliant Italian pianist and composer Feruccio Busoni, and which seemed to me to successfully incorporate more of the opera’s whole “flavour” for concert-hall performance. Busoni, at the Overture’s end returns us to the opening, darkly monumental “Stone Guest” music, reminding us of the Don’s eventual fate, and follows this with the music accompanying the opera’s “epilogue” (which Mozart added to the opera AFTER the premiere) – here, the Don’s adversaries, plus his much-maligned manservant, Leoporello, entone a moralistic conclusion – “This is the evil-doer’s end – sinners finally meet their just reward, and always will”, the sentiments (as befits a “dramma giocoso”) delivered with something of an ambivalent twinkle in the eye, a feeling conveyed here by the energetic, high-spirited playing.

By way of providing something of a contrast, next up was Michael Norris’s new Violin Concerto (an Orchestra Wellington commission), one which the composer had subtitled “Sama”, the Arabic word for “listening” and the name given to a Sufi ceremony involving different ritualistic elements. This work was expressly written for Amalia Hall, the orchestra’s Concertmaster, who, though still in her twenties has already developed an international reputation as a soloist, going on from competition successes in New Zealand to win various international awards in various parts of the world. Of coursed she’s already appeared as a soloist with Orchestra Wellington this year in a stunningly-delivered performance of Bartok’s formidable Second Violin Concerto (see the review at https://middle-c.org/2018/06/orchestra-wellington-a-golden-beginning-to-its-2018-season/), so we were thoroughly spoilt by having this second opportunity to enjoy her magnificent solo playing of music that was, to say the very least, extremely challenging. Incidentally, the Orchestra Concertmaster for the evening was none other than Justine Cormack, ex-APO Concertmaster and NZ Trio violinist, obviously happy to “help out” her conductor-husband and his orchestra in their time of need!

In three movements this concerto evoked a world of exotic ritual inspired by the “Sama”. We were straightaway transported into a mystical realm via “tolling” undulations from the harp and the orchestral winds, joined by ambient strings and then by the solo violin, entering quietly at first , but constantly responding to different aspects of the “Ard” expressed by the orchestral textures and impulses – it seemed to me a kind of “rite of passage” for the soloist and her instrument, both here in accord with the orchestral happenings, and there ostensibly “assailed” by overwhelming forces, which the solo violin did its best to combat, either by accordance or stoic defiance. Perhaps the orchestral irruptions were more manifestations of life-force than they were adversarial, though I still thought there were some baleful moments! However, these were balanced by writing for both violin and orchestra which expressed a gamut of illustration and incident characterising what Norris called “life and growth” throughout the movement, with variety, colour and energy abounding.

The second part, Fada, came cataclysmically into being via a hugely reverberant opening chord, the solo violin exploring the ensuing resonances in the manner of a spirit inhabiting a strange, almost surreal world in a trance-like state of being. There was as much “incident” as stillness throughout, the impulses mostly contained within the parameters of the dream-like writing, though the brasses stirred uneasily at one moment and roused one another in an outburst of disquiet before leaving the violin to join with the harp and the gently-thrumming strings, connecting as much by the sound of breath as by actual tones with the music’s cosmic heartbeat.

Perhaps the solo part’s “display element” was manifest more consistently in the final movement “Semazen”, the composer commenting on the “constant state” of “vortical force” expressed by the music, a reference to the well-known “whirling dervish” aspect of Sufi worship. Beginning with trance-like ritualistic invocations both ruminative and forceful, both soloist and orchestra gave us a rollicking parade of interactive impulses involving quicksilver figurations, galloping drums, galvanising irruptions from the winds and brass, and energetic underpinnings from the strings. The violin seemed “central” to the ritual, obviously a “Master of Ceremonies” but very much an integral thread in the work’s “one among equals” tapestry. The composer used his manifest musical forces with both elan and discretion, not least of all at the work’s very end, with the violin, having decided that its work is done, ascending and disappearing into the silence of the stratospheric spaces – what a work, and what a performance!

The final act of the orchestra’s 2018 season – the performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” – was preceded by a touching tribute made by Taddei to his Principal Second Violin Leader, Pascale Parenteau, who was stepping down from the position after a number of years, though still intending to continue in the orchestra as a rank-and file player. And then it was all hands to the pumps for the Symphony, though the quiet opening of the work was here lightly and fluidly played by the strings, like something almost airborne. A stentorian horn call awoke an answer from the winds, before strings and timpani flexed their muscles and strongly announced their intentions, moving the music on more urgently to and through the allegro molto.

Tempi were kept swift and straight, and the rhythms incisive, Taddei relaxing the trajectories just a little for the more lyrical wind-led themes of the second subject group, allowing the flute enough space in which to phrase most beautifully the famous “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” sound-alike theme, repeated just as sweetly by the strings. What a pleasure to be able to hear all of this again, courtesy of the first-movement repeat (not always played), with the players generating just as much rhythmic excitement and lyrical feeling the second time through. Throughout these more lyrical episodes I loved the prominence given to the wind counterpoints, obviously encouraged by the conductor to “play out”, giving the music such a winning and distinctive “al fresco” feeling.

Dvořák went to a lot of trouble to get the opening of the Largo slow movement right, indicated by the variants of the “chord progressions” in the composer’s sketchbooks – he also thought seriously about using a clarinet for the famous main theme before finally turning to the cor anglais (and in doing so, of course, ensured the instrument’s immortality!). As with the symphony’s opening, the brass kept things moving throughout their richly-wrought introductory chordings, allowing the cor anglais player Louise Cox to follow in kind, the playing lyrical without overt sentimentality, her tones beautifully-rounded while still suitably plaintive-sounding. Her playing was nobly supported throughout, the winds just as feelingly framing the soloist’s melody, the strings echoing the strains with rare beauty and the brass and timpani adding touches of grandeur to it all.

From the rapture of the slow movement’s conclusion we were plunged into a different mindset by the Scherzo, a tighter and more “symphonic” affair than any in the series of symphonies by the composer we’d heard thus far this year, though Dvorak had in mind a passage in Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” that the composer called “the feast where the Indians dance” and thus builds the excitement of the dance’s opening rhythmic gestures into something wild and forceful, contrasting this with charming interludes, including a Trio whose spirit seems more akin to his Czech homeland. I thought the playing outstanding in all aspects, feeling that the wind players, particularly in these interludes seem to “inhabit” the composer’s evocations, via the out-of-doors character of the playing. And Taddei and his players delivered the “surprise” coda, with its reminiscences of the symphony’s first movement, in a properly exciting and dramatic way, the brief (and uncharacteristic) moment of untogetherness by the horns mattering little in the drama of the exchanges.

This same energy carried over and into the finale’s opening, delivered absolutely without rhetoric, directly and powerfully, the brass resplendent, the strings intense and full-bodied, and the trajectories with their cross-rhythms between the sections most exciting! I loved the flexibililty of Mark Cookson’s clarinet solo, and the cheekiness of the winds later in the movement, answered in almost Mahlerian style by the brasses, who built up their opening statement magnificently. And what a resonant and heartwarming exchange between strings winds and horn which followed afterwards!

At this point I thought the whole ensemble imbued with a kind of “playing for keeps” spirit, which of course befitted the last few moments of the season – and out of it came the last charge towards the work’s stirring peroration, begun by the winds, galvanised by the horns, and flung skyward by the strings and the brass, unable to contain their excitement during the final measures until Mark Taddei and the players farewelled us with the last wind chord, held so beautifully and resonantly. It was a moment which will, I’m sure, sustain the orchestra’s many followers over the time before the band again picks up its instruments for the aforementioned new and tumultuous 2019 season!

 

 

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