Wellington Chamber Orchestra with rewarding and interesting music from Britain and Armenia

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ian Ridgewell, with Matthew Stein (trumpet)

Gerald Finzi: The Fall of the Leaf, Op.20
Alexander Arutiunian: Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra
Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony no.3, “The Irish”, in F minor, Op.28

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 9 December 2018, 2:30 pm

It was tempting to describe this as a concert of unfamiliar twentieth-century music, however the symphony was composed and first performed in the 1880s.

An enthusiastic audience filled the church to hear this interesting programme, that began with the rather elusive, indefinite opening of the Finzi work.  This had once been intended to be part of a symphony, but it never eventuated, and after many years, the work was completed by a friend of Finzi’s after the latter’s death.  (Finzi’s dates: 1901-1956).

Like much of the composer’s work, it was gentle, nostalgic, and full of beautiful orchestral colours and melodies.  After the opening, a cor anglais gave a folksong-like melody, followed by the horns, then pizzicato strings and harp, the latter deliciously played by Michelle Velvin.  There was a superb passage for violas, sounding deep and resonant.  There was more superb writing for the cor anglais; no wonder it’s called the English horn!

The work revealed a considerable variety of dynamics.  All in all, it was most agreeable music.

The conductor for this concert was an Englishman, now resident in Wellington, and involved in music education.  I was intrigued with his conducting style; he held a baton, but, like many conductors, did not use the stick independently – it was simply an extension of his right hand.  I had just heard a couple of days before, a radio interview with visiting conductor Nicholas McGegan, here to conduct the NZSO (plus choir and soloists) in Handel’s Messiah.  He does not use a stick, and said that the white stick was used in past times to make the conductor’s beat visible in candle-lit auditoriums.  Since these days such places are lit by electric lighting, he saw no reason to use one.

The main drawback to the concert was the relatively small size of the venue, and its resonance.  Wellington desperately needs back the Town Hall and the Ilott Theatre, the latter being of a suitable size for this orchestra, which on Sunday numbered 59 players.  Too much sound, especially from the brass, can be pretty hard on the ears, and this was the case on Sunday.  The cymbals were simply deafening; fortunately they were not used frequently.

Alexander Arutiunian lived from 1920 to 2012; his trumpet concerto was composed in 1950 and is probably his best-known work internationally, although he had a busy composing, teaching and performing life in Armenia and the Soviet Union generally.

In Matthew Stein we had a superb soloist, not long  returned from study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he was a prizewinner.  (Pity he was listed on the back of the printed programme as ‘Piano’!)

His playing was brilliant.  The work was played without a break, but there are definite ‘movements’, with different tempi (Wikipedia gives five movements).  Subtle changes of dynamics were a feature throughout.  Its beginning was fast and furious for the orchestra, yet revealed many different colours.  The clarinet had plenty of sequences in the sun.  Occasionally the orchestra was too loud for the soloist to be easily heard.

After a very loud, repetitive section from the orchestra, the music became quiet and reflective, the soloist using a  mute (the second movement).  The music here was calm and somewhat wistful in character.  Here, the strings’ intonation was wayward, but generally, the playing was fine.  Along came lovely harp ripples, and more prominent clarinet episodes.

The strings got worked up in an insistent rhythmic pattern, and there was a general crescendo as the soloist’s removal of his mute signified another movement.  Extraverted phrases came from the soloist; the flute and percussion made fanciful contributions in this very fast movement.  As elsewhere, there was plenty of work for trombones and tuba.

A brilliant cadenza from the trumpet broke forth, with varied dynamics and rhythms, and featuring trills, all executed with skill and apparent ease.

The audience gave this performance a well-deserved rousing reception.  It was an exciting and varied work, played with élan.

My friend and I moved to the back of the church in the interval, which rendered the brass fortissimo into forte or mezzo-forte.

Irish-born Stanford (1852-1924) was once highly regarded as a symphonist, but is now mainly known for his choral music, particularly his church music.  Much of this repertoire is beautiful an appealing.  One of the reasons we can be grateful to him is for his teaching and developing the talents of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Frank Bridge (teacher of Benjamin Britten) and many others, as a teacher at music college and university.

A link with the other composers in the programme is the fact that all used folk-like melodies from their countries of origin; not necessarily actual known melodies, although  some genuine Irish ones are said to be present in this Stanford work.  Certainly the opening of the work sounded like one such.

The strings were a little shaky here, but things settled down again.  There were felicitous phrases, and some grand melodies in an Elgarian vein.  The composer’s orchestration was splendid, with an imaginative variety of use of the instruments.  However, I did not think the orchestra played as well in this work as they had in the Finzi.

The music was easy on the ear.  A passage with pizzicato strings and woodwind melodies over the top gave a slightly spooky atmosphere; were there leprechauns about?

The second movement had a sprightly tempo (or should that be spritely, being Irish?), that fell into a quick march, with brass to the fore.  Then a change of mood and rhythm brought a lilting lyrical section, but still with a lot of brass.  Then we were back to the march, followed by an abrupt ending.

The third movement started with the harp (significant, of course, in Irish music).  This was gorgeous, and was soon joined by flutes and clarinet.  These were ethereal sounds, into which the oboe entered, adding its piquancy.  Strings were sotto voce, horns too contributed to the other-worldly aesthetic.  A swaying theme developed, like a slow dance.

More woodwind melodies ensued, then the brass joined in a crescendo with a very four-square theme which I found rather too insistent, saying “Look out for us!  Here we come!”

While I love some of Stanford’s choral music (notably The Blue Bird), I wouldn’t declare this symphony ripe for widespread resurrection, whereas the other works on the programme could certainly stand more frequent airings.  Nonetheless, there were many lovely elements in the work, of which the harp episodes were among the most mellifluous.

The final movement was faster again, and featured more spooky pizzicato, this time on cellos and double-basses, to great effect.  This section ended like a folk-song, before the music became quite rumbustious, making a very positive declaration (what a contrast to much twentieth-century composition!).  Next was a hymn-like tune, which could well be a traditional Irish melody.  Not all the brass coped well here.  The music came close to pomposity.  However, Stanford’s orchestration was splendid.  A rousing, tuneful ending was triple forte, to send us on our way.


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