Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Art-to-music realisations, a royal farewelling, and interplanetary evocations – all in an evening’s work for the NZSO

By , 30/03/2019

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
THE PLANETS

ANNA CLYNE (b.1980) – Abstractions II, III, IV

HECTOR BERLIOZ – La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra) Hob.36

GUSTAV HOLST – Symphonic Suite – The Planets Op.32

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Edo de Waart (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 30th March 2019

Tonight’s concert began with a sobering reminder of the tragedy that had shaken the whole of the country just over a fortnight previously, audience and musicians alike standing for a minute’s silence in remembrance of the incident’s victims, conductor Edo de Waart eschewing his “maestro’s entrance” on this occasion, and accompanying his concertmaster, VesaMatti Leppänen onto the concert platform, to stand with the other performers. As this was the first “home ground” concert given by the orchestra since the incident in Christchurch, the gesture seemed more than fitting, and was suitably moving.

Without further ado, conductor and orchestra prepared to embark on the concert’s opening item, one of three pieces written by British composer Anna Clyne under the collective title Abstractions, and belonging to a larger set of five – we were to hear the second, third and fourth pieces of the set. I read with interest Edo de Waart’s account of his previous interaction with the composer’s music, which obviously made a lasting impression, and of his delight in giving with the orchestra the New Zealand premiere of the three pieces.

The sleeve-note writer drew an interesting comparison between these three pieces, each inspired by a specific work of 21st century art, and Musorgsky’s well-known work “Pictures from an Exhibition”, contending that Clyne’s approach to the art-works was more a realisation of the “feeling” each of the images gives, as opposed to what the writer regarded as the more literal depictions of the Russian composer. Of course, “literal” and “abstract” aren’t absolutes, and will mean different things to different people, in Musorgsky’s music as in Anna Clyne’s work.

The first piece, Abstractions II, was subtitled Auguries after an artwork of the same name by Julie Mehretu, a huge, 10-panel sequence, meant to be “read” from left to right. Beginning with fast-moving “shards” of sound, swirling and passing overhead and becoming themselves an accompaniment for an impassioned theme, the piece resounded with irruptions, punctuations and “tumbledown” episodes, very “filmic” to my ears, at once visual and visceral, not least the abrupt, whip-beaten conclusion.

By contrast, Abstraction III, appropriately named Seascape, after a photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto, featured winds and percussion drifting, murmuring and oscillating, a very French-sounding orchestral palette, joined by a pedal-point-like lower string rumble, giving an oceanic depth to the array. Gorgeously-wrought textures wafted from winds’ and strings’ interminglings, adding to the “living stasis” of the textures and tones, a bassoon drowsily but deftly presiding over the music’s “dying fall”.

Abstraction IV  was River, from a lithograph by Elsworth Kelly,  the sounds tempestuous, off-beat and scintillating with movement, running strings set against tremulous and irruptive percussion, then held in thrall to quieter, calmer, more circumspect forces until the pent-up energies broke out once again, burgeoning into a maelstrom-like climax. Its resonances were gradually “wrapped around” by wind-chords, absorbing and becalming all impulse. I thought it attractive, evocative orchestral writing.

A good deal of interest in the concert centred on the appearance of well-known American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, performing Hector Berlioz’s dramatic scene La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra). The singer’s “bio” as per programme suggested that she is currently revisiting her “signature interpretations” of this and three other great French “song cycles” (which Cléopâtre is not in any case, being a “dramatic cantata” – in fact, of the four works mentioned, it’s only the other one by Berlioz (“Les nuits d’été”) that can be called a “cycle” of any kind).

Beautifully though she essayed the vocal part, and gorgeously though the NZSO and Edo de Waart accompanied her, I thought our appreciation of both the work and her performance was hampered by the absence of any translation of the text either in the programme or displayed in the hall. It meant that non-French speakers could only generalise as to the significance of any variation or contrast in emphasis, colour or mood the singer’s music presented to us.

Without any such detailings I thought the subtleties of Graham’s performance might have registered with people less readily, especially as, to my ears, she eschewed any extremes of emotional response to the text, and in doing so, sounding somewhat less overtly involved than did the others I’d heard on various recordings I’d been playing (by way of giving this seldom-locally-performed work more of a current listening context).

Had we the translation to follow, I’m certain that Graham’s beautifully-sung, but rather “contained” emotional responses might have had more of a specific impact – true, she delineated certain overall moods in the writing with discernable shifts of emotion (a lovely softening of her tone when recalling past glories – augmented by lovely wind-playing) – and various “irruptions” of emotion registered elsewhere in the music’s unfolding, with appropriate contrasting  emphases in the vocal line – but I couldn’t help longing for in places a sharper, more colourful and varied character from the music.

What particularly attracts me to Berlioz are his music’s capacities to glint, babble, effervesce, snarl, bite, shout, brood and rage! And while this was, on the surface of things, a dignified lament by a Queen, this particular ruler was also known as the “Serpent of the Nile” – so whatever dignity and royal containment the singer conjured up probably needed to be seasoned with at least a few viperish gestures and not merely at the cantata’s end! Speaking of such things, I should add, in all fairness, the unfortunate Queen’s last few moments were here movingly and breath-catchingly done by singer, conductor and players.

Holst’s “The Planets” made for more familiar listening, beginning with the imposing, attention-grabbing movement “Mars, the Bringer of War”. I thought de Waart‘s tempo for the main body of the piece was excellently judged, the relentless 5/4 rhythms neither too fast and frenetic, nor too slow and ponderous. Despite a misjudged percussive stroke at the piece’s end, the players delivered the detailings of the music with fantastic elan and brilliance. It all made for the greatest possible contrast with the cool, chaste strains of “Venus”, cast by Holst as a “Bringer of peace” instead of as the more conventional “Goddess of Love”, the playing (the horn repeatedly showing the way with its gorgeously pure-voiced upward phrase) exquisitely sounded by strings and winds in tandem with the twinkling celeste, if in places I felt it a fraction driven by the conductor, rather than “allowed” to unfold.

Though I felt that “Mercury” could have been a shade fleeter of foot, its steady, natural pace seemed to allow everything in the music to “happen” precisely and meticulously – I simply thought in places that its “Winged Messenger” aspect sounded just a tad too earthbound, the whirling triplets more methodical than impulsive, and thus losing some of that “incredible lightness of being” quality, though the timpani solo at the end sounded suitably energised, as did the playful interactions between celeste and winds which break off into nothingness.

Jupiter, however, I thought an entirely successful “Bringer of Jollity”, right from its energised ascending opening, the brasses summonsing, in Milton-like musical terms “Laughter holding both his sides”, with the tuba merrily counterpointing the principal “dancing” theme, and the great ¾ “jovial” melody here richly and syncopatedly decorated by the horns. The well-known central tune, appropriated for diverse uses since its composition, was begun as it went on, nobly and grandly, free from bombast and mawkishness, de Waart keeping it moving and letting it expand in an entirely natural way.

As befits their relative remoteness in the solar system, the final three planets always seemed to me to have drawn the most enigmatic and mysterious music from the composer. “Saturn” was Holst’s favourite from all accounts, possibly due to the music’s apparent identification with an all-too-inevitable condition of human frailty – old age. Though the composer himself was barely forty years old at the time of its composition, he seemed more than usually aware of the passing of time’s deleterious effects on both body and spirit, and the process of having to come to terms with such happenings – one might guess that he had “personalised” this movement like none of the others in the suite.

All of these profundities were beautifully and sensitively brought out by the performance, the music’s very opening seemingly “effortful” and almost haunted by spectral feelings of impending gloom, the orchestral detailings casting disturbing shadows over the winds’ opening, halting footsteps. As the piece continued, the forebodings grew from piteous strings and remorseless brasses, the advancing footsteps becoming leviathan-like and augmented by baleful shouts and spectral bells – until, at the tumult’s height the noises subsided, and from the despairing wastes kindled a softer note from the harps, which slowly spread through the orchestral forces, magically transforming the ambiences to the realms of comfort and resignation.

All through the work Holst had employed contrast as one of the hallmarks of the music’s journeyings – and nowhere was this more startlingly employed than with the beginning of “Uranus the Magician” which followed. The upper brass gave the opening four-note motif all they had, shattering the uneasy peace of the previous item’s epilogue, and stimulating a note-for-note response from the heavier brass and then the timpani. What followed had equal parts of humour and menace, the galumphing “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”-like rhythms both entertaining and mesmerising one’s sensibilities, the detailing from all sections of the orchestra breathtaking in both its unanimity and precision, the magician’s final dance and self-annihilating gestures featuring some of the evening’s most exciting playing, with the music’s sudden, shocking designation of the “void” leaving us in the audience both stunned and breathless.

From the silences came sounds as mere pinpricks of light, fixing themselves in the firmament, all the while gradually and dimly giving substance to a mysterious shape, the planet Neptune – at the time of Holst’s composing of this music the farthest, most remote of the planets from the Earth. Such unearthly sounds, gorgeously realised by the winds, at once realising the planet’s “mystic” quality and its mesmeric fascination, the celeste’s sound of a piece with the vertiginous oscillations of the other instruments, the strings instigating great rolling cascades of nothingness and pushing our sensibilities’ boundaries ever further with each measure……at which point the voices, barely audible, began, or, rather were simply “registered” – an eerie, timeless effect that I’d not ever heard so well achieved – the women of the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir sounded like distant angels paying us no attention whatsoever, merely being “overheard” – extraordinary! The programme’s notewriter quoted the composer’s daughter Imogen Holst as describing how, as the work’s premiere, the voices grew “fainter and fainter until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence”.

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