NZSM Orchestra speaks its concert presentation’s name with skill and conviction at St.Andrew’s

New Zealand School of Music presents:
Music by Mozart, Britten, Rod Biss and Tchaikovsky

MOZART – Symphony No.35 on D Major K.385 “Haffner”
BRITTEN – Sinfonia da Requiem
ROD BISS – Four New Zealand Bird Songs
TCHAIKOVSKY – Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet”

Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)
Kenneth Young (conductor)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Tuesday, 21st May, 2019

Though having just tut-tutted elsewhere over the NZSO’s somewhat loose “title” attached to its most recent concert, I’m much less inclined towards adverse comment regarding the NZSM Orchestra’s publicity legend  for ITS latest presentation, “Darkness and Light”.  It’s a reasonably apposite description of the moods of what was being played at the evening’s concert, conveying something of the music’s range and impact as was performed, here brilliantly and most satisfyingly, by the NZSM forces.

Wellington continues to lack a satisfactory mid-sized venue with enough room for orchestral performance, though ensembles such as the NZSM Orchestra still manage to cope with cramped spaces and  acoustics at places such as St.Andrew’s, and, as here, make the event “work” in the face of these drawbacks. In fact, the NZSM Orchestra under Ken Young’s direction seems to have achieved a level of expertise and consistency over their last few concerts I’ve attended which generates a tangible aura of expectation and excitement around each occasion – in itself, a significant and substantial affirmation of the worth of the School and what it achieves.

The programme cast its net widely, over time and physical space – first performed in 1783, Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony (named after a childhood friend of the composer’s from Salzburg in honour of the former’s elevation to the nobility) has become one of the best-known of his symphonic works, while New Zealand composer Rod Biss wrote his “Four New Zealand Bird Songs” in 2014, over two hundred years later, and on the other side of the globe. The remaining two works bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the music’s various connections and associations including Europe , the United States and Japan – a cosmopolitean affair!

Beginning the concert with the Mozart “Haffner” Symphony, Young and his student musicians flung themselves at the music with all the exuberance and energy those notes demanded, their figurations by turns skyrocketing and cascading, the first movement a brilliantly joyous celebration, the moments of circumspection as delicate and inwardly “charged” (a beautiful minor-key exchange between strings and winds) as the energetic runs were exciting and “bubbly”. Grace and poise were on show throughout the Andante, winds and horns steadfastedly “floating” their lines over the strings’ ethereal exchanges, while the Minuet was here given more energy and spunk than one usually hears in this movement, even if one missed some of the music’s charm, especially in the Trio. Of a piece was the Finale’s performance, the opening hushed and expectant, the energies bursting out like a firecracker, looking forwards to Beethoven’s as yet unwritten Second Symphony in its irrepressible momentum. The players’ propelling of the rushing passages was terrific, both soft and loud, and their split-second alternations great fun, like a musical cat-and-mouse chase! Altogether, this was as brilliantly-focused and compellingly-played a performance of this work as I’ve ever heard live, invigorating and “edge-of-the-seat” right to the end!

Nothing further from all of this could have been imagined than the opening of Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” which followed, percussion and lower brass mercilessly assailing our sensibilities, and plunging us into the darkest realms of tragedy and privation. Britten’s work, dedicated to his parents, expressed the despair he felt at their separate passing, more recently at his mother’s unexpected death when the composer was 24. The titles of each movement reflect something of Britten’s coming to terms with his loss through intense suffering towards gradual acceptance.

Oddly enough the work’s actual genesis was via the Japanese Government, who were commissioning music to mark 2,000 years of the Japanese Empire. Britten’s offering of the Sinfonia was predictably rejected by the Japanese, who were offended by the unequivocal Christian nomenclature (Latin titles for each of the movements) accompanying the work – the composer had rather naively expressed to a friend the idea that the music had “plenty of peace propaganda in it”. The Japanese refusal of the work “rescued” Britten from the subsequent embarrassment of his music’s association with a country who had since entered into the war against the Allies.

This performance went on as it began – from the opening’s fearful depths the music began its torturous treadmill-like journey through the music’s “vale of tears” in search of some kind of illumination, whatever its shape or form. The players took up the challenge, braving all privations in giving conductor Young the searing intensities and fearful abyss-like depths that the music’s progress required.  The second movement’s Dies Irae (marked Allegro con fuoco) then awakened, with tongued winds and bouncing strings leading to great tattoos of percussion, and ghoulish triplet rhythms from the brasses mocking the laments we’d heard in the first movement, a “quick march” fiercely pushing the music towards a frenzied build-up and reiteration of a hammering motif and an eventual disintegration of a serial-like motiv, whose repetitions gradually ran out of steam.

Amid this entropic scenario, a new world began to take shape, the wind players giving voice to the sounds of fresh air blowing over the devastations, echoed nobly by the horns. Strings joined in with the echoings, Young inspiring his musicians to build towards a magnificent peroration, a kind of paean of renewed hope in faith, love, and the glories, warts and all, of human existence.

After an interval we were treated to a different, closer-to-home response to human behaviour, one dealing with its impact upon the natural world, our own immediate wilderness inhabited largely by birds, and increasingly besmirched and despoiled by human greed. It’s becoming an all-too-common scenario, and one whose recent manifestation at a beach north of Auckland inspired local composer Rod Biss to collaborate with poet Denys Trussell during 2014 and produce a set of songs, the second of which represented a protest at what seems to me to be an obscene “rich development” of Te Arai Beach, the natural home of one of New Zealand’s mot endangered birds, Tara-iti, the Fairy Tern.

Tara-iti was the first of the set to be written – on its completion, both composer and poet thought its impact would be enhanced by being made part of a set, and so three other songs followed. The work was first performed, as here, by mezzo-soprano Margaret Medlyn as part of a SOUNZ recording project involving the NZSO strings and harpist, and associate conductor Hamish McKeich. This evening’s performance was (as far as I can make out) its public premiere, with both the composer and poet present (both summonsed to the platform at the end – and even though it was rather clumsily done, with only the composer actually mentioned by name, we in the audience DID get the idea that the “other” man was Denys Trussell!)

The opening Dawning featured diaphanously drifting chords preparing the way for a beautifully buoyant vocal line, the words superbly delineated by Medlyn, making every utterance count throughout the music’s soaring, swooping, drifting progress. The beginning of the second song, Tara-iti, had a similar drifiting kind of gait, the accompaniment infused with a sense of fragrant, vulnerable beauty, though the vocal line had an angularity and a sadness whose quiet lament-like delivery hinted at unresolved tensions.

Pizzicati notes accompanied the pukeko’s awkward peregrinations throughout The Purple Swamphen as Pukeko, the words and sounds paying tribute to the bird’s clownish behaviour and maverick aspect. However, by far the most impactful of the songs was the last one, Karearea, (New Zealand Falcon), the vocal line unaccompanied at the outset, the singer’s voice magnificently alone in the skies before the strings opened the vistas below to thrilling effect. Medlyn didn’t spare her considerable resources throughout, pushing ever higher to upper reaches in the company of some dramatically searing string work, before her final, serenely majestic utterance allowed the strings and harp a last defiant counter-flourish. All of this made for an epic tribute to a bird regarding itself, in the face of things, as master of its own natural world – alas, a world now under threat from a different kind of arrogance from another quarter.

After Ken Young had heartwarmingly made a point of paying a public tribute to the work of one of the stalwarts of the School of Music who had just announced his retirement, senior technician Roy Carr, present at the concert to acknowledge the tribute and our response,  there remained one more item on the programme. It was left to Young and his players to present the much-loved “Fantasy Overture” by Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet – and by crikey, did they put the music through its paces! I’ve sat through a number of live performances of this work and heard so many recordings as well, to the point where I usually find myself preferring to listen to something else – with the piece’s popularity, unfortunately, has often come deadening routine, the gestures sounding empty and clichéd and the melodies chipped and worn through over-use. Yes, I know there’s always someone listening who’s come to the music fresh (as I did once, spellbound by its beauties), but it’s the “that old warhorse” aspect that I often find comes through, even when played by the most prestigious of orchestras.

Here, somehow, it was if conductor and players had “found” some hitherto neglected piece and were resurrecting it for a new era of listeners! – I was gripped right from the beginning (though smiling at a woodwind mishap in the very first chord!), compelled by the urgency with which the players shaped their phrases, the whole having a dramatic “line” which vividly characterised the well-meaning actions of the young Romeo’s mentor Friar Lawrence, and imbued the music’s course with through-line tension that never abated. The battle music had tremendous attack and verve, the agitations really catching fire, while the contrasting love-music wove a gossamer spell over the proceedings, including a seraphic touch from the harp and some beautiful cor anglais tones. The renewal of internecine agitations between the houses focused the sharpness of attack even more, giving the militant version of Friar Lawrence’s theme terrific punch and the warrings even more desperation – and while the lovers’ theme had its great moments before being swept away with everything else in the maelstrom, Young encouraged his players to keep the music’s driven, merciless aspect, to the point of sheer exhaustion. Even the funeral music gave us no peace, but a haunted, throbbing ache throughout. And despite the beauties of both the wind and string-playing throughout the epilogue, the final timpani onslaught proclaimed the death of love and beauty in no uncertain terms.

After this performance, life could never be quite the same again – so, very great credit to the players and their conductor for a splendid concert!

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