NZSO marks Blake’s retirement with his haunting ‘Angel at Ahipara’, plus splendid Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky

Winter Daydreams

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Fawzi Haimor, conductor and Carolin Widman, violin

Christopher Blake: Angel at Ahipara
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D Major
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op.13, ‘Winter Daydreams’

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 20 June, 2019

Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and a piece by a significant contemporary composer, Christopher Blake, might seem like popular programming, but as was evident by the large number of empty seats, the programme lacked wide appeal. Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is seldom performed, Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is very different from other more popular twentieth century violin concertos and Christopher Blake’s music is unknown territory. Yet it is important both for the orchestra and the audience to be confronted from time to time with the little known or unknown.

The theme common to all of these three works is the idea of exploration. Blake and Tchaikovsky attempted to give voice to a national identity, New Zealand and Russian, while Stravinsky looked for the bare bones of a violin concerto outside the lush romanticism of his contemporaries.

The inspiration for Blake’s Angel at Ahipara came from a black and white photo of a sculpture on a grave at a remote settlement of Ahipara, as well as from Colin McCahon’s colourful Northland Panels. Blake attempted to represent in music the idea of the Angel that Morrison expressed in photography and McCahon in painting. It is written for a string orchestra and describes seven aspects of the Angel in continuous development of largely minimalist themes, ranging from, peaceful, gentle, meditative, to the turbulent, reflecting the Angel giving hope, the soaring of his spirit, his vigil, the joy he brings and the storm that he calms. It is haunting, beautiful music that stays with you.

Stravinsky had misgivings about writing a violin concerto, but encouraged by Samuel Dushkin, for whom the concerto was commissioned and by Paul Hindemith, he produced a stripped down neo-Baroque work with chamber music texture. The concerto avoids virtuoso display and focuses on the dialogue between the solo violin and the orchestra. The four movements reflect Stravinsky’s interest in the Baroque. The sparkling Toccata has changes of meter, pulsating repeated notes and joyous violin acrobatics. The middle movements, the two Arias are lyrical, while the final movement, Capriccio is full of dazzling demonic energy. Carolin Widman played these with great authority and energy. It was a fine, insightful performance.

Tchaikovsky was just 25 when he embarked on his First Symphony. His teachers didn’t like it. It was different, it didn’t fit the German symphonic tradition. Tchaikovsky wrote a Russian work within the symphonic framework, using Russian folk song themes and strong dance rhythms. Unlike his teachers, Tchaikovsky liked the work and kept revising it. It is a long symphony, over 40 minutes long, but to the credit of the performance and Fawzi Haimor’s direction, it never flagged. An early work, it has its weaknesses. At times the flow of the music seems to stand still while another theme, another ideas is introduced, but these hiatuses lead to glorious, rich passages; and the second movement is one of the Tchaikovsky’s most enthralling pieces. The symphony required superb playing by brass and wind, and a luscious string tone from the strings.

At the end of the concert one came away with the feeling that your musical experiences had been greatly enriched, a testament to the playing by the orchestra under the direction of a fine conductor and with the contribution of a dazzling soloist.



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