Splendid, richly satisfying NZSO concert of four strongly contrasted works played with mastery and conviction

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlos Kalmar with Steven Osborne (piano)

Michael Norris: Matauranga
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 12 in A, K 414
Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
Nielsen: Symphony No 4, Op 29 (‘The Inextinguishable’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 July, 7:30 pm

Anniversary: Cook’s first voyage and Matauranga 
The first piece in Saturday’s concert was entitled Matauranga, which means ‘knowledge, wisdom, understanding, skill’, according to the programme note. It was in part to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage one of whose purposes was to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti in June 1769. His reaching New Zealand was timely to observe the transit of Mercury on the Coromandel Peninsula in November 1769, and the names Cook’s Beach and Mercury Bay celebrate it.

The intelligent programme note also places in perspective Cook’s voyage (voyages) as a product of The Enlightenment in Europe. The notes write: “The ideals of the Enlightenment sprang from a rejection of institutional religion, entrenched tradition and superstition in favour of rational thought, logic and the empirical, organised advancement of knowledge”.

Michael Norris’s approach to the subject was to combine taonga puoro with the orchestral strings and live electronics. Nevertheless, the score created an attractive pattern of subtle sounds, the Maori instruments having the most conspicuous role while the strings and the electronics seemed present in principle rather than in their actual impact. However, this piece offered an interesting range of sounds generated by taonga puoro, a wider range of these instruments than I think I’ve encountered before; scored with considerable sensitivity and clarity and played confidently by the versatile Alistair Fraser.

This is not the first time that I’ve rather wished that a little time had been taken in naming and sampling the sounds of each instrument, and for the programme book to have illustrated and named each one. I have the same feelings about the value of identifying with visual and sound examples the huge range of less familiar orchestral percussion instruments which, apart from timpani, are referred to merely as ‘percussion’.

The orchestra might have hoped that the inclusion of a quite approachable piece highlighting taonga pouro might have attracted a number of Maori to the concert; it didn’t. Furthermore, the concert as a whole attracted a much smaller audience that is usual for NZSO subscription concerts.

This was a surprise and a disappointment given the programming of a charming Mozart piano concerto by a particularly gifted pianist, and an arresting, strong-minded yet beautiful Nielsen symphony.

Steven Osborne in Mozart
Mozart’s piano concerto no 12 is one of the first group of three that he wrote for his own very successful subscription concerts after he moved to Vienna from Salzburg. Conductor Carlos Kalmar didn’t reduce the size of the string sections to the extent than has become common for music of the ‘Classical’ period. Instead, he concentrated on a warm, quite opulent sound that the modest-sized orchestra produced, while Steven Osborne’s piano offered quite a contrast with crisp, semi-detached playing that was nevertheless in perfect accord with the orchestra. His articulation was varied and subtle, and that modesty characterised the not especially bravura cadenza. The Andante, second movement, though at a walking pace, gave off a restful air. Here, as with the first movement, the orchestral part is very much simply a polite accompaniment, and though there’s quite an extended solo episode, it wasn’t the occasion for anything flashy.

The unostentatious character of the concerto ran through the Finale too; again, little work for the winds: just oboes and horns. Though Mozart also scored optionally for bassoons, none were audible (I couldn’t see).

This performance of this very charming concerto was, along with the other three very significant pieces, the reason for being dispirited about the size of the audience. It also prompts a comment about the failure of the NZSO to make better use of their soloists, especially ones as distinguished as Steven Osborne, in solo and other recitals in Wellington and other parts of the country. A few decades ago it was normal; now, with declining audiences for good music and their increasing unfamiliarity with what one could formerly consider standard, popular repertoire, it strikes me as even more important for concert promoters to exploit every means to get people through the doors. For many people, even one unfamiliar or New Zealand piece is a turn-off.

I would love a subscription series to be devoted to Mozart’s piano concertos, with particular attention to these earlier Viennese ones, before the much more played ones from No 20 in D minor. But does the poor audience tell us something about the general level of cultural awareness? I think it does.

Golijov and the culture of the tango
Osvaldo Golijov was born in Argentina to Romanian-Jewish parents and has quite suddenly put contemporary Latin American music on the map. Many will remember the impact made at the 2014 festival by a semi-staged performance of his opera Ainadamar (the place where Federico García Lorca was killed by Franco’s Falangist assassins in 1936).

Last Round was inspired by the sudden death in 1992 of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla and refers also to notable Argentinian singer and composer Carlos Gardel, the most important main-stream tango musician.  We were fortunate in having this performance from the hands of a particularly vigorous and inspiring conductor whose background lends a special insight into the spirit of the music; and the orchestra responded with great enthusiasm.

Last Round is tango in character though obviously unorthodox. Symbolic conflict dominates the first movement, Movido, urgente, between the divided strings: violins, violas and cellos, half on each side with double basses in the centre, behind. The tango rhythm remains steady for long periods before accelerating and becoming agitated or violent, with characteristic sudden screeching glissandi – very bandoneon. Without an actual pause, the pulsing first movement rhythms subside and the tragic spirit of the second movement, Deaths of the Angel emerges, much slower and exhibiting less overt tango in rhythm and articulation. In the words of the programme note, the tango flavour returns as Golijov “yearningly quotes the refrain from Carlos Gomes’ ‘My beloved Buenos Aires’”.

This is no forbidding, intellectually pretentious avant-garde music: it seems to summarise aspects of contemporary music, through an Argentinian lens that injects a powerful emotional spirit in a perfectly coherent accent, perfectly accessible yet of our age.

Nielsen No 4
Nielsen is a symphonist who is in many ways the equal of Sibelius, and not just through being born in the same year and coming from the broad Scandinavian region; his six symphonies are so different in character both from any other symphonist and from each other that they are difficult to characterise. I would like to think that an enterprising Wellington orchestra might perform all six in the course of a season, but I’d have my work cut out, looking at the size of the audience here.

The fourth, the Inextinguishable, is probably his best known: particularly dramatic, coloured by the First World War, calling up words like ‘violence’, ‘intensity’, ‘headlong energy’, ‘the indomitability of life itself’. The massive brass call to attention at the start might have set the scene, but there are extended passages of beautiful, calm music, such as we are suddenly presented with from the lovely woodwinds of the NZSO in the shorter second movement and in the pensive, beautiful third movement. In all the quicksilver variety of emotion and musical character Carlos Kalmar led the orchestra with energy and rigour, yet with a sense of freedom, giving rein to all Nielsen’s detailed and instrumentally vivid orchestration.

If I had to choose, it would be the Nielsen that I found the most richly satisfying in the concert, and that’s from a field of four very successful, strongly contrasted works each of which was performed with mastery and conviction and should have pulled in all but deeply prejudiced, half-hearted concert goers.