Innovative, adventurous, AND intensely musical!! – “Pictures” with Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei

Orchestra Wellington presents:

Music by Debussy, Barber, Alex Taylor, Musorgsky

CLAUDE DEBUSSY – L’Isle Joyeuse (orchestrated Bernardino Molinari)
SAMUEL BARBER – Concerto for ‘Cello and Orchestra 1945
ALEX TAYLOR- Assemblage (robotic incarnation by Simon Ingram)
MODEST MUSORGSKY – Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated Maurice Ravel)

(Images accompanying Musorgsky’s “Pictures” courtesy of Tony Mackle
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

Lev Sivkov (‘cello)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, 2nd August 2019

Such a cornucopia of sound, image and incident, with projected images and robotic contraptions playing an integral part in the proceedings! One certainly sensed that something out of the ordinary was being enacted here in the Michael Fowler Centre, although it must be said that, right from the very beginning, in the foyers outside the auditorium was that familiar “buzz” of expectation which we’ve come to expect accompanying Orchestra Wellington concerts – and then, inside, was the overwhelming impression of a full-to-bursting hall of people instantly making for a kind of frisson of anticipation entirely its own. What a tribute to the work of the orchestra, along with its conductor and management over recent times!

True to form, there was even an unchartered surprise in store for us throughout the evening, conductor Marc Taddei at one point enjoining his enthralled audience to assist in the making of a “virtual reality” cyber-game which involved a player conducting an orchestra, and, in response to this receiving appropriately adulatory, lukewarm or downright derisive audience reactions to her/his efforts. What fun we all had, prompted by Taddei, simulating by turns a few seconds of each of these responses, all duly recorded!

All of it certainly added up to a distinctively “different” evening with an orchestra – and if some of the more experimental happenings were received with as much bemusement and bewilderment as appreciation, it was all part of the experience. Some of these “experiments” I do admit I found it difficult to respond to without sounding impossibly fogey-ish, but, buoyed along by the spirit of adventure and enterprise that marked the whole, I thought it important to set down a reaction as a mark of respect for people’s efforts, if nothing else. I should say, before going on, that musically, I found the evening an enthralling experience – even the Samuel Barber concerto on this occasion, which has in the past never done much for me.

The concert began with Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse though here, of course, in a version orchestrated by the composer’s friend the Italian conductor Bernardino Molinari. The latter used a large orchestra, a measure of the power of Debussy’s original solo piano evocation, which was inspired directly by a painting by the eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau, L’embarquement pour Cythère (The departure for Cythère), depicting a group of revellers leaving for the island associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. It was around this time that Debussy was “escaping” with his lover, Emma Bardac, to the island of Jersey, hence the music’s sensuality and excitement. We were shown Watteau’s painting on a screen above the orchestra during the performance, the image perhaps needing one of those gradually “closing in” views during the music for some of the central detail to involve us more immediately – but nevertheless, a nice idea.

Beginning with lovely, engagingly throaty wind-gurglings, everything delicately energised and transparently coloured, the music danced its way along, the orchestral timbres allowing a more obviously visceral element to the music, but keeping to the fore a constantly-turning, kaleidoscopic quality, the winds nimble and atmospheric, and the brass magically sonorous. The strings took full advantage of their thematic moments of romantic warmth, the whole gradually building up the excitement with surging “La Mer-ish” moments, then bursting forth with a full panoply of orchestral splendour!

After this, Samuel Barber’s “Cello Concerto seemed at first like dried biscuit following a sumptuous dessert, until one got use to the composer’s almost self-consciously fragmented manner in dealing with his themes, the first movement of the work mercilessly “worrying” its material for much of the time. I did think, though, that the playing of Lev Sivkov, the soloist was most impressive. The slow movement, however, converted me to the cause more than anything, a kind of measured Sicilienne, featuring beautiful work from the soloist and woodwind players alike, the oboe singing with the solo ‘cello in a dance-like processional, with all the winds distinguishing themselves in gorgeous outpourings, becoming increasingly fraught with emotion as the music proceeded – deeply moving in effect!

The finale’s full orchestral opening approached a “cry of pain” in effect, though the music quickly moved into gear, crackling with angular energies, Sivkov bringing off a number of fiendish-looking runs the length of the fingerboard, the orchestra by turns muttering and “shouting” the main theme insistently. A seesawing orchestral ostinato built up intensity like an approaching juggernaut, before allowing the ‘cello a little declamatory space, though there was no let-up in the orchestra’s determinedly-renewed onslaught, save for an impassioned solo from the ‘cello that did seem to gain some ambient empathy. A quirky triplet rhythm, another impassioned solo, and orchestra and cellist swiftly dealt the music its coup de grace-like final gesture!

Alex Taylor’s piece Assemblage came inextricably linked with visual artist Simon Ingram’s “autonomous painting robot”, its various manifestations mightily intriguing all and sundry! I wasn’t quite prepared for the “austerity”, let alone the somewhat static nature of the visual result, as the machine took its time to produce single lines, curves, arcs, in tandem with the musical composition. In this particular case the actual relationship between visual artist and composer, machine and music, was, as Alex Taylor explained in his SOUNZ interview, not dissimilar to any of the pictures/music relationship in the Musorgsky work, except that the “source material” for the composer (the machine and its visual creation) was , as he put it “alive, and an active part of the piece”.

As a listener/observer, one had to accept that the experience was “what it was” in terms of having to take in (a) the robot’s workings, (b) the picture that was being crafted by the machine as prompted by its operator, and (c) the music. It was all too much for this “bear of little brain” at a first encounter, my instincts (as with the Musorgsky work that followed, which was “inundated” with visual images) being to focus my attentions towards the music, though the distractions in this case produced more of a bewildered response than anything else, rather like the sailor in AA Milne’s poem from “Now We Are Six” who “never could think which he ought to do first”.

As for the music, orchestral sounds mingling with amplified robotic workings, the result was nothing if not inventive, beginning with low, sinister Fafner-like growls (I had not long ago listened to Wagner’s “Siegfried!), then suggesting some kind of inter-planetary lift-off, coinciding with the robot’s workings and its resulting arc-like markings being shown, enlarged, on the screen. We heard a series of excitable crescendi with differently-scored scintillations punctuating the flow, the effect at times filmic and transcending the robotic workings in terms of imagery suggested, while in other places generating toccata-like frenzies of motoric excitement.

After subsequently gathering its energies for a “birth-pangs” series of mighty efforts, and dragging something from the pupa – with the strings supporting a nobly heroic theme on the brass,  the music triumphantly reached a kind of “breaking free” threshold, suggesting open spaces and wide-eyed wonderment at some kind of journey’s end, the robot’s peregrinations having produced an angular assemblage of circles, as enigmatic as the machine’s actual workings!

Our “virtual reality audience” collaborations having then been mooted and satisfactorily executed, it was time for the evening’s culmination – a performance of Modest Musorgsky’s most famous undertaking, but one with a difference. In keeping with the evening’s focus upon music’s powers of “visualisation”, we were not only given French composer Maurice Ravel’s justly-celebrated orchestral transcription of Musorgsky’s original work for piano solo, but were shown a series of artworks from the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to accompany the music, images selected to “match the categories of castles, tombs, witches and unhatched chicks”, as the programme note put it.

I wanted this idea to work, as it seemed such an exciting and out-of-the-ordinary thing to do – but as soon as I got the accompanying insert containing what seemed to me to be a huge number of images, I felt misgivings – surely all of this was far too much to “load into” a piece of music whose original conception was of pieces written in response to just ONE single image for each? Straightaway, the idea of showing different images of “people walking about in a variety of contexts” to illustrate the composer’s originally unifying and binding intention seemed to me damagingly discursive and superficial. Where were these people all going, and for what purposes? What was the plan?

In effect, the exercise for me became more frustrating than fulfilling – I felt there were too many vaguely conceptualised images, with most in any case having detailings that were impossible to discern properly at that distance. Occasionally one popped up which was arresting, and whose impact stayed with me – an example was the Waharoa, or gateway, from the Te Papa collection,  something whose power and gravitas could have easily maintained its stunning impact right throughout the playing of the work’s final ”Great gate at Kiev”. The problem of detail could have also been better addressed by having “close-ups” (detail!) from the picture or image selected. Musorgsky would have expected audiences to “enter the world” of each of his specific musical images during their individual courses – no chance of that was possible, here, unless one shut one’s eyes, or focused primarily on the music.

Which was what I eventually did, and which course brought forth such riches! – for, irony of ironies, this performance by Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington was one of the finest, most focused, exquisitely-detailed and richly-characterised I’ve ever experienced. Here was beautifully deep and rich brass-playing, characterfully nimble and artfully-textured winds, string-sounds of every conceivable hue and colour, both rich and delicate, (the players’ eerie pianissimi in “With the dead in a dead language” simply unearthly!), and everything from the deepest and most sonorous percussion to the lightest and most delicate detail. Individual touches such as the saxophone in “the Old Castle” and the tuba in “Bydlo” were vividly projected, the players deserving their own special accolades at the performance’s end, as did, from a justly appreciative audience, the whole orchestra and its conductor!

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