Third of NZSO’s Shed series delivers some hits, some misses, and a couple of real successes

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: Shed Series, Concert III
Conductor: Hamish McKeich

Piazzolla: Sinfonietta
Eve de Castro-Robinson: Cyprian’s Dance
Mozart: Symphony No 32 in G, K 318
Piazzolla: Histoire du tango  – III Nightclub 1960
Bach/Webern: A Musical Offering – Ricercare
Webern: Symphony, Op 21
John Adams: Chamber Symphony

Shed 6, Wellington Waterfront

Friday 9 August 7:30 pm

The NZSO’s Shed series is one of the orchestra’s gestures that seeks to attract new audiences. You stay out of conventional venues, you avoid any of the trappings of a forbidding classical music concert which finds the entire audience in white tie and tails and ball gowns; there are no rows of comfortable seats. Instead, just a few dozen seats with backs, a lot of padded benches scattered around, high bar tables with a few stools round them and lots of room on the floor on which to sprawl comfortably. At the last concert, 15 minutes before curtain rise, I was lucky to find a last seat against a wall. This time I was uncommonly early and so, comfortably seated.

The emulation of a rock concert involved no printed programme. We have evidently reverted to the age of oral as distinct from literate culture. A couple of friends expressed puzzlement to one of the roving ‘ushers’ at the neglect of the art of reading, and had a pleasant, smiling response. However, there are a few notes on the concert on the NZSO website which computer-literate audience members would have accessed.

Another of the friendly touches was a scattering of musicians at their desks (yes they were allowed the scores), playing their way round tricky passages; but I saw no audience members chatting to them.

While I’m at it, I could say I was surprised to find bar charges about 25% higher than in the MFC: perhaps they’d misread the nature of the concert, expecting a well-heeled audience in a wharf shed?

Fortunately, Hamish McKeich is the ideal conductor/compere: congenial, light-spirited, casual and mildly droll. However, I wondered if his remarks about composers and the pieces revealed a depth of knowledge that might have discomforted or offended the more narrowly focused rock-concert addict. His introducing the music and its composers was admirably clear and offered sufficient information, generally placing it in its historical context.

Piazzolla made a good opener for a concert like this.
It was a relief to be offered something other than the much played Four Seasons of Buenos Aires; his less familiar Sinfonietta successfully straddled the intellectual character of good classical music and the essence, refined, of its tango origins. It’s in three movements: 1. Dramatico. Allegro marcato, un poco pesante; 2. Sobrio. Andantino – Poco più mosso – Tempo I; 3. Jubiloso. Vivace).

The piano began by repeating a six-note phrase, then low strings and xylophone join, uttering staccato gestures in sombre mood. The second movement adopts an even more subdued feeling, at a similar pace, seeming to subtly disguise its tango roots, so unassertive were its sounds. The third movement finally takes off as a more recognisable, energetic and sophisticated tango. If Piazzolla’s purpose was to assert his legitimacy in the classical mainstream, recognising that Western music has absorbed the ambient music of its environment throughout its history, he succeeded here.  There was a satisfying feeling of genuine invention and formal mastery of the broad classical tradition, successfully integrated with a prevailing tango flavour. The result combined clarity with colourful orchestration.

Eve de Castro-Robinson’s Cyprian’s Dance was accompanied by a change in the lighting to an unusual rose, playing against interesting wall patterns. Hints of a tango rhythm suggested themselves to me; but the prevailing tone was of high register strings, long glissandi, a disturbed feeling of a brittle, highly-strung creation. There was also a fleeting Mozart quotation from Eine kleine Nachtmusik whose connection with its surroundings escaped me. The piece rather lacked warmth and lyricism, and its reception was luke-warm.

Mozart’s Symphony No 32 is a bit of an oddity: only about eight minutes long, in three unelaborated movements. The early pages were typically and charming Mozartian, setting off as if it would become a conventional symphonic work, by means of repetition, development and the introduction of contrasting themes. But each movement ended too soon, rather leaving one hanging, expecting more. It could probably have been managed in a way that made its abbreviated length sound deliberate, but it just seemed incomplete; I didn’t feel that the orchestra’s heart was in it.

Piazzolla: Histoire du tango
It was followed, unprogrammed, by the Nightclub 1960 movement of Piazzolla’s four-part Histoire du tango, this time arranged for flute and xylophone; one of his most familiar pieces and so a touchstone that eased the return to our own age.

Webern appeals to rather small number of ordinary classical listeners; programming it here was obviously with the hope that a less ‘prejudiced’, young and uncommitted audience would be more open-minded, may have been a good try. Perhaps it was felt that linking Webern with a piece by Bach, even a relatively unfamiliar piece like the Ricercare from A Musical Offering might break the ice and perhaps its character was a little less dense and impenetrable than Webern’s not well-known Symphony that followed.

The Symphony is scored for two violins, viola, and cello, and clarinet, bass clarinet, two horns, harp. But accepting that where I was seated didn’t allow a well-balanced aural picture, it was probably unreasonable to expect a successful performance in this environment.  I was left with the feeling that it needed a more seriously lyrical approach, to tease out its improbable beauties. I’ve certainly heard it so played on recordings.

The choice of John Adams’s Chamber Symphony was more successful; Though it may well have been chosen because it was for a smaller ‘chamber’ orchestra for four strings, a dozen winds, piano and percussion, it, along with Piazzolla’s Sinfonietta, was the most immediately accessible (and therefore successful) work of the evening (apart naturally, for the Mozart). The orchestration is certainly unorthodox but not the least alienating. It’s in three movements; multitudinous, eclectic (just look at the names Adams gives its movements – “Mongrel Airs”; “Aria with Walking Bass” and “Roadrunner”) with moderately avant-garde elements. Some of rthe sounds in its first movement reminded me of Stravinsky in L’histoire du soldat.

Adams wrote that it’s partly influenced by Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony (1907, long before his twelve tone era), but also by his young son watching old cartoons. Adams writes: “Sam was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the ’50’s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores for the cartoons mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic and not a little aggressive”.

So the pulsating, exciting third movement was a splendid way to end the concert. Probably as a result of the seating (everyone’s aural experience would have been different because the audience was spread around three, perhaps four, sides of the orchestra), the sound was less than ideal, not balanced properly; it would be good to hear it in a conventional auditorium.

Is this the way forward?
While the orchestra’s aims are admirable, the performances first rate, and there was a reasonable, though by no means capacity audience of more young people that are found at the normal concerts, I’m not sure about the whole package. Is the creation of some sort of pseudo-rock concert environment, aping an utterly different musical genre, the way to attract new audiences to the music that is at the heart of the symphony orchestral world? After all, most of this music is far from central to the huge body of wonderful music that has stood the test of time for up to half a millennium (at least).

A traditional venue such as the Town Hall, where seating was on a flat floor, flexible, and with the orchestra at that level, might be a better venue: a half-way house between the genres. My mind goes back to the much lamented ‘Promenade Concerts’ that flourished in the 1950s: informal, relaxed, where the audience sat and lay on rugs and cushions on the floor and there was food and drinks available inside the stalls, at the back. The music was not like this of course, but it did was music that was accessible and beautiful and it did attract hundreds of young people like me, getting to know great music that helped form criteria that cultivated taste and the ability to distinguish the good from the rubbish. Another reason for longing for some faster action on the Town Hall.

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