Concerted and ensembled efforts from NZSM string players give pleasure at St.Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
The New Zealand School of Music STRING ENSEMBLE

Music by Haydn, Kimber and Bartok

Rebecca Warnes (‘cello)
JOSEF HAYDN – ‘Cello Concerto in C Major (Ist.Mvt. – Moderato)

Ellen Murfitt (violin)
JOSEF HAYDN – Violin Concerto in G Major (2nd Mvt. – Adagio)

Henry Burton-Wood (violin)
JOSEF HAYDN – Violin Concerto in G Major (3rd Mvt. – Allegro)

Debbie King (viola)
MICHAEL KIMBER – Variations on a Polish Folk-Song (abridged version)

BELA BARTOK – Divertimento for String Orchestra  Sz 113 BB.118
Allegro non troppo / Molto Adagio / Allegro assai

New Zealand School of Music String Players
Martin Riseley (conductor)

Wednesday September 25th 2019

What a heartwarming occasion this was, counteracting the bitter chill of the wind outside, making nonsense of what appeared to be a sunny day. Josef Haydn’s music was just the job to lighten the spirits, and we were lucky enough to get a kind of “made-up” concerto for violin and cello, freshly discovered (!)and performed forthwith for our pleasure by various students from the New Zealand School of Music!

No happier beginning to a concerto exists than the first movement of Haydn’s C Major ‘Cello Concerto, and conductor Martin Riseley encouraged his players to plunge into the notes energetically and emerge smiling, then launch the ascending lines of the second subject with plenty of air beneath the notes! Soloist Rebecca Warnes, having contributed to the opening tutti and “played herself in”, fearlessly dived into the music with similar élan, her command of the music’s shape and emphasis compelling, allowing the notes to sing in places where a vocal line was called for, and attacking the more demanding passages with plenty of energy – an occasional phrase I wanted her to “expand” just a bit more, as if expressing just as much enjoyment as determination; but such things evolve with and from within performers, and she showed plenty of identification with the composer’s irrepressible and adventurous spirit.

The composer remained, but player, instrument, concerto and key-signature were changed in a trice for the second movement! This was the adagio from Haydn’s G Major violin concerto, played with generously-wrought tones by Ellen Murfitt, her singing line warmed by the merest touch of vibrato, the intensity seeming to leave little room for light and shade at first, which did come with the second, minor-key section of the music. An assuredly-delivered cadenza finished with what I though a slightly awkward “taking up” of the music by the ensemble, but the accompanying was otherwise easeful and atmospheric. A change of soloist again, and the music danced onwards, the new player, Henry Burton-Wood, joining in with the opening tutti, before carrying the splendidly vigorous energies of the work forward, his instrument producing a bright, silvery tone, the higher passages a particularly engaging feature of his playing.

A new name to me was that of Michael Kimber, an American viola-player and composer, currently based as a teacher at Iowa City’s Coe College, and with an impressive list of compositions for both viola and violin to his credit. We heard a work “Variations on a Polish Song” for viola and ensemble , here played in what the programme called a “shortened version”.The viola soloist, Debbie King, brought the music into being with characteristically soulful tones, an expressive, out-of-doors sound, in keeping with the “folk song” aspect, the orchestra stealing in over a viola phrase, and accompanying the melody’s repeat.

The work allowed the soloist ample opportunity for both display and expression of feeling, moving between double-stopping sequences for the viola against intense accompaniments, followed by dance-like variations, firstly graceful and ritual-like, then catchy, more vigorous Polonaise-like.moments, and leavening these energies with more inward expressions of feeling. The music was rounded off with such a moment, the ensemble reintroducing the theme, before a brief flourish from the viola concluded a pleasing and well-supported solo performance.

The students then tackled one of the string orchestra repertoire’s most challenging pieces, Bela Bartok’s Divertimento, written in the shadow of the oncoming Second World War, and the last work the composer would write before leaving his native Hungary for good. In three movements, the piece opened with a folk-like theme, here presented strongly and purposefully, bringing out the writing’s acerbic qualities along with a sense of the dance – the solo strings sequences provided an engaging contrast (lovely solo viola phrases), before the opening theme returned building the intensities into exchanges which seemed to  “play” with the material – Martin Rieseley and the students eased their way through the music’s often disconcerting changes of trajectory and mood, returning with a sense of having “been somewhere” to the music’s gentle, rueful conclusion.

The work’s Molto adagio second movement evoked winter chills and sombre thoughts, the atmosphere cold and dark – violins and violas exchanged characteristic intensitites, the former piercing and intense, the latter dark-browed and purposeful. The playing brought out the music’s confrontational anxieties and questionings, the buildup of sounds amazing in their focused intensities, the ensemble bluntly “shutting down” any solo instrumental attempt to lighten the mood, and further deepening the despair with an eerie Shostakovich-like sequence.  Almost out of nowhere came a forthright, bitter-sweet folk-like utterance, one which “rescued” our forsaken sensibilities and guided us gently towards the music’s rather “spooked” conclusion – all very involving!

At first we seemed to be plunged back into conflict by the finale’s beginning, but the players suddenly kicked up the music’s allegro assai heels in the manner of a lively dance, the first violin leading the way, and the rest of the orchestra following, in ripieno style. This was all tremendous-sounding fun! – Riseley marshalled his players’ tones, producing an impressive unison, which was then “morphed”  into a fugal passage, inverting the theme along the way! A lovely violin solo led to a motoric rhythm with the dance theme inverted, swarms of angry bees dive-bombing the dancers! The cellos came to the rescue, dancing the music off in a different direction, and taking evasive action against the bee-swarms, intent on causing confusion and chaos! The players then began a most charmingly tip-toe pizzicati version of the dance which left the bees angrily buzzing, the dancers frenetically throwing themselves every which way, the lower strings shrugging their shoulders at the goings-on and the music signing off with an upward flourish!

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