Delightful, delicious, and declamatory – a “no-holds-barred” night with Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents:

CLAIRE SCHOLES – Cuba on Cuba (with the Arohanui Strings)
SAMUEL BARBER – Violin Concerto (Amalia Hall – violin)
AARON COPLAND – Symphony No. 3

Marc Taddei (conductor)
Arohanui Strings (Claire Scholes)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th October, 2019

Orchestra Wellington has earned a special niche for itself amid the welter of artistic activities supported by the capital, one that’s steadily developed over the years of Marc Taddei’s tenure as Music Director, and in recent times enjoyed obvious fruition in terms of its enthusiastic audience following. Its appeal is based on several factors, not the least of which is the unflagging wholeheartedness and enthusiasm of conductor Taddei for whatever he’s presently engaged in doing with his players, and the ensemble’s remarkable development in playing standards over the duration. As well, the organisation’s on-going policy of keeping its audiences guessing from year to year as to what’s next in store heightens the fun and excitement of it all, be it the announcement of an oncoming season’s programme or the orchestra’s always delightfully “sprung” collaboration with the youthful Arohanui Strings Ensemble (both of the latter taking place this evening!)

Regular attendees at OW concerts will be well familiarised with the work of this music-education/social development programme, which works with children who grow up in areas of economic deprivation in the Wellington/Hutt Valley area. Begun in 2010 by OW violinist Alison Eldredge, the group includes over 300 children per year in these areas, teaching them string instruments, singing and music notation. Tonight’s concert began with the more advanced students playing a work by Manawatu-born, Auckland-based composer Claire Scholes called Cuba on Cuba, one inspired by the “thriving party zone” atmosphere along Cuba St. in Wellington.

Scholes wanted her piece to be, as far as possible, “children-led”, her writing having the younger musicians presenting the piece’s main ideas, which in turn were taken up and developed by the adult musicians. Beginning with an attractively soulful and melancholic violin solo, the piece brought the dance energies in straight afterwards – aside from a slightly-too-prominent tin-can, the percussive noises brought out catchy, angular figurations  punctuated by occasional “Ooh!” and “Wow!” vocalisations from the players. A brass choir opened up the textures further, revealing a “bright, new country”, not unlike in spirit the vistas to be evoked by Aaron Copland’s music later in the programme., the “tin-can” rhythm joined by other instruments, building up the textures, working jazzy tattoos into the mix between percussion irruptions, and finishing in the time-honoured manner with suitably grand and satisfying gesturings, both music and playing generating a warm reception!

A piece called “Amadeus” followed, an arrangement of the first movement of Mozart’s 25th Symphony (the “little” G Minor!) with some of the writing’s angularities removed. Then the “big guns” were brought out (the youngest of the Arohanui Strings’ students), standing in a line across the front of the platform, to everybody’s great pleasure, and playing a couple of folk-song tunes as well as “What shall we do with a  Drunken Sailor” and the lovely “Hine e Hine”. The response was rapturous!

Came the second instalment of the evening’s packagings, this particular segment unwrapped by the musicians with the utmost delicacy and beauty of feeling. This was Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, a work written in 1939, and one whose history is of a complexity which the concert’s programme-note writer, Erica Challis obviously considered would be best left well alone! Barber wrote the work for a former classmate of his at the Curtis Institute, Iso Briselli, who responded favourably to the first two movements of the work, but not to the brilliant, but comparatively short finale which he considered somewhat insubstantial! Various other people, including Briselli’s own teacher, added their opinions, the teacher, Albert Meiff, even offering to rewrite parts of the work in consultation with the composer! Barber declined the offer and after various other comings-and-goings between him and Briselli (all to no avail, except that they actually remained friends throughout all of this!) gave the concerto to another violinist, Albert Spalding, who premiered the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in February 1941.

Unfortunately for Briselli, a version of the story involving his rejecting the concerto because the third movement was ”too difficult” for him to play gained currency at about this time and actually became the accepted “story” of events in most descriptions of the work’s genesis. It wasn’t until fifty years afterwards, when the violinist published correspondence between him and the composer, that the “correct” version of their interaction re the concerto was given its proper status – that it was the “character” of the final movement, and not its difficulty, which had led Briselli to reject the work.

So, leaving behind all the fuss, both preceding the first performance and its aftermath, how was the concerto and its performance as presented by Amalia Hall and Marc Taddei with Orchestra Wellington? – in a word, dazzling! Where the violinist had demonstrated both technical and intellectual strength and flexibility throughout the rigorously earthy Bartok Second Violin Concerto which she’d played earlier in the year with the Orchestra, here she responded as readily and wholeheartedly to the Barber work’s heart-on-sleeve nostalgia, romantic variation and (in the finale) fleet-fingered brilliance. Throughout, Hall treated her line with the greatest of sensitivity, a finely-wrought “voice” threading its tones through a beguiling orchestral tapestry, one which Marc Taddei and his players supported and abetted at every turn.

After a first movement whose performance surefootedly negotiated the music’s ebb and flow between sunlight and shadow, from the utmost tenderness to full-blooded expression of feeling, the sounds gently and beguilingly dissolving at the end into beguilingly pastoral ambiences, the slow movement brought into play equally veiled strings, golden horns and a plaintive oboe, the strings then further “brokering” the material between clarinet and horn before the soloist took up the line – at first tenderly, then more intensely, and further into  anguish, and a sequence shared with distant , muted trumpets that suggested some private grief.

But then, how sweetly Hall’s playing drew from this unpromising state of things a flow of such warmth as to disarm all woe, the music seeming to suddenly open a vein of nostalgia for golden days of yore, as if bidding them farewell – to youth, or perhaps to innocence – times that will possibly come again only in memory…….I thought Barber’s touch exemplary in its refusal to let the music wallow, instead remaining ready to remind all of us that everything under the sun comes and goes – the orchestral “shudders” that followed these outpourings were here as telling as the climactic moments had been.

As for the work’s finale, the subject of much comment and conjecture over the years stemming from the  non-engagement of the originally intended first performer of the work, violinist Iso Briselli, with the music, it was here a tour de force from all concerned, by turns a shimmering of elfin quicksilver and a veritable whirlwind of energy, brilliantly, and astoundingly played by Hall, the accompanying orchestral playing just as astonishing in its poise and knife-edged dexterity! At the end, the applause simply went on and on, all of us present exhilarated by the music’s energies and the soloist’s brilliance, ideally matched by that of conductor and players. What a work and what a performance!

Before the second half’s music was embarked upon, Marc Taddei annouced that next year’s Orchestra Wellington subscription season tickets were now available for purchasing, and, what was more, at their cheapest price, this being the benefit enjoyed by people willing to “take a chance” with the orchestra’s as yet unannounced programme of six concerts. The only clue Taddei would give us was that the composer was strongly identified with the Romantic era – naturally enough, this was enough to ignite all kinds of post-concert discussion, my friend and myself wavering between Liszt and Schumann as likely candidates! Only time will tell, of course!

Try as I might, I couldn’t raise quite the same unbridled enthusiasm at the end for the final work on the evening’s programme, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, despite what seemed utterly committed efforts on the part of Marc Taddei and his orchestral players. Somehow, I found parts of the work too bombastic and overtly rhetorical, as if in places the music’s purpose had somehow run dry and was left seemingly empty-sounding.

Better, more “felt” to my ears, were the work’s less declamatory, more pastoral moments, both rhythmic and lyrical, such as the beautifully “open” string melody at the work’s beginning, and the wind-choir coda to the first movement, the rest impressive, but in a way that seemed too ready to overstate. True, the quieter moments stood out in all-the-more sweeter relief to the grand gesturings, but I thought the latter here simply too much of a good thing.

Outdoor energies were the order throughout the second movement – rhythms turning into dance, and figurations quick and slower juxtaposing. The exuberances recalled Copland scores that I really loved – Appalachian Spring and Rodeo in particular – hence underlining my ongoing surprise at not responding more positively to the composer in this, his more symphonic mode. Still, I did enjoy the cheek-by-jowl contrasts in this movement , with the brass sounding their themes weightily and grandly, as the rest of the orchestra danced underneath and all around. And the “trio” section, with its contrapuntish winds, was particularly delightful!

The playing breathtakingly caught the third movement’s aching, almost spectral feeling at the third movement’s beginning, before winds and strings attempted stoically to energise one another, to try and return confidence and hope, and began to dance. Despite moments of enchantment and energy the strings seemed to suddenly lose heart, the energies dissipate, and the instrumental lines lose direction and drift upwards – the music seemed suddenly lost, beyond redemption.

Out of this suspended chaos sounded the “Fanfare” theme, steadily played by the winds, when suddenly to growls of approval from the basses, the brasses burst in, their theme punctuated by percussion outbursts – tremendous playing by all concerned, even if (to my ears) by this stage the grandiloquence of such gestures seemed already well “milked”! As the music drove mercilessly to its admittedly magnificent-sounding conclusion, there was no doubting the orchestra’s capacity for giving conductor Marc Taddei what he wanted at this or any point in the work – and aficionados of full-blooded, give-it-all-you’ve-got playing would have been in seventh heaven amid the splendours of the work’s final chord, less actual music, I thought, than a truly seismic event! A nineteenth-century American critic fond of writing in the vernacular, at the end of a review of a particularly tumultuous concert given by the first great American piano virtuoso, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, said it all – “I knowed no more that evening!”