Enthusiastic reception by big audience for Orchestra Wellington’s final 2019 concert of remarkable but unfamiliar music

Orchestra Wellington, conducted by Marc Taddei

Tristan Dingemans, Neil Phillips, Constantine Karlis, and Rob Thorne (orchestrated by Thomas Goss): Ko Tō Manawa, Ko Tōku: Purita. Your Hears is My Heart: Take Hold
Samuel Barber: Piano Concerto (Michael Houstoun – piano)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8  

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 30 November, 7:30 pm

This was the last of this year’s subscription concerts by Orchestra Wellington. The Michael Fowler Centre was filled almost to capacity, despite the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra playing another concert at the same time in Shed 6. Orchestra Wellington played a difficult programme, made no concession to popular taste, yet it had the largest audience of any orchestra in New Zealand. There is something remarkable about this. I believe the secret of the success of the orchestra is relationship, the relationship the conductor, Mark Taddei, has with the orchestra and with the audience. The good prices for season tickets helps, but essentially this is Mark Taddei’s orchestra and players and musicians trust his judgement. Other ensembles can learn from this.

Dingemans, Phillips, Karlis and Thorne: Ko Tō Manawa, Ko Tōku: Purita. Your Hears is My Heart: Take Hold
The names of these composers might not have been familiar to some in the audience. They were all part of a group of rock musicians who made award-winning recordings in the early 2000s. Rob Thorne, in his programme notes, said that working with Tristan, the guitar player, he was excited by the simplicity, beauty and power of the words of ‘Hold On’ and by the idea of introducing a whole audience of music lovers to a synergistic musical realm, using taonga puoro, early Maori musical instruments, for initial experiences of journeying through music. The arrangement by Thomas Goss of the collaborative work uses a range of Maori wind instruments and electric guitar with a large symphony orchestra including an expanded percussion section.

The work starts with very soft whistling sounds produced by Rob Thorne on the taonga puoro instruments and gradually the orchestra joins in, the music expands, the loud percussion emphasizes the rhythmic elements and the piece, and the music, come to an overwhelming climax reminiscent of great Shostakovich climaxes, foreshadowing the rest of the programme. The guitar, which in a rock music context is loud and dominant was somehow overshadowed by the symphony orchestra, but this was an exciting piece of music and the large audience appeared to have been stimulated by it and enjoyed it. Rob Thorne, the composer, wrote that every performance is a highly concentrated conversation between past and present, identity and connection.

Barber: Piano Concerto
This is a major work, a substantial concerto, yet somehow it is seldom heard. Samuel Barber was on the fringe of the twentieth century musical trends. He was a thorough craftsman, yet only a few of his works stood the test of time, though to the credit of Orchestra Wellington his cello and his violin concertos were both featured during this season. The piano concerto is a challenging virtuoso piece. It starts with a long piano solo which introduces the three themes. These are taken up by the flute and then the orchestra in a lush, tuneful, romantic passage. The second movement is in contrast to the stormy first movement serene with gentle dialogue between piano and orchestra. The Finale returns to the turbulent mood of the first movement.

The concerto dates from 1962. It was the era of Boulez, Messiaen, Ligeti, Elliott Carter, late Stravinsky, Xenakis, and indeed, Shostakovich, but listening to Barber’s concerto with its scintillating piano passages and lush romantic orchestral responses you would hardly know this. Although this concerto won a Pulitzer Prize for Barber and was well received in its time, it has largely dropped out of the repertoire. Michael Houstoun, the thoroughly professional pianist that he is, was prepared learn this difficult work for possibly a single performance. He played with total control and assurance. The audience appreciated his always reliable artistry with warm applause and was rewarded with an encore, the lovely, charming Prokofiev Prelude in C (the Harp).

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8
This symphony takes over an hour. It is a deeply moving work, written in the middle of the war and was first performed in 1943, a year after Shostakovich’s Seventh, the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony.

But whereas the earlier work is one of Shostakovich’s most often played symphonies, No. 8 languished for many years, and was virtually suppressed in the Soviet Union. It is a very demanding work for players and listeners alike. It is gloomy, melancholic, with little to lift the spirit. Yet it is beautiful, haunting music from beginning to end. Shostakovich considered that his triumphant Seventh Symphony, and his mournful Eighth, to be his Requiem. Shostakovich’s use of the orchestra is unlike anyone else’s.

The symphony opens with a long passage for strings, much of it dominated by the basses and cellos, while the rest of the orchestra is silent, then out of the long sombre string introduction the rest of the instruments join in. There are wonderful solo passages for the oboe, the flutes, unusually, long solos for the piccolo, the horns and the trombones with the tuba. It is like a gigantic chamber music ensemble with dialogues among sections of the orchestra. The first movement takes over half hour and is longer than the other movements together. There is ’emptiness in the pain’, ‘screams in the desert’. This gigantic first movement is followed by two scherzos, a danse macabre, and a short sarcastic section. The fourth movement is a dark Largo leading to the finale of hope of sorts, but not the celebration of Soviet victory that people expected after the Stalingrad victory.

Tragedy was the background to the symphony. Shostakovich’s student, Veniamin Fleishman died in the battle for Leningrad. Shostakovich also became aware of the fate of Jews in the German occupied parts of the country, while huge numbers of people were killed in the Battle of Stalingrad. All this is reflected in this symphony, which reached a whirlwind climax with six percussionists hammering at their instruments with full force. The symphony ends with a sombre quiet Adagio and for special, but appropriate effect, the lights were gradually dimmed until the podium was in complete darkness, a chance for a few moments of reflection.

This epic symphony will stand out as a memorable landmark in the orchestra’s performances.

Mark Taddei gave a brief preview of next year’s season, titled “The great Romantic” and will feature Rachmaninov’s three symphonies and his major orchestral works. He also gave the audience credit for its strong support for often difficult, challenging programmes.

Nothing showed the orchestra’s involvement in the community more than the opportunity it gave to Virtuoso Strings, a student community orchestra from Porirua to perform in the foyer of the Michael Fowler Centre before the concert and then attend the concert, a real experience for these young musicians.


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