Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

NZSM Concerto Competition – an evening of elegance, frisson and feeling

By , 30/07/2020

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Concerto Competition 2020 – Final

Finalists

Lucas Baker (violin) – BARBER: Violin Concerto
Isabella Gregory (flute) – REINECKE: Flute Concerto in D Major, Op.283
Otis Prescott-Mason (piano) – SAINT-SAENS – Piano Concerto No.2

Collaborative Pianist: David Barnard
Adjudicators: Catherine Gibson (CMNZ)
Vincent Hardaker (APO)

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus
Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday, 30th July 2020

This year’s final of the NZSM Concerto Competition provided something of a musical feast, even if one of the concertos performed (Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto) was presented with a somewhat truncated finale, for whatever reason. With three promising and extremely accomplished performers playing their respective hearts out (and admirably supported by the efforts of collaborative pianist David Barnard, whose playing of the orchestral part of the Samuel Barber Concerto was a treat in itself to experience), it made for an absorbing listening experience, one to rate at least equally with the actual result of the contest, at least for this listener, with no “affiliations” connected with the outcome!

First up was violinist Lucas Baker, whose chosen work (Samuel Barber’s beautiful Violin Concerto) brought out the young player’s seemingly instinctive feel for the “shape” of the composer’s largely rhapsodic phrases and larger paragraphs – throughout, I was convinced by Baker’s heartfelt approach to both the work’s lyrical and more heroic sequences, his instantly characterful tones enabling us to quickly enter the “world” of the music, despite some untidiness of rhythm and intonation in some of the transitions. The player then confidently attacked the angularities of the second movement, and nicely brought out the fervour of the lyrical writing and the silveriness of the contrasting stratospheric section, concluding with beautifully withdrawn tones at the movement’s end.

The finale’s technical difficulties were also most excitingly squared up to by Baker, his fingers flying over his instrument’s fingerboard to exhilarating effect, with his pianist an equally committed and involved participant in the composer’s vortices of note-spinning – the spills were as exciting and involving as the thrills, both players capturing the devil-may-care spirit which abounds throughout this final movement. Whatever niceties of detail were smudged or approximated, Baker readily conveyed to us an engaging sense of “knowing how it should go”, which carried the day as a performance.

No greater contrast could have been afforded by both the player to next appear and the work chosen! – this was flutist Isabella Gregory, and the work Carl Reinecke’s D Major Flute Concerto, written (somewhat surprisingly, I thought, upon hearing the piece) in 1908, the composer hardly deviating from his early enthusiasms for the music of Mendelssohn and Schumann. In effect, the work is that rarity, a romantic flute concerto – here, it was given a sparklingly lyrical performance by its gifted performer, obviously in complete command of both the piece’s overall shape, and the mellifluous detailings that gave the music such a unique character – complete with a surprisingly abrupt conclusion to the first movement! The sombre nature of the second movement’s opening accompaniment contrasted with the solo instrument’s more carefree manner, played here by Gregory as a somewhat easy-going accomplice to rather more stealthy mischief-making, though I found the Moderato finale a wee bit under-characterised – I thought the rhythms could have a bit more “kick” in places, though this was something which the more energetic concluding sequence in due course suitably enlivened, the virtuosity of the soloist making a breathlessly exciting impression to finish! Altogether, a delightful and suitably brilliant performance!

The evening’s final contestant was pianist Otis Prescott-Mason, who had chosen Saint-Saens’s wonderful Second Piano Concerto – a work whose character I recall once described as “beginning like Bach and ending like Offenbach”! Throughout the first movement I found myself riveted by the young musician’s spell-binding command of the music’s ebb-and-flow, the “spontaneous” element of the opening improvisation as finely-judged as I had ever heard it played, Prescott-Mason truly “making the music his own” and working hand-in-glove with his collaborator to create the sense of Baroque-like splendour that informs the music – what I particularly liked was the spaciousness of it all, allied to the clear direction of the underlying pulse of the music, to the point where the sounds had an inevitability of utterance which perfectly fused freedom and structure, Saint-Saens at his most potent as a creator. What a pity, then that such poised, and finely-tuned focus seemed to me to be then somewhat impatiently cast aside, the second movement’s playfulness over-rushed and the rhythmic deliciousness and delicacy of it all to my ears duly lost – Saint-Saens’s humour is always po-faced and elegant, and the playing in this movement I thought unfortunately failed to realise that “insouciance” which keeps the music’s character intact. I then hoped that the whirlwind brilliance of the finale might have restored some of the impression created by the pianist in that superbly-crafted first movement – but the work was unexpectedly and severely shortened, allowing little opportunity for a “renaissance” of identification with the music’s world on the young player’s part.

All in all, the result of the competition very justly, I thought accorded the laurels to flutist Isabella Gregory, whose performance indicated an impressive totality of identification with the music she played, as regards both execution and interpretation. Both her rivals, Lucas Baker and Otis Prescott-Mason, I thought, turned out most engaging performances of their pieces, without quite rivalling the winner’s consistency and strength of purpose. But what things all three achieved in their different ways!  And how richly and gratefully we all relished their talent and musicality in entertaining us us so royally during the evening!

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