“Passion” for once an apposite description of a stunning NZSO Concert with conductor Gemma New

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

Works by Robin Toan, Elgar and Tchaikovsky

TOAN – Tu-mata-uenga “God of War, Spirit of Man”
ELGAR – Concerto for ‘Cello and Orchestra in E Minor, Op. 85
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No 6 in B Minor, Op. 74  “Pathetique”

Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Live televised broadcast without an audience, due to Covid-19 restrictions
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, August 29th, 2020

In response to the “social distancing” restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has, since March 25th of this year been giving free premieres of online performances on a newly-employed “microsite” enabling supporters of the orchestra and lovers of music in general to view some of the concerts originally scheduled for 2020. To this end, the orchestra has made available for free viewing a mix of 2020 concerts and several notable past events previously captured on video.

As with initiatives and activities associated with on-line digital content in general, I confess to being something of a tentative user of the technology, and, as such, have been slow to “take up” the opportunities afforded by the orchestra’s recent activities in this area.  Curiosity, however, got the better of me on the occasion of the concert scheduled to be conducted by Gemma New, the New Zealand-born conductor who’s been making a name for herself overseas for the past few years. As I was originally scheduled to attend the event in situ, and review it for “Middle C”, I was thus left with the singular option of getting to grips with the technology and watching the concert streamed “live” on my computer/television. Relieved that the directions for setting this up weren’t exactly “rocket science”, I managed to actually make it work (a small step for man, etc…), and proceeded to thoroughly enjoy the concert!

Being a “veteran listener” to numerous RNZ Concert broadcasts of presentations by both Wellington orchestras over the years, I was anticipating the enjoyment of informed commentary from the announcer on this occasion, not so much in terms of the music, but regarding something of the history and personality of the New Zealand conductor Gemma New.  Though I found Clarissa Dunn’s generous speaking tones at the outset ambiently over-projected in relation to the orchestra’s sound (a volume adjustment did the trick), I thought her mid-concert interview with New (was it “live” or pre-recorded, I wonder?) splendidly informative, asking most of the questions I’d hoped she would ask, and establishing what sounded like a fruitful rapport of exchange.

We got from New something of her all-abiding enthusiasm for music-making, of her experiences as an orchestral violinist, of her early equating score-reading with a fondness for mathematics and its order and discipline, and of the steps of her career-path, from her first, youthful conducting experiences with the Christchurch Youth orchestra through to her current position as Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario, Canada, and her most recent appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. We learned something of her attitudes towards her craft as exemplified by people she’d encountered and come to admire in the conducting role – Simone Young, Andris Nelsons and Yannick Nézet-Séguin were names mentioned as exemplars for her. Her New Zealand roots remain very much in Karori, otherwise home is “where her suitcase is” for the moment – an apposite commentary on the nature of a top-flight performer’s existence, I would think! She opinioned that New Zealanders ought to be justly proud of their national orchestra, being able to cope so well and perform so amazingly under the present Covid-19 regime!

All of this was expressed mid-stream, of course, as far as we listeners were concerned, whatever the actualities – and it helped make for a truly absorbing amalgam of music-making and relevant commentary throughout the concert-time, beginning with a piece that New remembered as a player in the NZSO National Youth Orchestra in 2005, the premiere performance of Robin Toan’s “Tu-mata-uenga “God of War, Spirit of Man”, one which she apparently requested specifically to perform at this concert. I well remember the impact the piece made at its premiere, which I think I reviewed on “Upbeat” all those moons ago – on the strength of this present performance the music had lost none of its capacity to grip the listener’s attention and hold it fast throughout.

The thunderous opening, a portrait of the god himself, vividly recalled the characterisation I remember as a child when reading the AH&AW Reed retellings of the Maori Creation Story – that of Tu, “the warlike one”, whose response to the problem of his parents’ embrace giving their children no room to freely move about their mother’s earth-body was to suggest they be killed! The music ebbed and flowed with layered intensities, giving way at one point to a more spaciously-wrought ambience, albeit with the warlike spirit hovering over the scenario – and as the decision was made and agreed upon to separate the parents rather than kill them, the tensions broke out in full hearing once again.

It struck me while listening how much Toan’s music resembled Sibelius’s Tapiola in its maintaining of an unrelenting basic mood and how its constant reiteration of figures related to the overall characterisation of the piece’s subject, the war-god. It was interesting, too, that the composer took pains to emphasise in her title for the piece a kinship with mankind in Tu’s makeup, as if indicating a blueprint for ever-present conflict and strife in humanity, to this day. The piece’s climax, the cruel severing of the parents’ limbs by Tu, their separated bodies awash with blood, had an unrelenting quality that reminded me also of Holst’s climax to his Mars, the Bringer of War in The Planets, one that continued unabated to the end, vividly characterising the act of making a “new world to view” as something often brutal and destructive.

A different kind of a response to human savagery, even though never actually stated or portrayed in the music, informed the programme’s second piece, Elgar’s elegiac, and often grief-stricken “Cello Concerto, written during 1919, in both the wake of the catastrophic First World War, and the shadow of his wife Alice’s physical decline (she died the year after). The composer swore it would be his last work – “there is no inducement to finish anything”, he wrote to a friend later that same year; and though he lived on for another fourteen years, only sketches remained of the works that still occupied him. The music sums up both a life and an era, but continues to fascinate and captivate to this day, over a century onwards.

The work had been scheduled by the NZSO this year for a performance with German ‘cellist Johannes Moser, but the orchestra’s principal cellist, Andrew Joyce, was ideally equipped to “take over” the task, having played the work numerous times. Joyce’s opening recitative was an eloquently declamation rather than an assertive call to attention, musing his way into the music’s sobriety – not until the ‘cello made its first heartfelt ascent did an orchestral tutti give full tongue to the composer’s anguish. The winds’ wistfulness was lovely, as was the cellist’s long-breathed response, with the briefly, bravely-smiling second melody giving rise to further ebb-and-flow of emotion, New and the orchestra reiterating the material searchingly, sorrowfully, and hauntingly, the  soloist’s chilling vibrato-less reiteration of the main theme accompanied by ascending figures by winds and strings. A second desperate ‘cello ascent and an even more powerfully punched-home tutti left the timpani gloomily resonating and the ‘cello faltering as the movement’s main theme (which the composer said would be heard on the Malvern Hills long after he had departed) gradually took its leave.

Joyce gave the instrument’s gestures their due in the recitatives which followed, pizzicati followed by tremolandi, with a touch of bowed “sighing” to boot!  The winds finally sparked a committed response, the cello launching into the second movement’s running figure, the playing catching more and more of the music’s physical excitement, with the mood switching kaleidoscopically between humour and anxiety. The “real” business of the music returned with the Adagio third movement, its tragedy/tenderness ambivalence fully realised, with the great upward leaps having all the “hurt” one could imagine. Finally, the fourth movement’s gruff outbursts, fuelled at first by anger and frustration, were here dissolved movingly into sorrow, soloist and orchestra seeming to weep in turn in places, the emotion incredibly candid and properly “squared up to” in this performance – the beauty of the work’s final vision of happiness forever fled was movingly voiced, before the musicians between them abruptly consigned all such dreams to oblivion.

The interview with Gemma New came and went, and in what seemed to us no time at all we were back in front of the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s sixth and final symphony, the justly-renowned “Pathetique”. New had briefly characterised some of her thoughts regarding the work in the interview, equating the opening movement with a Russian winter’s darkness, and the second, 5/4 movement containing a lament on the composer’s part  over his mother’s death from cholera, to quote two instances. I’d thought the idea of such an emotionally driven approach to the work most stimulating, the opening paragraph of the first movement confirming this approach with its evocation of intense darkness, followed by an exquisitely-nuanced main theme, one whose repetition conveyed as much hurt as intense joy. The allegro outburst mid-movement had real “bite”, and built the tensions up to an impressive “wall of tumultuous sound” by the time passions had exhausted themselves, and the clarinets had expressed the big theme’s loneliness and resignation.

New drove the 5/4 waltz movement quickly and urgently, as if the extra beats were to be “shaken off” rather than allowed their long-breathed expansiveness – this, plus the “trio” section’s tense, anxious aspect gave the movement extraordinary vitality, as if the music was trying to actively “redeem” itself. Came the reprise, and there was, or there seemed, more breathing-space for the melody’s framework, more tenderness in the phrasing, and a sense of resignation, reinforced by the beautiful wind descents at the movement’s end.

In contrast, the March had plenty of swagger, along with its vitality and bustle, without being febrile and “possessed”, the triplet accompaniment sufficiently pronounced as to generate plenty of underlying drive, allowing the clarinet sufficient room in which to “point” its phrases. New generated a frisson of excitement around the build-up that grew out of the famous brass shouts and sudden silence, holding the intensities in check while allowing the excitement to gather, the great march statements kept steady, the whirling figurations arching like well-oiled windmill-blades, and making a more-than-usually powerful impression for that! After such an intense marshalling of forces the silence at the tumult’s end was deafening (and especially with no audience to be fooled into clapping too early!).

But it was the finale which set the seal on this performance through its maintaining of tension and focus – New got the strings to convey a most extraordinary sense of pain with their falling phrases, everything so beautifully layered and nuanced, the winds replying in kind with their counter-phrases, the second of these cleverly varied, so withdrawn and desolate-sounding. The major-key middle section of the movement developed incredible thrust, the brass adding their weight of emotion with desperately flailing phrases. From there onwards the phrases of all the instrument groups became more and more disconnected, leaving telling “spaces” between the utterances that seem to denote a soul who had “lost the way” – with desperation then taking hold and resulting in dissolution, the gong-stroke was allowed to really “speak” for once, and the ensuing silence recalled the darkness of the work’s opening, the trombones deathly angels, and the strings simply laden with grief! – like the Elgar work earlier in the programme, this was music that could and did, in places, weep! The depth of utterance found by the lower strings at the end left us in places where no light or life held sway.

One groans at the all-too-frequent use of words such as “passion” in publicity statements these days, one of a number of words that have become cliched and meaningless through over-use – however, on this occasion, the epithet did in fact convey what Gemma New and the NZSO players managed to so wholehearted achieve on behalf of the music’s composers, but especially in the Tchaikovsky – a stirring achievement by all concerned.

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