Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Violin and piano recital in a new concert hall makes life worth living again

By , 06/08/2020

Chamber Music New Zealand

Amalia Hall (violin) and Stephen de Pledge (piano)

Beethoven: Violin Sonata No 5 in F, Op 24 “Spring”
Gao Ping: Bitter Cold Night
Gershwin (arr.Heifetz): Three Preludes
Mozart: Violin Sonata No 19 in E flat, K 302
Saint-Saëns: Violin Sonata No 1 in D minor, op 75

Public Trust Hall, Corner Lambton Quay and Stout Street

Thursday 6 August, 7:30 pm

The first concert, post-Covid-19 lock-down from Chamber Music New Zealand was held in a new auditorium which was opened in September last year: in the former Public Trust Office headquarters. The hall, presumably the former public area, with ceiling decoration that survived in banks half a century ago; a well-proportioned, elegant space. It seats 300 people, about the same size as the Ilott Theatre in the old Wellington Town Hall (and what, exactly, is planned for the Town Hall?).*

The concert attracted a full house. It was the second to last in a 12-concert tour of the country.

The Spring Sonata
I was sitting in the front row, rather too close for a balanced impression of both the players and the acoustic of the space. It began with Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, and at once the acoustic had the effect of amplifying the piano to the disadvantage of the violin’s voice, particularly in the opening Allegro. My seat, to the left of the players, with the violinist’s back towards me, didn’t help. The result was that subtleties of both instruments were somewhat diminished, while a bit too much of the ‘mechanics’ of hammers and bows on strings was audible.

Nevertheless, the happy rapport between the two players and their feeling for the music were clear enough. Balance between them seemed more normal in the lovely second movement, Adagio molto espressivo; and the brief Scherzo too, with sparkling staccato playing from both, handled the spatial conditions well.

Gao Ping and George Gershwin
Bitter Cold Night, the piece by Gao Ping, who lectured for some years at Canterbury University, had its genesis with the pandemic. Gao composed this bleak piece in memory of the Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who broke his government’s silence about the Corona virus, was punished and he subsequently died of it. There was a brief, sunnier episode led by the violin, discreetly supported by the piano, but then came a burst of anger. It spoke clearly and movingly, as music can often do, better than other arts; let’s hope that Gao Ping will not be treated as was Li Wenliang.

I hadn’t come across Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement for violin and piano of Gershwin’s three Preludes for piano. Not only were they so successfully modified, but they were played with a delightful naturalness, with almost more sophistication and musicality than the plain piano versions, as if that had been the way Gershwin had conceived them.

Mozart
The second half comprised two more sonatas: Mozart’s No 19, in E flat. I don’t suppose it’s too embarrassing to confess that I couldn’t recall hearing this before: just two movements: Allegro and Andante grazioso, as De Pledge told us, along with remarks about Mozart’s relationship with the Elector Palatine’s court and the musicians, based in Mannheim through the middle of the 18th century. (His interest flowed partly from the Elector’s excellent orchestra, particularly its clarinets, and his unrequited love for Aloysia Weber – the fall-back position was her sister Constanze whom he did later marry).

I might remark that the programme, A4 size, had a striking cover, a message from the chief executive of CMNZ, another from Anne Rodda, the executive director of the Michael Hill Violin Competition, large photos and brief biographical notes about the two performers, and the back page filled with logos of the sponsors; but no information about the music.

The music gives more equal attention to both instruments than was normal at the time. It’s a charming piece, especially the second movement; and I enjoyed it better since a friend, seeing where I was sitting, had offered to exchange seats so I might enjoy a better balanced experience, in the fourth row. I was grateful, for the balance and coherence were distinctly better, in particular exposing properly Amalia’s warm, lyrical playing.

Saint-Saëns
The final work was Saint-Saëns’s first violin sonata, of 1885 when the composer was 50: I suspect it’s probably unfamiliar, but I knew it from a performance that had stuck in my heard thirty years ago. The Japanese violinist, Midori had played it in a recital at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 1990 or 1992. The last movement is a splendid, endless bravura experience of demi-semi quavers, and Midori’s playing had, naturally, remained in my head over the years, when I may have heard it no more than a couple of times on Concert FM.

I suppose the sonata’s unfamiliarity is a result of the common tendency to denigrate Saint-Saëns as conservative and unadventurous; not a view I share. Happily, many of us have long felt that such intellectual pretentions are not a sensible way to pass one’s life. There’s an infectious melody in the first movement, and it presaged the warm, melodic character of the entire piece. It moves without a break into the second movement, Adagio, which they played thoughtfully, with touches of whimsy. The third movement, an Allegretto moderato, Scherzo in triple time which fades and then suddenly bursts into the moto-perpetuo kind of Finale. Perhaps it looks more difficult than it actually is but it served as a splendid conclusion. I hope it has had a joyous effect on the hundreds of audience members in the eleven towns where it’s been heard so far.

So it proved a splendid way to help restore a sort of normality to the fortunate few who go to chamber music concerts. The music and its performance by these two genial and highly musical players, as well as the feel of the new venue that has been transformed so effectively into a concert hall, must have done something to make life worth living again.

*The Public Trust Office dates from 1908, designed by the then Government Architect, John Campbell, who designed many state buildings such as the General Post Office in Wellington (sensibly! replaced by the Intercontinental Hotel on Featherston Street), and the Central Post Office in Auckland which survives at the bottom of Queen Street, and the House of Parliament, which disappointed the architect when the south wing, a mirror image of the existing building was never built.

The Wellington Architecture Centre describes the building as “possibly the most architecturally elaborate façade in the capital – if not the entire country, and is without doubt … Government Architect John Campbell’s finest work outside of his design for Parliament House.”

After the Seddon Earthquake in 2013 the Public Trust building was sold to Maurice Clark whose firm McKee Fehl and architects Warren & Mahoney carried out its strengthening and renovation. It is a Category 1 Historic Building.

Mr Clark spoke at the Interval, noting that the hall’s use for classical music was free – a stark contrast to the cost of venues owned by the city council which are widely known to be the dearest in the country: as you’d expect from a city that boasts of being ‘the cultural capital’.  

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