A memorable debut by a new ensemble – “The Capital Band” presents works by Mozart and Schubert

The Capital Band presents

MOZART – Symphony No.29 in A Major K. 218
SCHUBERT – String Quartet in D Minor D. 810 “Death and the Maiden” (arr. string orchestra)

The Capital Band
Music Director – Douglas Harvey

Vogelmorn Hall, Vennell St., Brooklyn, Wellington

Saturday, 5th September, 2020

A warm welcome to “The Capital Band” and its conductor/Music Director, Douglas Harvey, on the spirited showing made by the musicians during their first Wellington concert on Saturday evening! At a time when Covid-19 is wreaking havoc for organisations planning concerts of live music-making, any fresh endeavours in such a respect are welcomed, but even more so when presented with the kind of enthusiasm and verve that greeted we of the audience, gathered in a seemly, socially-distanced manner in Brooklyn’s charming and atmospheric Vogelmorn Hall (a new venue for me as an audience member!). Each of the two works programmed were given in a way that conveyed a kind of essence appropriate to the spirit of the occasion, and certainly left this listener in a buoyantly satisfied frame of mind relating to the overall experience.

There may be others who, like me at first, might imagine an ensemble with the name “The Capital Band” as consisting of strong, jovial and fearless brass band-people, ready even to try their hand at reimagining and reworking classical symphonies and romantic string quartets! However, reading “between the lines” of the ensemble’s online post advertising the concert did, I admit, seem to indicate (even in this most remarkable of all possible worlds) that the musicians were classical orchestral players – in fact, (and here, I quote) “an innovative and exciting group of younger semi-professional, amateur, and non-fulltime musicians and comprises current and former members of Orchestra Wellington, the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra, the New Zealand School of Music ensembles, and various other orchestras in the greater Wellington region”. I recognised at least two of the players as members of the previous year’s NZSM Orchestra, though most of the faces were new to me.

Ruminating that “strong, jovial and fearless” could well be synonymic with “innovative and exciting”, I settled down to enjoy the concert, pleasurably anticipating the strains of the opening of one of my all-time favourite symphonies, one representing an acme of youthful symphonic achievement on the part of its composer, the eighteen year-old Wolfgang Mozart, whose adorable Symphony No.29 in A Major K.201 began the evening’s music. Unlike other “Salzburg” symphonies written around this same time by Mozart, most notably the explosive G Minor K.183, this work begins gently, with a gracefully rising set of octave leaps proclaiming the simplicity of absolute mastery – I remember being left open-mouthed when I first heard this music almost fifty years previously, and still marvel today at its focused utterance, whatever tempo its life-pulse is measured at by different interpreters.

I learnt the work through a 1960s recording made by Otto Klemperer with the New Philharmonia Orchestra of London – a reading whose first movement gestures seemed more like implacable movements of heavenly bodies in the firmament than expressions of youthful energy – even though Klemperer’s performances of the Minuet and Finale were as spirited as any, the latter with magnificently al fresco horns resounding across the vistas. The slow movement’s progress was also stately, though exquisitely shaped, with the coda marked by full, rich wind-tones answered by strings in like manner. For years afterwards I couldn’t listen to any other performance of this music, as each seemed trite and superficial compared with Klemperer’s profundity and substance. Then a recording conducted by Benjamin Britten (a gifted Mozartean) with the English Chamber Orchestra seemed to me to triumphantly marry Klemperer’s strength with more urgency, paving the way for my listening to become more accustomed to lighter and swifter readings of the work without experiencing a feeling of some essential quality being lost.

Here, with a performance by “the Band” that celebrated the music’s youthful vigour rather than seeking any profundity or timelessness, my “born again” attitudes were given a splendid going-over by Douglas Harvey’s and his players’ spirited reading of the opening movement –  a case of “Thus, though we cannot make our sun / stand still, yet we will make him run”! The playing brought out all the dynamic contrasts one could want, as well as allowing the “middle voices” of the work to speak – there was a certain rough-hewn quality about some of the passagework, with the lead-up to the second subject in the repeat particularly “grainy” in effect; and some of the staccato work I thought blunt almost to a fault (arguably a matter of taste in places, of course!). By contrast, the slow movement had plenty of grace and charm , with flutes here substituting for oboes (and doing a wonderful job, it needs to be said), their held notes together with those of the horns “warming the textures” beautifully, the string phrases allowed their “internal voices” effect with ease and naturalness of flow. I actually wanted the winds to be given a bit more time to enjoy their mid-movement trill, but the players made the most of their “moment” at the movement’s end, the strings answering in splendid accord.

A mischievous and sprightly Minuet featured some deliciously saucy flute-and-horn unisons at the end of each string-sentence – very rustic and unequivocal, like a disapproving village policeman’s “Ere! – Wot’s all this, then?” By contrast the Trio’s repeated, gracefully “swooping” string phrase was charmingly “choreographed” by some of the players, putting their all into it! The finale was all bluster and dust, Harvey and the players going for broke, the scurried string figurations excitingly executed, and the horns in particular having a ball with their “Yoicks! – tally-ho!” calls ringing out, the occasional “cracked” note merely adding to the excitement of the chase! I loved the “He said damn!” chattering of the divided strings in the second finale episode, the second violins doing particularly well in taking the lead during the reprise. Some concluding energetic unisons, exuberant fanfares and farewell flourishes, and it was all over, to great acclaim!

After the interval the string players returned for an ensembled performance of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, one I thought must have been the Mahler arrangement (though unfinished by him and completed by David Matthews) – but I’ve since been told this particular version was an arrangement made by the Capital Band players themselves. Having never heard the string orchestra version before I was amazed by how “effective” it all sounded, the opening particularly arresting by dint of the string numbers and, in this performance, the attack and commitment of the players. The ensemble frayed a little during the second subject’s quicker sequences, though the players did better with the “inverted theme” passages that followed. Some of the lines were given to solo strings in places, which added to the music’s overall light and shade, and making the reintroduction of the opening all the more dramatic. And the agitated coda and its dissolution into shadow and mystery was most confidently and securely negotiated – all very spooky!

I loved the “heartbroken” aspect of the slow movement’s opening, the textures made almost Tchaikovskian with those additional strings, the “faintly beating heart” impression all the more palpable, the melody line beautifully nuanced, light hand-in-glove with shadow. The ensuing variations featured a significant amount of solo playing, the players involved splendidly negotiating the sometimes torturous melodic twists of the various lines – and I was taken as never before by the similarity of one of the variations (in a minor-key way) to a corresponding sequence in Brahms’ St Antoni Variations! Another impressive sequence was a throbbing pedal-point episode which gradually built in intensity, before dissipating in a halo of lovely snow-bright harmonies at the movements end. The heavy-footed Brahmsian syncopations of the scherzo’s opening sounded like great fun, here, giving way to a Trio whose grace and elegance seemed worlds apart, even if the violins were tested by the high-lying passages in places.

The galloping rhythms of the finale again brought a strongly committed physical response, readily conveying a sense of headlong flight, and tellingly interrupted by the heroic stance of the second subject, the playing strong and unyielding! And both violin sections did well with the contrasting rushing figures (1sts) and the singing lines (2nds), coming together to catch the music’s incredible drive forwards into the music’s vortex-like heart, and through the opening’s recapitulation into a fragmented amalgam of desperate, fugitive-like impulses, something which only the white heat of the coda’s kinetic energies could hope to quell – the peformers found incredible surges of elemental feeling at the end, giving their all.

At the end, conductor Douglas Harvey thanked us all for attending the concert, the musicians then applauding us most heartily for our support! An encore was a “lullaby” a piece whose provenance I forgot to ask about – but it sounded as though it could have been something written by Aarvo Part, simple voicings expressed in radiant. luminous, open-textured lines – all part of a most impressive first outing by this new ensemble, of which we will hopefully hear a great deal more!

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