NZSM Orchestra with conductor Hamish McKeich showcases achievements by 2020 award-winning composer and instrumentalist at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:
Music by Mica Thompson, Carl Reinecke and Johannes Brahms

REINECKE – Flute Concerto In D Major Op.283
BRAHMS – Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op.73

Isabella Gregory (flute)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 26th September, 2020

Pandemic restrictions having been relaxed of late (though judiciously more “on hold” than entirely done away with), we were allowed more-or-less regularly-spaced seating at St. Andrew’s to hear the most recent of the NZSM Orchestra’s public concerts, one featuring the recent winner of the School’s Concerto Competition, flutist Isabella Gregory (see the review at, playing the Reinecke concerto with which she won the prize, though on this occasion with a full and proper orchestral accompaniment! Flanking her polished, sparkling efforts were two other items, the concert beginning with a work for orchestra  entitled “Song” by Hawkes Bay-born composer Micah Thompson, and concluding with the well-known Second Symphony by Brahms.

Thanks to the aforementioned ravages of Covid-19 upon the present year in respect of public music-making and -presentation, this was, I think, the first 2020 NZSM orchestral concert I’d attended , though I had seen a few of the individual players in other orchestral and chamber presentations at various times. It was certainly one worth the wait for, and promised much beforehand, with the NZSO’s principal Conductor-in-Residence Hamish McKeich due to rehearse and direct the performances. Also, one of the NZSO’s recent Guest Conductors, Miguel Harth-Bedoya apparently worked with the orchestra during this period – though it’s not clear whether the latter had any direct involvement with the orchestra’s preparation for this concert.

The evening began with “thanks and praise” from the director of the School, Prof. Sally Jane Norman, thanks for the efforts of people in staging the concert in the face of near-insuperable difficulties, and praise for the efforts of the musicians and their tutors – mixed in with all of this was warm appreciation for people’s actual attendance at the concert, supporting the school’s activities in fostering the careers of young composers/musicians.

First we heard a work by composer Micah Thompson, called “Song”, and inspired in part by the poetry of British poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), specifically in this case a 1957 poem “The Hawk in the Rain”. Thompson explained, both in a progamme note and by means of an internet post ( how the poet’s interest in the “identity, history and mythologies of particular animals” had informed his own approach to exploring musical instruments’ characteristics and their use – he used Hughes’s “wild, sometimes brutal, but always expressive and melancholic” verses as a kind of counterpoint to his own creative impulses. As the programme printed the text of Hughes’ verses, I couldn’t help comparing his earthier, more confrontational expressiveness to that of an earlier poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, in the latter’s comparatively rarefied (but just as dramatic and musical) poem from 1877, “The Windhover”, describing the flight of another bird of prey, a falcon.

Thompson’s work also took a number of previously-composed solo pieces, for piano, clarinet and flute, and “collaged” them into what he called “an orchestral space”. This space coalesced into life, the ambient beginnings featuring slivers of percussion, mingled with taonga-puoro-like calls, creating an atmosphere of wildness and vast resonances of possibility – long string lines were punctuated with birdsong and wild gesturings, the sounds suggesting flight both with impulses of wing-beatings and the stillnesses of soaring. Long-held notes for cello, winds, brass and violins accentuated the spaces while various scintillations suggested light-changes, both osmotic and sharp-edged. The celeste brought an almost cow-bell nostalgia into play, contrasting with the increasing combatative-edged intrusions from both clarinet and horn solos, the implicit violence of the poem’s words here suggested abstractedly, one of a number of “perceptions” hinted at by the music. Returning to whisperings, the sounds took on a kind of “mystic” feeling, the flute playing a fanfare-like birdcall, a cadenza-like passage which seemed to awaken the surrounds more markedly, the strings rustling, the percussions tinkling, the basses gently rumbling, the piano chirruping, everything freely modulating before drifting into a silence coloured only by the flute’s gentle call. I like the “assuredness” of it all, its focus supporting tangible imagery and feeling amid all the ambient suggestiveness.

Carl Reinecke’s Flute Concert has long been regarded as the instrument’s principal Romantic flagbearer, given that the composer was of the Romantic persuasion  along the lines of Mendelssohn and Schumann, rather than of Liszt or Wagner – though befriended by Liszt and given introductions by the latter to contacts in Paris, Reinecke remained a firm adherent of the more conservative 19thCentury school. The work’s gentle, Brahmsian opening was essayed beautifully by the players, here, with some lovely horn playing, and beautiful phrasing from the flute at the player’s entrance. The soloist’s “big tune” was answered by the brasses the exchanges taking us into a melancholic, romantic world of feeling, rounded off by a stirring orchestral tutti. I thought Gregory’s playing even more astonishing than when encountering her in the competition’s final, the orchestral accompaniment perhaps giving the soloist more variety to react to and establish a personality very much her own.

The slow movement took on the character of a kind of “Romantic legend”, a gift for a skilled storyteller, dramatic brass and timpani preparing the way for the flute’s narrative, which was here developed with a real sense of occasion and adventure, the ensemble seizing its chances to dramatize the music at every opportunity, an impulse somewhat tamed by the flute’s bringing the ending of the movement into the major key, as an antidote to the relative darkness! Horns and wind threw out a jaunty aspect at the finale’s opening, the flute taking up the polonaise rhythm with gusto, throughout the movement steadfastedly steering the music back to the dance whenever different episodes sought to diversify the expression – a charmingly winsome game of dominance, in which the flute was triumphant, the work’s coda featuring exciting exchanges between Gregory and the musicians, Hamish McKeich keeping the momentums simmering, right to the work’s festive conclusion.

Concluding the programme was a quintessential conservative-Romantic work, the Brahms Second Symphony, one which gave  the composer opportunity for some impish fun in describing the music beforehand to his friends – his tongue-in-cheek characterisations of parts of the work were reproduced in the excellent programme notes, comments such as the words “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it – I have never written anything so sad, and the score itself will have to come out in mourning”. If at times gruffly expressed, Brahms certainly didn’t lack a sense of humour!

I enjoyed the performance enormously, in the first movement right from the near-perfect horn-playing at the work’s beginning, with its answering winds and floating string responses, through the “lilt” of the playing of the second subject theme by all concerned, and the stirring brass response to the increasing ferment of the development’s exchanges, to the lovely “spent” character of the climbing strings and the glowing wind replies when the opening was recapitulated (I loved the confidently-produced “zinging” quality of the strings’ playing of the dotted-rhythm fanfares shortly afterwards!). And though not absolutely note-perfect, the solo horn’s valedictory passage towards the movement’s end was so beautifully shaped and sounded, the string-playing that followed couldn’t help but sound ravishing (ravished, perhaps?) in reply.

The strings dug into the second movement’s opening as if the players really meant it, the top note of the succeeding upward phrase a bit shaky first time round, but more secure on its repetition – again the horn-playing shone, with the strings, and the winds following, and similarly shining   in succession. As the music floated over graceful pizzzicati both winds and strings sang full-throatedly, confidently leading from this into the music’s darker-browed sequences and holding their ground amid the storms and stresses, the winds eventually coming to the rescue, encouraging the strings to pick their way through the wreckage, putting the crooked straight and making the rough places plain as they went……the return of the opening sequence by strings and winds here made such a heart-warming  impression, even if  the horizons were again darkened and the brasses and timpani held sway for a few anxious moments – amid the uncertainties, winds and strings registered a further brief moment of apprehension with the timpani, before squaring up with a “let’s get on” gesture that brought the sounds to rest.

The third movement, an Allegretto grazioso featured a perky oboe supported by clarinets and followed by flutes  – lovely! The strings delicately danced into the picture, the tempi amazingly swift, the playing precise! – fabulous playing and skilful dovetailing when the oboe rejoined the mix with the opening theme – the lovely “flowering” of the wind textures was then matched  by the strings’ “darkening” of the same, after which the dancing resumed with earnest and energy – and I loved the re-delivery of the opening wind tune by the strings, the downward part of the phrase played with what sounded like a satisfied sigh! – very heartfelt!

The finale was, by contrast, all stealth and mystery at the start, creating great expectation before bursting forth, McKeich and his players creating an invigorating “togetherness” of ensemble, the winds gurgling with excitement when given their turn! The strings gave their all with their “big tune”, the tempo kept steady, the tutti blazing forth with excitement, the syncopations flying past at a tempo, and the sotto voce of the opening’s return maintained. Another excitable tutti was relished, before the triplet-led episode allowed a hint of melancholy to descend upon the textures before the movement’s opening sequence returned with a few ear-catching variants – a bit of scrawny playing here and there simply added to the excitement and abandonment, the brass heaving to with some elephantine comments, and the rest of the orchestra girding its loins for the work’s cataclysmic coda – noisy, but joyful and exuberant! It was a performance which got at the end a well-deserved accolade, doing the composer, as well as the conductor and players, proud!

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