NZSO’s “Eroica” programme title lives up to its name at Wellington’s MFC

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
EROICA – Music by Anthony Ritchie, Jean Sibelius and Ludwig van Beethoven

RITCHIE – Remembering Parihaka (1994)
SIBELIUS – Violin Concerto Op.47
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Op. 55 “Eroica”

Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin)
Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellingto

Sunday 27th September 2020

CEO of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Biggs, summed it up in his foreword in the printed programme for the orchestra’s most recent presentation initiative – named after one of the three works presented, Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony – when he referred to 2020 as “what continues to be a challenging year for us all.” Biggs and his staff rose to that challenge admirably in enabling  Peruvian-born conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, presently resident in the United States where he is Music Director of the Forth Worth Symphony Orchestra, to travel to New Zealand and isolate for two weeks, so he could conduct the NZSO in this series.

One would perhaps expect that, in the case of every professional orchestra of quality, its concertmaster could, at short notice, assume the responsibility of performing as a soloist in a repertory violin concerto, as has the orchestra’s current leader, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, in the same series. I’m not able to say whether the violinist Augustin Hadelich who was unable to come to this country to take up his original engagement had intended to programme the same concerto, or whether Vesa-Matti had chosen a different work to play; but the Sibelius Violin Concerto seemed, not surprisingly, a natural fit for its performer, and proved a great success.

Repertory-wise, conductor Harth-Bedoya’s tenure as Music Director of the Auckland Philharmonia from 1998 to 2005 would presumably have given him exposure to a range of New Zealand-composed works, among them, perhaps, the work presented today,  Anthony Ritchie’s Remember Parihaka, which was the first item of the concert. Before the music began, however, one of the orchestra players, Andrew Thomson (principal second violinist) in welcoming the audience to the Michael Fowler, made mention of the impending retirement from the orchestra at the concert’s end, of a long-serving member of the second violins, Lucien Rizos, in response to which announcement the player was warmly acknowledged by both his colleagues and this evening’s audience – a nice touch!

And so we began our listening with the aforementioned work by Anthony Ritchie, Remember Parihaka, one which I had heard on a recording some time ago without remembering too much about it, except that it was atmospheric and impactful, and seemed in accord with what I already knew about the disgraceful and brutal happenings associated with the “armed takeover” by Government forces of the Taranaki village where the Maori spiritual leader Te Whiti o Rongomai lived with his followers, implementing their policy of non-aggressive resistance to the white settlers’ push to acquire Maori land. I had read author Dick Scott’s book “Ask that Mountain” some years ago, and was interested to learn of Te Whiti’s methods being known and adopted by Mohandas Ghandi in later years, both in South Africa and in India.

The music began spaciously and ambiently, lower strings and air-borne wind figures conveying both peace and foreboding. The string lines rose like the morning sun, the sounds punctuated by louring chords from horns and winds, violins sounding a tense affirmation of the oncoming day, with the violas singing a more tender, caring line as the flutes repeated their birdsong. Pizzicati and scampering string movement joined with winds in suggested people running and gathering, as a field drum conveyed a kind of march-like purpose, energising the rest of the orchestra and giving rise to repeated warnings from the birdsong. As the tensions mounted and the warning cries became more frequent the bass drum gave voice to purpose, brutal and direct at first, then with deeper, more menacing ostinato underpinning the strings and winds, leading to a cataclysmic cymbal scintillation, signalling a culmination, a general violation, a triumph of might, leaving desolation in its wake – all that remained were sounds of deep lamentation. It was all rather less graphic a musical experience than I’d remembered, somewhat subtler in effect – and perhaps more enduring for that.

We then turned our attentions to the Sibelius Violin Concerto, performed by the orchestra’s regular concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppänen (whose place today in the leader’s seat was ably filled by his deputy, Donald Armstrong). I’d heard Vesa-Matti perform in a solo capacity before (most memorably, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending) but he surpassed even that achingly lovely performance with this one in terms of sweetness of tone and clarity of texture. At first I thought his tone a tad small to do full justice to the heroic gestures which flex their muscles and soar aloft in various places, but as the music proceeded it became obvious that the focused intensity of his playing was actually carrying every note to our ears, if in a way that didn’t rely so much on grand gesturing as absolute clarity of articulation. Conductor and orchestra seemed to understand this implicitly, in places such as where the solo viola richly “counterpointed” the violin or the clarinets murmured an ambient backdrop. There were places where orchestral muscle was flexed most excitingly, a tutti leading up to brass and timpani “letting rip” sounding overwhelming in such a context. Vesa-Matti was disinclined to “attack” the notes in an obviously virtuosic way, but instead play them simply and expressively – his fingerwork in passages which called for extreme dexterity was astonishing, as towards the conclusion of the first movement cadenza.

Harth-Bedoya got some beautiful wind-playing at the slow-movement’s beginning, the clarinets pure and liquid, the oboes pastoral and engaging, and the flutes and timpani defining in the space of a few notes touches of open-air brilliance contrasted with deep shadow – a memorable piece of tone-painting. The soloist then took up his rich, glowing line, matching the horns in the playing’s warmth, and with hushed tones echoed by the orchestral strings setting in dramatic contrast the following orchestral tutti, big and black-browed, the brass and winds particularly arresting! But what magically sotto voce octave passagework from Vesa-Matti we heard, with everybody else in accord, building the tones in a dignified way towards the movement’s big concerted statement, leading to more enchantingly soft playing from everybody, the mood reminding me suddenly of the end of the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, no less – a similar sense of “coming through”…..

The programme notes quoted most aptly the famous description of the work’s finale as “a polonaise for polar bears” (from writer and musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey – 1875-1940), summing up both the strength and weight of the music’s rhythms, though Vesa-Matti’s violin seemed to lightly skip across the snowy vistas in comparison to the accompaniments. I particularly liked his lightness of touch in the passages where Sibelius seems to “crowd in” the notes to the extent of distorting the rhythms, except that here the soloist’s nimble-fingered momentums seemed  easily to encompass the figurations, avoiding the trenchant angularities of some performances at this point. I relished the waspish buzzings of the muted horns and the bouncing accompaniments from the double basses, especially in tandem with the soloist during the latter’s high violin harmonics, which were thrillingly, eerily played! I hadn’t previously seen passages in the work where the soloist was accompanied by first-desk strings alone, which here added to the variety of textural incident. In the work’s coda the intensities were screwed tightly up, the soloist singing high, bright and breezy, and the orchestra gathering its forces to match the violin’s outpourings – a totally exhilarating experience!

It seemed as if, at the music’s conclusion, the audience didn’t want to let their concertmaster-turned-concerto-soloist go, calling him back repeatedly, along with the conductor, for further ovations. A nice touch was Vesa-Matti’s presenting of his bouquet to the retiring violinist Lucien Rizos before leaving the stage for the last time. Then it was the interval; and after we’d waxed lyrical concerning the concerto and its performance in every which way to anybody else who would listen, it was time to return to the auditorium for the “Eroica”.

Two extremely smartish E-flat chords, and we were off! With brisk, driven passagework, bright and eager detailings, and the phrasing sharply and urgently delivered, with that slightly “clipped”, authentic-performance manner, it seemed we were in for a thrillingly front-on Beethoven experience from the beginning (complete with the first-movement repeat!) – I thought here of the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini’s words when asked to describe what he thought of the “Eroica’s” first movement, his reply being, “Is not “Eroica”! – is not Napoleon! – is Allegro con brio!”. Here, conductor Harth-Bedoya seemed to encourage his wind-players (and who wouldn’t, with such talent, here?) to “play out” so that, not only in their solos, but in the “middle voices” of the orchestral texture, it all seemed uncommonly rich and detailed. Together with the energies of the playing, this made for a real sense of something vibrant and living, the strings digging into their syncopated accents when building up to the massive central-movement climax underpinned excitingly by the timpani and capped off gloriously by the brass!

Harth-Bedoya brought out the work’s dramatic and exhilarating qualities as much as a sense of something epic – and there were two moments in particular which I thought so brilliantly illustrated these qualities in turn, aided by superb playing in each case. First was the drama of the horn’s wonderful “false entry” just before the music’s recapitulation, a moment that reputedly took some listeners at the work’s first performance by surprise, to the composer’s annoyance! – here sounded to perfection before the rest of the band “crashed in”! Then, as the music surged towards the end, and the theme was played by horns, then strings, then winds and finally the brass, with ever-growing intensities, Beethoven unaccountably allows the brass only a few notes of the theme before getting his trumpet to break off in favour of letting stuttering winds finish the phrase! However, many older recordings (including the one I was “raised” on) allowed the trumpet line to continue playing the theme right through, as Harth-Bedoya did here, to my admittedly guilty satisfaction (I still prefer it, and on first hearing the “authentic” version on record had to be convinced by someone whose knowledge I respected that the trumpet hadn’t been removed through a tape-edit error, or something!)

The renowned “Funeral March” was just that, a loaded, purple-and-black experience, the beautiful string-playing capped off by Robert Orr’s glorious oboe solo. Harth-Bedoya again brought out the music’s drama, getting sharply-delivered contrasts in dynamics and textures from his players, the more military major-key sections blazing with momentary triumph before succumbing to the grief and anger of the episodes which followed, Bridget Douglas’s sonorous flute-playing as pivotal to the range of emotions as the oboe’s at the beginning. The strings here simply “nailed” the fugal sections of the movement, giving the music’s trajectories incredible power, picked up by the winds and brasses (and Laurence Reese’s timpani speaking volumes as always), with the double basses attacking their post-fugue “moment” with spine-tingling weight and edge. And the “ticking away” of life and breath towards the end made for a kind of sublimity in the silence that followed the music’s brief but telling final exhalation.

“Is not “Eroica”! – Is not Napoleon! – is Allegro vivace!“ Toscanini might also have exclaimed at this life-enhancing point in the Symphony – for here, indeed, was a scherzo, a quicker, more dynamic replacement for the classical symphony’s usual minuet, a change Beethoven had already made in each of his first two symphonies. Beginning with feathery playing from the strings and perkily-delivered themes  from the winds, the music then seemed to explode in joyful energy, the verve and physicality of the playing a heady delight! The NZSO horns also delighted with their playing of the Trio, Harth-Bedoya getting the players to begin the final rendition of their fanfare in startlingly assertive fashion, a gesture that I’m willing to bet Beethoven would have loved!

As he would have the attacca, which here plunged us into the ferment of the Finale’s opening before we had time to draw breath at the scherzo’s end! – Harth-Bedoya and the players made much of the dynamic contrasts between Beethoven’s use of the seemingly innocuous bass-line tune from the “Prometheus” music and several violent “knocking at the door” irruptions at the end of each of the measures. And the conductor would have none of the reversion to solo string lines which had so entranced us on a previous occasion when Orchestra Wellington performed the symphony for the following string passages, up to the appearance of the actual “”Prometheus” theme on the oboe. But what playfulness, what spirit and what character was engendered by the players in their treatment of Beethoven’s fugal explorations – the lines by turns sang, teased, shouted and giggled, and Harth-Bedoya got everybody to pull out all the stops for the “Russian Dance” variation, which was almost a show-stopper!

These and other episodes were silenced by the oboe and accompanying winds, giving the “tune” a decorative warmth and fullness of heart which the horns and other instruments acclaimed most heartily – some residue angst (hopes and dreams dashed?) from the struggles and tribulations of the journey was given its respectful due, before all such was swept away, Harth-Bedoya and his players going with and contributing to the flow, a veritable tidal wave of joyful release which filled the Michael Fowler Centre’s precincts to bursting, and gladdened the hearts of all present – great stuff!

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