Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei, with Michael Houstoun (piano)
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings, Op 48
John Psathas: Three Psalms
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, Op 45
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday 26 September, 7:30 pm
This was not the first concert by Orchestra Wellington: that was on 27 July and featured Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, played by Michael Houstoun.
This also featured Houstoun, playing what would be called a concerto in some contexts, but here, it was a three movement work by John Psathas called Three Psalms, with an important piano part, but also drawing on various musical and other artistic sources.
The other two works were, strangely, less familiar pieces by famous composers.
A long time ago, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was a work that I came to know quite well through broadcasts by the then 2YC station (now Radio New Zealand Concert).
It has four movements (not named in the programme booklet):
Pezzo in forma di sonatina: Andante non troppo — Allegro moderato,
Valse: Moderato — Tempo di valse
Élégie: Larghetto elegiac
Finale (Tema russo): Andante — Allegro con spirito
When I first heard it, probably in my late teens, I found it richly melodic, simply gorgeous and moving. Even then, it made me wonder whether such a beautiful work could really be regarded as a proper, serious piece of classical music. The Waltz was the most popular movement and was often played on its own, a practice that I probably accepted then, not having heard the complete work. Though of course, I deplore that it’s now RNZ Concert’s standard practice to truncate most multi-movement works when even casual listeners today are surely familiar with far more classical music than was even recorded in the 1950s. Surely most grown-ups are now more responsive to and knowledgeable of classical music that I was in my teens!
This performance was so full of warmth and opulence that I asked myself why it was necessary to have other than string players in an orchestra at all. String groups numbered 12, 10, 8, 7, 6: very adequate. The contrast between movements was vivid: the throbbing rhythms of the first movement, the rapturous waltz, the accurately named Elegy third movement, with its illuminating pizzicato. The multi-facetted finale might have opened with a beautiful calmness, but it launches into the Allegro that moved slowly to energetic passages that alternated with calm, towards a beautiful conclusion. A splendid performance.
Though Psathas’s Three Psalms could be regarded as some kind of piano concerto, neither its title nor its scoring pointed that way. And though I might have missed something, I didn’t understand how the three movements: Aria, Inferno and Sergei Bk.3 Ch.1, could been related to Psalms. Nevertheless, the role of the piano was prominent and important and it was very clear that Houstoun admired the work and his performance was arresting and illuminating.
Yet it was less prominent than incessant timpani and two marimbas which drove rhythms that characterised most of the first movement. The second movement began in near silence, with long slow figures by piano and strings; the piano sounds were translucent, while the emotion created by strings increased mysteriously, and tubular bells and marimbas again contributed a brief, distinct episode. I remained unsure about the alleged inspiration of the movement by the “disturbing images in James Nachtwey’s photographic elegy, Inferno”. Without pictorial examples of a rather obscure name the revelation seemed to contribute nothing to the appreciation of the movement. However, the sense of peace created a feeling of calm unease that generated an emotional force.
The title of the third movement refers to Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto which Psathas relates to his own musical character and aspirations. That source did not diminish the originality and individual inspiration as well as the hypnotic, incessant and energetic spirit of this typical Psathas movement.
After the two works of the first half which demanded only strings and, in the case of Psathas, timpani, marimbas, tubular bells, the stage was now filled with a large orchestra, totalling about 80. Though string numbers were slightly fewer than the NZSO would have employed for the Rachmaninov, the volume and splendid dynamism of the entire orchestra did a wonderful job with this final, spectacular composition by Rachmaninov, that he wrote in 1940 in the United States; he died in 1943.
I doubt that Orchestra Wellington has played it before. Nor can I remember my last hearing of a live performance (I didn’t hear the NZSO’s performance in 2017). A few years ago the NZSO used to record the dates of its last performance of each of the pieces being played. It’s a pity that has ceased.
Though I know it well, this live performance was utterly illuminating, creating a variety of passionate episodes that seemed to far outclass any performance that I’ve heard on recordings or on radio. All the wind players had conspicuous episodes, individually or in sometimes unusual ensemble, made more colourful by the presence of an alto saxophone (Simon Brew, who played it with the NZSO in 2017), bass clarinet along with other triple or quadruple winds, a piano and six percussionists.
All of which created highly colourful, stunning orchestral sound patterns. I was struck by the remarkable, ‘spectral’ sounds that emerged in the second movement that ends with such uncanny quiet. The programme notes commented that it shows signs of Prokofiev in its muscular and spiky orchestration: I agree. And there were numerous surprising and unusual fanfares the led in odd directions, as in the middle of the last movement, Allegro assai; and uncanny little fanfares led to the plain-song Dies Irae that Rachmaninov and others in the late Romantic era often quoted. Such unique orchestral characteristics however, were the distinguishing mark of the entire performance, that made it hard to recognise dance rhythms, or music that would have been very easy for a choreographer to be inspired by. Yet there have been a number of ballet performances, both in the United States and by the Royal Ballet in London.
Given the addition of extra players (about a dozen from the NZSO), partly as a result of the sudden busyness of many musicians being engaged in a variety of other musical groups and activities, the orchestra delivered a performance of the Symphonic Dances that was quite spectacular, both in it emotional variety and its sheer exuberance.
Prominent in the second movement was contributions by two marimbas but the rhythm with throbbing piano.
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