Orchestra Wellington and Sistema Orchestra Hutt Valley in varied and colourful concert

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Jian Liu (piano), plus Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley

Josef Suk; Serenade for Strings in E flat, Op 6
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 1 in D flat, Op 10
Rachmaninov: Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 44

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 October, 7:30 pm

This concert was one of Orchestra Wellington’s rather special events, not only in parallel with a rather singular election day that tended to absorb the animated attention of most of the audience before the concert and during the interval, but also sharing the platform of the MFC with another orchestra: the Arohanui Strings. That band was founded in 2010 on the model of the Sistema Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, and is directed by violist Alison Eldredge. It involves about 300 young string players, mainly from the Hutt Valley. Naturally, by no means all participated on Saturday evening.  I guessed there were about thirty promising Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley players, eleven first violins and down to two double basses, plus around 20 very small players who found their way across the front of the stage for the later pieces.

Arohanui Strings
The first piece was the commissioned premiere of Alissa Long’s Domino Effect, which involved both wind and percussion players of Orchestra Wellington, plus a few OW players to give body to the string sections. One of the several curiosities was a three-metre long wind instrument that I thought was a kind of didgeridoo; I’m informed: a ‘Rainstick’.

This more advanced group also played an arrangement of Poor Wayfaring Stranger; then the littlies, some around 5 years old I’d guess, formed a long line across the front, some on special, small cello chairs, to join the orchestra playing, and singing, Ode to Joy, Square Dance and Lean On Me.

Audience delight rested with the simple spectacle of very young children evidently thrilled, and a bit overwhelmed, at the experience of playing with grown-up professionals to an audience approaching 2000.

The result of this preliminary episode was to prolong the concert; it didn’t end till about 10.15pm, a mere 45 minutes more than usual; very few left early – even to catch up on the excitement of the election result!

Suk’s Serenade for Strings
The first piece played by the host orchestra was the lovely Serenade for Strings by Josef Suk, who was a pupil of Dvořák at the Prague Conservatorium. It’s his earliest published piece (1892) and today probably his best loved. (I have some recollection of Suk’s Asrael Symphony played by the NZSO a fair while ago; it didn’t overwhelm me).

In the Serenade, Suk picked up Dvořák’s suggestion for something happier and more charming than what he had previously composed; he was probably inspired by Dvořák’s own Serenade for Strings of 1875; though there were several good earlier examples of the string suite or serenade.

I knew Suk’s early work well enough and this experience only enhanced admiration for its touching, ingenious orchestration; the first movement is immediately enchanting with its tuneful richness and warmth as well as its rhythmic variety and individuality, which the orchestra explored so well. The second movement is in changeable triple time, and soon takes root according to the ‘grazioso’ description. I was particularly captivated by the playing of the long and lovely third movement, Adagio, scored interestingly and subtly, moving about with charming thematic and rhythmic variety. It’s been compared with the ‘Dumka’ style that Dvořák had made famous, rhythmically and emotionally various. The last movement is characteristically brusque, with each group particularly firm and clear.

If, like me, you are often led to explore a class or type of music that is presented itself in a concert, there’s a lot of comparably delightful music: some of Mozart’s divertimenti, to start with; Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op 48 (1880), which happened to be one of my early teenage experiences from the then 2YC radio (now RNZ Concert), when nothing but entire works were played, presenting no problems for its then large audiences. Then there’s Dvořák’s in E major (1875); Nielsen’s Little Suite for Strings, Op 1 – particularly charming); Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op 20 (once it was second in popularity only to the Enigma Variations); and Holst’s St Paul’s Suite (and the Brook Green Suite is only a little behind it). There’s Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op 40, echoing the Baroque period of Norwegian dramatist Holberg [born 1684, making him a contemporary of Dryden and Pope, Voltaire and Prévost (writer of the Manon Lescaut story)]. A discovery as I put this list together was the charming, seven-movement Idyll, Suite for string orchestra (you wouldn’t recognise its composer, Janáček!). Even later, there’s Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances for string orchestra.

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 1 
The most successful work in the programme might have been Prokofiev’s first piano concerto with Jian Liu, Head of Piano Studies at Victoria University’s school of music, as soloist. Like Suk’s piece, this too was a teenage masterpiece. Prokofiev had played it first in Moscow in 1912, again playing it himself and winning at the St Petersburg Conservatorium piano competition in 1914; to the shock and disapproval of many faculty members on account of its originality, invention and flamboyance. I got the full measure of those Prokofiev characteristics in Vienna in 2014 hearing Russian pianists playing all five concertos at the Konzerthaus with the Marjinski Orchestra under Gergiev. Alexei Volodin played No 1.

After brief blasts from horns, shrill flutes and cracking timpani, Jian Liu opened the piano part at once with brilliant, startling sounds; it might have astonished Prokofiev himself. A singular piece for 1911, before The Rite of Spring, it still catches the ear, as much by its rhythmic and harmonic adventurism as by its unconventional shape. The programme named its three normal-sounding movements but in reality there are many quite distinct parts – eleven have been listed by some authorities. It’s taxing enough for the orchestra and there were indeed slight missteps between piano and others but the general impact was of startling bravura and accuracy, not only from the pianist, and a keen awareness of the virtues of pushing the boundaries of musical composition.

Rachmaninov’s 3rd symphony has not the same popularity or scholarly respect as the second, partly a result of his need to concentrate on piano performance after leaving Russia following the overthrow of the Empire in 1917. It was written in the mid-1930s, after the Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra; in some ways it’s more radical than might have been expected in the light of the composer’s earlier works. There were moments of ensemble imperfection, but the overall impression was of energy and liveliness, and considerable flamboyance by brass and percussion. I might have exaggerated my feeling that lead to my notes remarking, in the Allegro vivace section of the second movement, that some of the orchestral passages lacked refinement and discretion; were too flamboyant.

In all however, Rachmaninov’s works, like Sibelius’s symphonies and Strauss’s last operas, remained true to his own integrity, imagination and inspiration, and they steadily gain popularity, ignoring dismissal by the more extreme elements of the Darmstadt/Donaueschingen school.

And so, a work like this, that is certainly a masterpiece by one of the early 20th century’s greatest composers, is steadily regaining favour; in spite of perceived structural weaknesses, it generates compelling interest and pleasure, and we were lucky to have heard it under Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington in such an enthusiastic and committed performance.

The other event of the concert was Taddei’s announcement of the general theme of the orchestra’s 2021 concert series: “Virtuoso”, with cheap tickets as usual, for those booking early.


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