Belated rapture from Orchestra Wellington’s “Rachmaninov 1”, but well worth the wait…..

Orchestra Wellington presents:

DVOŘÁK – Serenade for Strings In E Major Op. 22
JENNIFER HIGDON – Violin Concerto 2008
RACHMANINOV – Symphony No. 1 in D Minor Op.13

Amalia Hall (violin)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 15th November 2020

Covid-19 has played havoc with many things over 2020, not the least with schedules of music performances, hence the somewhat belated “Rachmaninov 1” title for this concert. Fortunately, the quality of the music and its making seemed unimpaired by any such privations, leaving us grateful all over again for the experience, similar to the feeling engendered by the Orchestra Wellington’s previous concert I’d attended –

Here, I found myself straightaway drawn in by the playing of the programme’s opening work, Antonin Dvořák’s adorable Serenade for Strings – it was all beautifully and sensitively shaped by Marc Taddei and his players, and given flight with the utmost beauty and grace, perhaps ever-so-slightly at the expense of some of the music’s “gruntier” aspects in places such as the finale, but everywhere else for me lovingly reimagining the composer’s sound-world of  intensely poetic feeling. It seemed at times as if we in the audience were eavesdropping on an almost private world of emotion, so tenderly were some of the lines voiced by the players. both in smaller groups and as a whole. The second-movement Waltz made a more impulsive contrast, with much of the string-tones sounding like either rushing water or whispering wind-blown foliage, a real out-of-doors quality. Marc Taddei’s meticulously-wrought transitions between sections to my ears sounded deeply-felt and caring for the music.

The will-‘o-the-wisp-like opening of the third movement began a truly adventuresome narrative, urgent and pent-up with excitement at first, vigorous and joyful, but then afterwards imbued with a longing quality, exemplified by the melody’s wonderfully downward-swooping intervals, and building the anxieties towards relief at the opening’s reprise – all so characterful, here, with the strings lacking only the numbers to fully activate the emotion of those deeply-affecting interval swoops! The slow movement then stole in, the sounds shaping the music’s emotion with real character, the violas in particular touching our hearts with their playing. The middle section was more urgent, more wistful than dark, returning to the main melody, sung in canon by ‘cellos and violins so tenderly, and building up to a rich and gorgeous climax – very satisfying!

The last movement began and ended with a game of chase between upper and lower strings, the syncopations deliciously voiced, and the droll second subject seeming to smile out loud! Its reprise reached upwards and bubbled over with exhilaration before allowing the work’s opening to steal back in like an old friend just before the final, joyously rumbustious payoff! I occasionally imagined still more string tone than we were getting, but the playing’s attack and intensity made up for the lack of numbers and achieved a memorable result. Bravo!

A name known to me (but not, until this evening, her music) was Jennifer Higdon (1962 – ), an American composer who wrote her Violin Concerto in 2008 for violinist Hilary Hahn with many of the virtuoso’s distinctive characteristics as an interpreter in mind (they first met when Hahn was a student in Higdon’s Curtis Institute of music’s 20th Century Music class – in fact the first movement of the concerto was given the name 1726 because it was the Philadelphia street address number of the Institute!). Hearing Hahn perform the Schoenberg Violin Concerto inspired Higdon to write the opening of tonight’s work, with its beautiful, Aeolian-harp-like string harmonics, and by association, the rest of the movement.

This opening sequence suggested to me an awakening, the dream-like reverie of the harmonics quickened into playful exchanges with both solo lines and concerted passages, finally rousing the “noisy kids on the block”, the percussionists, who “let ‘er rip”, thereby encouraging the rest of the orchestra to have its say as well. Amalia Hall’s violin-playing was right on top of the music’s complexities, conveying a sense of dancing with delight at the various interactions, and, aided by conductor Mark Taddei’s superb control of his forces, keeping the exchanges wry and equivocal-sounding in terms of their emotional significance. Episode followed colourful episode, quicksilver turnovers of texture, a mock-march enlivened with triplet rhythm, and brassy shouts calling for reinforcements, resulting in a vigorous toccata-like ensemble strutting its stuff before Hall  tackled an extraordinary sequence of double-stopped intervals such as sevenths, the effect both hair-raising and exhilarating! Gradually the sequences gradually eased in tension as the soloist drew increasingly cantabile-like tones from  instrument, and the work’s opening returned, a magic-sounding “reawakening” of nature which the percussion and winds again joined in with, before allowing the silences to surge softly backwards at the end. It was a journey that left this listener open-mouthed in amazement with both the abundance of musical ideas and their execution…..

The second movement, named “Chaconni”, was the composer’s tribute to the tonal qualities of Hahn’s playing, projecting the idea that her beauty of utterance would inspire solo players in the orchestra to reply in kind. Thus it was here, with the winds setting the scene at the outset for the soloist’s exchanges with solo cello and cor anglais over constantly-murmuring resonances, in places reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral Symphony”. Such wind-blown sounds from the strings and various solo lines soaring in tandem like birdsong made a beautiful evocation of orchestral tapestry for the violinist to decorate with spontaneous-sounding outpourings. The winds enlivened the music’s trajectories, and the strings unfurled their sails for a few exhilarating moments – but Hall and Taddei were equal to the task of calling their cohorts to order and bid them hold their tones fast and and look at where they had come with the music. So it all became a celebration of being, of “living the moment”, of recognising that something special had been achieved, Hall’s solo violin murmuring the last notes with rapt delicacy.

After this, I felt the finale was less striking,  promising more than it actually seemed to give – being a sucker for the obvious I relished the thought of an Olympic Games-like orgy of excitement in victory and stellar achievement, as both the composer, in interview, and the movement’s title “Fly forward” suggested. In the wake of a “ready, steady…” couple of chords, the music lifted its head and gathered speed, everything very physical  and motoric, with plenty of cumulative excitement along the way punctuated by moments of on-the-spot realignment, allowing those of us  a bit out of condition to “catch up” before the trajectories kicked in again.  However, though the final orchestral tutti generated some steam, it seemed to me as if the “race” was suddenly finished with a lap or two still to go, the suddenness of the ending taking us all by surprise and leaving this listener disconcerted (no pun intended!)…..

Whatever one thought of this movement in isolation, one nevertheless felt exhilarated by the whole, the larger work whose development we had seemed almost to collaborate in by the act of listening! I thought it a fascinating and compulsively-wrought coalescence of the creative process, one which tonight’s incredible soloist, Amalia Hall, seemed to “own” the music in a way the composer would have imagined the work’s dedicatee, Hilary Hahn, would do. Fascinating, too, for me to encounter immediately afterwards, two diametrically-opposed reactions from other people (one a composer) regarding the work, a sure sign of the music’s (and the performance’s) power of engagement – something that simply couldn’t be passed over lightly – a great choice of repertoire for that alone!

The concert’s second half could hardly have been more different to the first’s finely-wrought explorations of poetic sensibility and high spirits (Dvořák) coupled with an act of musical homage by demonstration to a great performer’s skills and salient characteristics as a musician (Higdon). The inspiration for the 24 year-old Sergei Rachmaninov in beginning his First Symphony in 1895 remains something of an enigma – the work’s dedication bore the initials of a beautiful Gypsy woman acquaintance, Anna Lodyzhenskaya, the wife of a friend of the composer,  as well as a biblical quote from Romans 12:19 – “Vengeance is Mine – I will repay” (which Tolstoy used as an epigraph to his novel “Anna Karenina”) – but the symphony itself unequivocally expresses a tragic, pessimistic view of life which was deeply rooted in the composer’s psyche from the beginning. Thanks to an unfortunate first performance in 1897 badly conducted by fellow-composer Alexander Glazunov (who was very possibly drunk), and a vitriolic review from another fellow-composer, Cesar Cui, Rachmaninov experienced a crisis of creative confidence from which I feel he never really recovered as a creative artist. With the possible exception of the final movement of his 1913 oratorio “The Bells”, he never revisited such a blatantly despairing mode to such a remarkably focused and potent extent as in this work.

I imagined this music would be a gift for the combination of talents of Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington, and so it proved, the players as per usual punching far above their weight (effectively demonstrated by the platform’s surprisingly vast empty space at the rear of the violins, a space the NZSO would have easily filled with a bigger pool of players!) and tellingly substituting sharp-edged focus for sheer massiveness of sound in the biggest orchestral moments of the work. Throughout the first movement I was repeatedly taken aback by the richness of the string-led climaxes generated from so relatively few players, ably backed by winds and brasses, with the percussion playing its part in the big moments, though I thought the cymbal rolls a tad over-loud as “colour” in that wonderful Rimsky-Korsakov-like section leading to the reprise of the opening motif, however much their incisiveness contributed to the impact of the big moments.

The Scherzo movement here evoked a world of phantoms and shadows, the urgency and sense of agitation reinforced by rapier-like strokes from brass and percussion, and a trenchant solo from leader Justine Cormack, with everything suggested rather than stated outright, and adding to the unease and half-lit nightmarish quality of the music – the strings capture a certain hopelessness in their “dying fall” phrase, as from the “inferno” sequences of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.  By contrast the slow movement brought out the work’s first evocations of stillness, with the strings, followed by the clarinet and the other winds, creating an unmistakably Russian ambience which, on the surface, seemed “ghosted” by the shades of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, but then introduced both darker, and longer-breathed strands of deep, tragic feeling. The candour and grim purpose of these utterances made a perfect foil for the plaintiveness of the various solo strings whose tones were inexorably built up to a heartfelt lyrical climax,  winds and brass counterpointing the strings’ fervour with portentous reminiscences of the opening theme (the horns superb, here!), before allowing the sounds to subside, bringing about an uneasy close, despite the beauty of the clarinets’ playing in thirds at the end.

Vigorous, thrusting orchestral statements opened the finale, giving way to ceremonial fanfares punctuated by percussion, and answered by strings reiterating the opening rapier-thrusts, Taddei opening the orchestral throttle to great effect, the strings singing their hearts out and the winds, brass and percussion replying with frenzied outbursts. Some glorious playing from the oboe brought the other winds out from hiding, the strings joining in the lament-like figurations and seeming to placate the sufferings – but suddenly, the basses transformed the resigned mood into one of  defiance, the impulses building up to conflagrate the orchestral textures like wildfire, Taddei encouraging his players to stampede wildly and excitingly towards a sudden, fearful abyss-like silence. A pity the climactic resonating gong-stroke was activated a fraction late – it surely should have sounded in unison with the final note of the orchestral tutti, resonating in the gaping maw of the silence’s empty space.

What followed – one of the great orchestral perorations in Russian music – rendered in sound the grim “Vengeance is mine – I will repay” inscription on the score to overwhelming effect, the players giving what their conductor was asking for and more besides, lacking the sheer weight of some other performances I’d experienced, with greater numbers of players, but rivalling any in intensity and focus of sound – a thrilling experience!





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