NZSO with three widely varied works: two masterpieces and a charming, approachable New Zealand concerto

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New with Stephen De Pledge (piano)

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Anthony Ritchie: Piano Concerto No 3
Sibelius: Symphony No 5 in E flat, Op 82

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20 November, 6:30 pm

The audience at this concert would have been intrigued, as they took their seats, to see some orchestra members finding their way to a row of music stands in the gallery above and behind the orchestra: two players each of first and second violins, violas, cellos and one double bass.  The rest – strings only of course – were in their normal places

Vaughan Williams with Tallis
The position of players was for Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. As the programme note explained, the two groups reflected, not a sort of concerto grosso as it might have been reflecting the music of a century later, but the two fundamental manuals of a pipe organ: the Great and the Swell.

The nine concertino players, standing high at the rear, handling the “Swell” part, entered first, sounded singularly remote and ethereal (at least from my seat middle stalls) while the ripieno section, the remainder of the strings reflecting the “Great” organ sounded normal; and each took turns at articulating the Tallis melody.  To have been intrigued by this disposition suggested that I had perhaps not heard the piece played live before, or certainly not in this arrangement, and I was enchanted.

After a few minutes during which my attention was drawn to the singularly expressive gestures from the conductor Gemma New; then to a warm solo viola in the main orchestra introducing solos by other strings. New inspired the orchestra to such vivid playing, with such commitment that the entire work had the audience transfixed. The music lends itself to such treatment of course, though I can imagine that not long ago many conductors and audience members of a critical disposition might have found her intense, large-scale gestures excessive. But if it brings the music to life in such a remarkable way, then what’s to criticise?

I have been heard to lament that RNZ Concert’s Settling the Score has, I suspect through unfamiliarity, not placed the Tallis Fantasia at No 1 place instead of the Skylark. The entire audience here could be guaranteed to vote for it in 2021, if possible in this wonderful account under Gemma New.

Ritchie’s Piano Concerto 3
Anthony Ritchie’s Third Piano Concerto could hardly have been a more singular contrast. It was written in 2008 for Emma Sayers and the Manakau Symphony Orchestra and has been performed several times and been recorded by SOUNZ with its dedicatee Sayers and the APO under Uwe Grodd. Stephen de Pledge’s piano opened quietly, creating a peaceful, pensive spirit that lasts about three minutes. It’s followed by a traditional Allegro whose purpose is to be playable and enjoyable rather than an exhibition of either the composer’s cleverness or the pianist’s virtuosity. There were no suggestions of its composition by a disciple of Schoenberg or Boulez, and the end of the first movement had a piano part that could be by Rachmaninov.

The orchestral score, written for a semi-professional orchestra, creates no impossibilities, though there are striking opportunities for brass phrases. The vividness of the orchestral playing was conspicuously the result of New’s understanding of its unpretentious character.

Much of the slow second movement is for piano solo (hardly a ‘cadenza’), with orchestral instruments such as a bassoon participating quietly. The entire movement is based on a recognisable melody which develops in a charming, meditative way; as the programme notes explain, it’s in modal keys, but it’s essentially melodic and any departure from conventional harmony is for the attention of musicologists. It created a charming experience that New and De Pledge handled with great sensitivity. The last movement, much shorter, was bright and playful, offering the pianist attractive opportunities to be both demonstrative and congenial.

As an encore, De Pledge played one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces – the charming Nocturne in C, Op 54 No 4. Is it still as well-known as it always seemed to me?

Sibelius Fifth
The performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony was the climax of the concert where, having got a taste of Gemma New’s dynamism and influence over the players, there was no doubt that this great symphony would be a thrilling experience. For one thing, the performance immediately created a sense of the music’s originality; every phrase, the opening horns and woodwinds, seemed to be both a fresh perception and a new revelation of a long-loved masterpiece.

New revealed a talent for building Sibelius’s several accelerating climaxes as if an entirely new experience. The climax at the end of the first movement created an outburst of applause and shouting that could in no way be ascribed to new-comers’ ignorance of the shape of the symphony. And the deliberate slow movement created suspenseful, deeply felt experience; rhythmically firm and compelling, endlessly repeated motifs that were steadily hypnotic as they accelerated.

The shift into the last movement without any sense of a missing Scherzo is the norm, but it’s always interesting to listen to the fade-out, the moment’s pause and then the clap of the timpani that begins the last movement. It created at once an expectation of the extraordinary suspense of the endless repetition and evolution, sometimes a mere whisper, of the monumental theme that cohabits with the dancing woodwind tune; but eventually takes charge into the glorious, suspenseful finale.

Again the applause was long and serious, celebrating a concert that in its imaginative entirety was a huge success.



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