Orchestra Wellington: huge percussion resources exploited in Psathas masterpiece from Olympus complemented by huge Rachmaninov symphony

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei
With Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion) and Michael Houston (piano)

John Psathas: View from Olympus: Concerto for percussion, piano, and orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op 27

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 5 December 2020

The large line-up of percussion instruments at the front of the orchestra would have given an inkling to the audience that they would be in for a challenging, interesting evening of music. Although the John Psathas’ View from Olympus has had many performances, premiered by the Halle Orchestra in Manchester in 2002, it is still music off the beaten track for an audience of predominantly older concert goers. The Rachmaninoff Symphony is something else, a justifiably well-worn favourite of the concert repertoire.

John Psathas, View from Olympus
This concerto work was commissioned by the internationally renowned percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. It draws on the New Zealand composer’s Greek heritage. It makes use of Greek mythology and describes in three movements 1. The Furies and their avenging spirits, 2. To Yelasto Paithi (The smiling child), and 3. Dance of the Maenads. The first movement, conjuring up the Furies opens with vigorous rhythms that echoed some of Stravinsky’s early ballet music, but the music was distinctively Psathas, exploiting the tone colours, tone quality and unique sounds of the large array of percussion instruments.

In the midst of the furious loud noises a solo violin is introduced for a few bars, something that clearly had a special meaning for Psathas and Greek listeners familiar with the music of the popular Greek violinist, Stathis Koukoularis. The second movement is calm and peaceful, reflecting, as Psathas said, ‘the feelings inspired by his own precious children. A passage with wind chimes gently ringing creates an otherworldly dreamlike sound. The rhythmic patterns suggest children’s songs, games. nursery rhymes, without explicitly quoting any. The last movement is violent, suggesting the Maenads possessed, in an ecstatic frenzied dance, belabouring each other. The loud drum beats create an unsettling impression of mayhem.

The piano was a partner in a dialogue with the percussion instruments. It was also a link, a commentator, that gave coherence to the sounds of a large group of diverse percussion. There is none of the romantic singing tone, the light and shade that is associated with the grand piano. The piece is an exploration of rhythmic texture, and asks questions about the nature of music, can there be music without melody, based purely on rhythm and various tone colours?

The constant repetition of small musical patterns suggests minimalism, but there is nothing minimal in this huge innovative concerto. It uses large resources with not only a percussion solo that involves vibraphone, marimba, simtak (a steel cylinder played with fingers), dulcimer, steel drums, wind chimes, drum stations, cymbals, tom-toms and various other instruments to hit or stroke, as well as a solo amplified piano, but also an orchestra with two percussion players, timpani, two harps, a full complements of brass, wind and strings.

John Psathas does not belong to any modern musical tradition. He is an individual, unique entity, and his music is like that of no one else according to his publisher Promethean Editions.  Innovative, different, perhaps difficult as this work might have been, it was received with an enthusiastic ovation by the large audience.

As an encore Michael Houston and Jeremy Fitzsimons played Fragments for vibraphone and piano, a work associated with this concerto. It is related in musical material to the second movement of the concerto. John Psathas joined Michael Houston to turn the pages.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2
Rachmaninoff harks back to a very different era. This symphony was written in the turbulent times of 1906-7 and this is reflected in the tension and drama of the music.  It captures the spirit of old Russia that was about to change. Rachmaninoff wrote it in Dresden where he moved to escape the turmoil in Russia in the wake of the 1905 revolution. He set out to write a symphony following the success of his Second Piano Concerto and establish himself as a symphonic composer after the critical failure of his first symphony.

The Second Symphony is a huge challenging work for an orchestra. It is a long, demanding work that lasts about an hour. It is very intense music which places, great demands on every section of the orchestra. The first movement starts with a brooding, dark, slow introduction. This leads to a haunting melody which is then expanded, broken up into small blocks that become a constituent part of the development. There are colourful wind and brass passages. The strings are required to dig deep to produce a lush, rich tone. The second movement starts with a hectic, driven passage that leads to an expressive melody. Then layers upon layers of the song-like melodies lead to a grand climax.

The third movement introduces a lyrical theme that has at times a fairy-tale like quality. The final movement starts with an energetic gopak kind of dance, followed by a haunting melody. It is no wonder that the rich texture of the themes of this symphony have been used in a number of films and were adopted in popular music. The orchestra mastered the challenges of this colossal work, with some beautiful playing in the solo wind and brass passages. It was a clear but restrained reading. The orchestra did Rachmaninoff proud.

This was the end of a very difficult season, but despite its challenges, the orchestra performed all its subscription concerts and gave some 180 performances. Marc Taddei, the conductor, congratulated the orchestra in a short speech.  He describes it as a virtuoso orchestra, he also congratulated the audience, and noted that this orchestra had the largest audiences of any orchestras in the country during the season,

Taddei then announced the concerts of the next season, with focus on ‘virtuoso’ music, from Paganini and Liszt to Bartók and Lutosławski as well as the orchestra’s Composer in Residence, John Psathas. It was a beautiful, moving concert, with the grand sound of the Rachmaninoff Symphony left ringing in people’s ears.



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