New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Stephen De Pledge – piano
First concert in ‘Podium’ Series: entitled Carnival
Ravel: La Valse and Piano Concerto in G
Anna Clyne: Masquerade
Stravinsky: Petrushka Ballet (1947 version)
Michael Fowler Centre
Friday 26 March, 6:30 pm
The first of the NZSO’s main concert series, which is entitled the “Podium Series”, proved a conspicuous triumph. Though it might have seemed difficult to account for the name “Carnival” which was given to this particular concert, it was vividly illuminated in Feby Idrus’s colourful and well-informed programme notes, indirectly with La Valse, but quite specifically with Petrushka, where the word relates directly to Stravinsky’s setting of the first tableau of the ballet – Carnival or Shrovetide which precedes Lent.
However, it was a near full house, marking an encouraging change from audiences in the past year or so; it also marked the steadily rising reputation and popularity of the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in Residence, Hamish McKeich.
The programme booklet was free: an excellent move, considering the intelligence and illuminating character of Feby Idrus’s writing.
There were two distinctive aspects to the programme: two of Ravel’s most distinguished works and one of Stravinsky’s first ballet scores: Petrushka which retains its undiminished popularity as a vivid and colourful ballet as well as being a brilliant, luminous orchestral masterpiece.
I must seek vindication for the pleasure I get from Ravel’s La valse, in live performance compared with a recording, since I’ve recently been enjoying a personal Ravel festival, recapturing CDs, recordings of Ravel from the SKY Arts channel, and on the ubiquitous You Tube on the Internet. This music reflects both Ravel’s and my love of the Viennese waltz, especially of the Strauss family, Waldteufel, Offenbach, Kalman, etc.
This performance illuminated the music’s dynamism and rhythmic energy through Ravel’s remarkably colourful scene of a Viennese dance-hall which, in her programme notes, Feby Idrus captured beautifully. She related not only the scornful reaction by ballet impresario Diaghilev to Ravel’s piano performance of the score, but an illuminating description of the evolution of the music and its ‘growing wildness’, depicting a ‘heartbeat fraught with panic’. They were words that vividly described this frenzied yet disciplined performance.
Ravel’s piano concerto (for both hands) is a profoundly different work, with the piano part in the hands of one of New Zealand’s leading pianists, Stephen De Pledge. It emerged with clarity and the careful application of rhythmic energy, even in the jazz coloured Adagio movement with its extended solo piano opening: idiomatic but essentially classical in character. To quote again from the programme notes, the concerto as a whole ‘remains aerated by jazz’s sweet perfume’. After several returns demanded by the audience, De Pledge played Couperin’s fairly familiar song La Basque with a lively spirit; though its translation from the clarity of the harpsichord to the modern piano is not quite the same.
The second half began with what I assume was the first New Zealand performance of a rowdy piece written for the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 by 40-year-old English composer Anna Clyne: Masquerade; inspired by the kind of music played in London’s 18th century pleasure gardens, such as the famous Vauxhall Gardens; judging by its spirit and liveliness it would have been a hit there, as it probably was at the Proms. Boisterous and constantly varied as it was, it hardly matched Stravinsky’s melodically and rhythmically inspired ballet music that followed.
Stravinsky revised the 1911 original version of Petrushka in 1946 (performed in 1947) for a slightly smaller orchestra, altering certain instrumental features, but partly because the original was not covered by copyright in all countries, and thus delivered the composer no royalties. The orchestra played that later version, probably detectable to no one but the relative instrumentalists and conductor.
Of course, the theme of the ballet doesn’t demand music of a profound character, but it is nevertheless a unique score, quite as remarkable as The Right of Spring which rather outshone Petrushka two years later with its violence, rhythmic and thematic complexity. The score derives its profundity by means of its unique, half-hour-long musical inspiration. Yes there were moments of a certain ensemble smudginess in Petrushka, but the overwhelming energy and passion were dominant throughout the entire performance.
But if you’d like to see and hear a very remarkable, yet somehow genuine performance of the composer’s Three Movements for piano, look at Yuja Wang on YouTube.
What a splendidly successful way for the orchestra to open its year!