Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Holly Mathieson’s “Dream” debut concert with the NZSO….

By , 14/05/2021

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
FANTASTIQUE – Music by Takemitsu, Dorothy Ker and Berlioz

TORU TAKEMITSU – Dream (Yume no Toki)
DOROTHY KER – The Third Dream
HECTOR BERLIOZ – Symphonie Fantastique Op.14

Holly Mathieson (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, May 14th, 2021

If this were Australia, the use of the word “Dreamtime “ would perhaps more readily come to mind as an idea which loosely connects the three pieces played in this evening’s concert – as it is, in the case of the opening work, Toru Takemitsu’s 1981 work Dreamtime (Yume no Toki), the composer proclaimed his interest in the idea as a kind of starting-point, inspired by an invitation to attend a gathering of Aboriginal singers, dancers, musicians and storytellers at Groot Eylandt, an island in the Australian Northern Territory. Takemitsu never intended the work which eventuated to represent Australian indigenous culture, and much less the “true concept” of the Dreamtime, as would more obviously neither Dorothy Kerr’s nor Hector Berlioz’s work – each piece instead evokes in its own way a “sense” of what the subconscious mind can convey in the form of dreams pertaining to vastly different worlds and personalities.

It made for an extraordinarily thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying evening’s music, one I thought most skilfully reimagined and directed by New Zealand conductor Holly Mathieson, making her debut with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. I first encountered her work as a conductor of opera, which to my ears resulted in a riveting realisation for New Zealand Opera of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”; and was thus anxious to compare her work as a symphonic conductor with another New Zealander who’s recently made HER debut with the orchestra, Gemma New – it’s kind of ironic that both musicians currently have music directorships of orchestras in Canada after working as assistant conductors with prestigious ensembles, Mathieson with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and New with the St.Louis Symphony Orchestra in the US.

Hazardous though the practice can prove for those less adept, Mathieson took the microphone on her arrival and spoke with us, enthusiastically welcoming us to the concert, and deftly characterising the pieces we were about to hear with some well-wrought descriptions and images.  She advised us to “put on our Debussy/Ravel ears” for the Takemitsu work we were about to hear, before cautioning us that the Dorothy Ker work that followed would be a completely different kind of “dream experience”. She then demurely indicated that we would be left to our own imaginations’ devices regarding the Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique”, the music’s scenario being so well-known and the movement’s titles allowing our fancy plenty of free rein.

Takemitsu’s self-avowed love of French music to my ears haunted his Dreamtime, its textures hovering between a kind of Debussy-esque impressionism and a Messiaen-like unpredictability, yet throughout the composer brought his own kind of gentle volatility to its language, a capriciousness that made each of the work’s wave-like impulses weave its own spell before drawing back into mystery – we found ourselves at one and the same time sated with the fantastical detailing of each outpouring, every gentle irruption of sound uniquely constituted, yet refreshed by the wonder of the ebb which ruled the course of each flow. I found it all exerted a spell from which I was awoken by silence, everything miraculously wrought by orchestral playing of the utmost delicacy and the surest motivation, and contrived by what seemed like limitless sensitivity of direction from the conductor. I was reminded here of the famous British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s well-known prescription for successful interpretation as “maximum virility allied to maximum sensitivity”, with the music’s focus never in doubt throughout moments of both intensity and serenity. The piece’s fourteen minutes seemed akin in a timeless sense to poet William Blake’s phrase “eternity in an hour”, where the poet’s words become the agents of vast possibilities similar to those in Takemitsu’s music.

Nothing could have been more different to Takemitsu’s evocations of light and movement than the deep darkness of the concert’s next piece, Dorothy Ker’s The Third Dream, a work whose cavernous percussive impulses at the beginning suggested primordial gestation processes involving deep awakenings, as if the listener had been put in synch with “deep earth” mysteries. The programme note quotes Ker as tracing the origins of this work back to a music theatre work she wrote derived from the Greek myth of Iphigenia, a princess whom the gods demanded be sacrificed by her own father, Agamemnon, in exchange for a “fair passage” to the wars at Troy for him and his army, and whose mother, Clytemnestra relived her anger and despair at her daughter’s sacrifice through dreams. These dreams intensified her anger to the point where “The Third Dream” culminated in Clytemnestra murdering her husband on his return from the Trojan Wars – Ker “lifted” this sequence from the theatre work and reorchestrated it for full symphony orchestra.

From the darkness the sounds gradually coagulated, each impulse a kind of “awakening strand” which wrapped itself around others and stimulated further growth, much of which came from instruments whose players were directed by the composer to establish their own trajectories, unsynchronised with others, a textural and rhythmic scenario which at once engendered “freedom and chaos”, the flecks of impulse becoming like shrapnel, the detailings leaving harsh, indelible imprints. The percussion’s frenzied tatooings and seismic rumblings stimulated shouts of exuberance  from the brass before the opening thundersheet textures returned, bringing with its unrelenting presence an increased volatility, allied to a tremendous weight of baleful, almost vengeful intent, some of the darkest-browed music I’ve ever directly experienced! A rawness, befitting spent and despairing inclination, moaned a lament as the music sounded its death-knell.

After the interval we were intrigued to see a relatively unfamiliar figure approaching the podium to take up the microphone – it turned out to be the orchestra’s contrabassoon player, David Angus, bent upon a mission, that of marking the retirement and final appearance of his colleague in the orchestra, Principal Bassoonist Robert Weeks, with a speech of appreciation and farewell that was amongst the funniest and drollest salutation to a colleague I’ve ever heard given. To his credit, Robert Weeks, after taking a few moments to recover, managed to get to his feet to acknowledge our tribute made by way of applause – amid all the amusement, a moving moment!

So it was then time for a “third dream” of a different kind, that of Hector Berlioz in his “Symphonie Fantastique” of 1830. The work’s title immediately poses a difficulty for any aspiring interpreter of this work – does she or he emphasise the “Symphonie” or the “Fantastique” in the piece? In a sense the two terms denote opposing characteristics, broadly, those of order and fancy, respectively – and any conductor of the work will seek to “marry” these opposite qualities in a more-or-less coherent sense according to her or his idea of what will “work” best.

I thought Holly Mathieson got the first movement absolutely right in terms of finding a balance between structure and spontaneity – the opening music dreamlike, fragmented, episodic, creative, seemingly conjured out of the ether,  the conductor fluid in her movements, tending to use both arms as well as the baton to describe whole roulades of sound with her gestures, but getting the required “attack” as the strings raced through the cross-rhythms to the first “peak” of excitement, and pointedly bringing out the wind augmentations to the strings’ excitable reiteration of the opening. And what a magical sequence we next enjoyed! – with the strings descanting the horn and winds just before the marvellous string tremolandi which led to the appearance of the “idee fixe”, the “motif” which Berlioz will use to denote his ‘beloved” in her many guises throughout the work.
The melody here was buoyant, eager, supple and yielding, and readily “gathered in” as the music gratifyingly pirouetted into the repeat, the fluency and dexterity of the playing even more free and astonishing a second time round! At the development. It was the lower strings that burgeoned forth excitingly with a series of phrases that excitably led to a series of great crescendi, breaking off to allow the horn to introduce the “idee fixe” on the winds this time, the strings grabbing the attention again with a fugal passage, at the end of which Mathieson beautifully facilitated a “moment” of reflection, an “are we all here” sequence, with the lower strings growling their assent.

It was time for the oboe to instigate the thematic passage that must have amazed contemporary ears with its startling modulatory explorations and almost vertiginous swerves of harmony, building up to a great tutti passage, the conductor here not perhaps getting the most exciting and recklessly abandoned playing I’ve heard, but certainly the most detailed! – a second crescendo reinforced its confident sense of arrival, and subsequent readiness to “sing” the movement’s epilogue as if it were a hymn, and the moment had created something almost transfigured…..

At the swirling, mist-shrouded beginning of the second movement, “Un Bal”, I noticed the conductor actually pirouetting on one foot at one point, giving an extra bit of swing to the dance’s opening, the waltz-tune itself then relaxing into a sensual and dream-like manner. I liked the extra angularity of the double basses’ accompaniments to the “idee fixe” in its appearance, and the richness of the string-tone, even if the solo cornet’s optional extra colour and character was missed. Mathieson caught the gathering of excitement at the dance’s end, the clarinets and flutes bringing out the sensual beauty of the melody associated with the “beloved”, before the strings spectacularly whirled everything and everybody away in the dance’s coda.

The beautiful exchanges between the shepherds’ pipes at the beginning of the “Scène aux champs”, with the offstage oboe replying to the song of the cor anglaise onstage, inspired the violas to enchant us with their rapt voicing of the ascending melody which followed (a lovely accented note at one point!), the conductor getting such astonishingly atmospheric playing from all concerned here – the textures achieve a real “glow” with the help of the horn and the wind choir. Later, the cellos similarly delighted us with the richness of their tones, enhanced by the double-basses’ accenting of their accompaniments, though in the string passages that subsequently built up I thought that the conductor “kept back” the tremolandi outbursts that accompanied the winds playing of the “idee fixe”, as she seemed to do the tempestuous full orchestral outburst that followed. But how lovely were both flutes and clarinet in the passage that followed, joined by the equally poetic oboe at the end, Mathieson then deftly shaping the strings decrescendo just before the return of the shepherd’s song. The heartbreak of the abandoned cor anglais here was almost palpable, even if I thought the timpani were in reply allowed to get too loud too quickly, missing some of the initial menace.

Mathieson chose a quickish tempo for the “Marche au supplice”, exciting in its way, though perhaps having the effect of glossing over the nightmarish crudities and grotesqueries of the scene – the  bassoons’ mockery of the victim in the tumbrel, the timpani’s rumbling of the cart’s wooden wheels and the brass’s snarlings with the mob’s blood-lust – even so, the orchestral detailing leading up to the tremendous crashes in the march’s central section unerringly captured the ear, as did the ironic charge of emotion in the clarinet’s playing of the “idee fixe”, just before the piece’s gruesome climax, Mathieson grimly cutting off the brass’s shouts of triumph at the victim’s beheading.

Even if I felt that I wanted the climax of the symphony’s final “Witches’ Sabbath” scene to be a notch or two wilder and harsher, I thought Mathieson’s control of the opening of the scene was stunningly evocative, with the players delivering the focus and bite the music seemed to call for, the winds balefully “bending” their raptor-like cries, and the basses rumbling their cavernous tones with real menace. I did think the bells underpowered, the idea seeming to be that they sound from a distance, which unfortunately had the effect of lessening their louring, clamorous impact. The brass and percussion response throughout was for the most part overwhelming, even if those two simultaneously-played-though-not-quite-concurrent sets of repeated chords amidst the frenzy of the Witches’ Dance could have been further de-synchronised by the conductor – they sounded too integrated and well-behaved!! Still, the absolute mayhem that broke out at the end was properly gratifying, as was the audience response to the music-making, which, in tandem with Holly Mathieson’s promising NZSO debut, had helped to make this concert such a memorable and significant event, a most appropriate scenario in which to wish her the warmest of welcomes!

 

 

 

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