The Capital Band’s “Strange Meetings” a resounding musical success

The Capital Band presents:
Music by Hindemith, Haydn and Vaughan Williams
Poems by Wilfred Owen

The Capital Band
Musical Director: Doug Harvey
Concertmaster: Nick Majic
Poetry Reciter: Doug Harvey

HINDEMITH – Trauermusik
HAYDN – Symphony No.45 in F-sharp Minor “Farewell”
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor (arranged for string orchestra by TCB)

Vogelmorn Hall, Vennell St,.Brooklyn

Saturday 19th June, 2021

In contrast to the evening’s dark, clammy, out-of-doors ambiences generated by the drizzing rain, the warmth and vibrancy of Brooklyn’s Vogelmorn Hall’s son et lumiere  and pre-concert bustle was a positive pick-me-up for this audience member, generating a palpable sense of something special about to happen far removed from the privations of the weather!

As with some of its previous concerts, the Band on this occasion offered an enticing mixture of standard, regularly-presented repertoire and an intriguing transcription for orchestra of a chamber work, in this case a seldom-performed string quartet by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I’d head the first of the string quartets via a recording, but hadn’t “graduated” to the second – and the Band’s heartfelt musical presentation of the work underlined my wonderment at its relative neglect (but more of that later).

Though the other two works were better-known, neither could be said to be regularly-programmed items at orchestral concerts, in particular the Haydn Symphony, which tends to be a work more talked about than played, even if I have from memory seen at least one other performance, and one which, as here, added the “theatricality” of the players departing one-by-one during the last movement – which is the whole “point” of the piece, of course!

First to be performed was the Hindemith work, the Trauermusik (in English, “Funeral Music” or “Mourning Music”), a piece for viola and string orchestra, written at short notice by the composer in a single day (21st January 1936) as a tribute to King George V of England, who had died the previous evening. Hindemith, who was himself a violist, was in England for the purpose of performing the English premiere of his Viola Concerto, Der Schwanendreher, but when the concert was cancelled because of the King’s death, was asked if he would in its place write a short commemorative piece instead.  Hindemith completed the work in just six hours that day, and with the string players from the same orchestra and conductor (the BBC Symphony and Adrian Boult) was the soloist in a live broadcast of Trauermusik that same evening – a premiere of a different kind!

The presentation throughout the whole concert was nothing if not theatrical, as if “leading on” from the worlds-within-worlds contrast between the rawness of the elements without and the warmth and geniality within the venue at the start; with atmospheric lighting at the performance’s beginning, adding focus to the welcome in Te Reo given us by one of the players, and indicating something of the solemnity of the music’s occasion. Conductor Doug Harvey got a warm, rich sound from his players at the music’s outset, one which brought out a homogeneity of solemn feeling while keeping the individual lines clear. I thought the lower and deeper of the viola soloist’s lines were delivered more warmly and securely, his intonation showing some strain here and there as his line rose, though the accompanying figures gave him plenty of unfailing support. This music always surprises me by its brevity, its sense of “not a note wasted” seeming to defy normal time in a trance-like manner, and awaken us from the spell at the end most unexpectedly – here, the ensemble’s playing readily took us to those realms, and evoked a moment in time, a quiet frisson of valediction.

We are a bit “spoiled” for the “first fifty” Haydn Symphonies in Wellington at present in relative terms, most recently with this performance of No. 45, and the ensemble Camerata gradually working through the earliest essays by the composer in this form, hopefully about to take on No.14 at an as yet undisclosed date! I was sure I’d seen a performance of the “Farewell” elsewhere here in Wellington over the last dozen or so years, but the Middle C search engine (since 2008) has come up empty-handed! Whatever the case this performance made up in spadefuls for the omission with both interpretative focus and performance commitment from the Band, the occasional roughness around the music’s edges mattering not a whit amid the excitement, humour and gracefulness of the playing overall.

At the beginning the vigorous driving rhythms sharply underlined the music’s dynamic contrasts, with horns and winds colouring the textures most evocatively, setting the initial urgency against the grace and good humour of the second subject group. Throughout, the musicians did their best to “fill out” the hall’s somewhat dry ambiences and impart some bloom to the sounds. The second movement tempo adroitly caught the music’s grace and gentle humour, the winds’ entries particularly “pointed” following the gently “covered” tones of the strings. I enjoyed the floated string lines over the deftly “etched-in” accompaniments at the beginning of the music’s middle section, as well as the horns’ beautifully-voiced call in thirds at another point, the enchantment of it all coming from the musicians seeming to really “care” about making their notes speak to us.

The rapid tempo for the minuet took me by surprise, but conductor Harvey and his players made it work, uproariously sounding the tutti sections in contrast to the “Jack, be nimble” feetwork of the surrounding sequences. By the time the horns had gotten to introduce the Trio, I was grooving along with the music most happily, and chortling, albeit unobtrusively, at the music’s “throwaway” ending!

The fourth movement’s allegro wasn’t rushed off its feet, here, but allowed some girth, while still able to scintillate in the quick-moving passages, the dynamics strongly-focused with terrific ensemble-playing. At the opening’s reprise,  the horns and winds sounded out splendidly, holding their lines amid the growing agitations, leading up to the dramatic luftpause. The adagio which followed featured the gradual exit of all the players (and the conductor), and a “thinning-out” of the orchestral textures, finally leaving but two of the first chair violinists, who, sweetly and demurely, finished the work.

Haydn diplomatically devised this composition “scheme” in response to his musicians’ pleas for the composer to intercede with their employer, Prince Esterhazy, to grant them a “break” after a protracted stay at the Prince’s summer palace in the country, a day’s journey away from their families in another town. Apparently the message was understood by the Prince, as the entire court returned to the town the day after the symphony’s performance! It was all beautifully done, with  straight faces from the players and wry amusement amongst the audience!

However, the theatricality of all of this was nothing compared with what awaited us throughout the concert’s second half. Vaughan Williams wrote two string quartets, the second of which dates from the years 1942-44, over thirty years after the earlier work was completed. Consequently the two quartets are literally worlds apart, the Second containing elements relating to both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which were composed at around the same period. The first three movements owe more to the post-war Sixth Symphony (though the slow movement touches on the earlier Symphony in places), whereas the finale appears to revisit the relative peace and serenity of the earlier(wartime) Fifth Symphony. It’s a work whose neglect in the chamber music repertoire is difficult to understand – and the Capital Band’s transcription of the work for string orchestra splendidly conveys the music’s character in all of its aspects

A feature of the work is the prominent writing for the viola, fruit of the composer’s friendship with a young violist, Jean Stewart, whose quartet, the Menges Quartet, gave the premiere performance of the work in 1944. The first movement sounds very VW, with terrific tension and conflict between upper and lower voices,  the figurations in each register obsessively “at odds” with each other, culminating in a ferocious tremolando outburst which exhausts the combatative instincts of the voices, and imposes a semblance of order upon their interaction, presided over by the viola, again, more reliable in the instrument’s lower register.

Solo strings began the slow movement, a lovely, intimate effect which continued up to the wider-spanned choral-like writing, when the whole ensemble joined in, the contrasting passages between solo strings and larger ensemble recalling similar moments in the composer’s “Thomas Tallis Fantasia”. I found a further extended passage for the quartet alone very moving, the violins especially lovely, the viola and ‘cello properly supportive.

The Scherzo returned us to the eerie, more nightmare-like quality of the Sixth Symphony’s Scherzo. The “haunted flight” of the rapid figurations was readily conveyed by the string body, although again, the viola soloist struggled with his intonation in places. And then, as if by magic, the music “found” a different voice for the work’s finale, the ensemble conjuring up wave upon wave of positive emotion and banishing the darkness – I thought the playing of the more “restrained” lines incredibly moving, here, readily conveying to us the sense of a journey undertaken from darkness into light.

Readers of this review who were at the concert may be wondering why I’ve not until now mentioned the conductor Doug Harvey’s “dramatized” readings of several poems by Wilfred Owen, interspersed between the quartet’s movements. Conscious as I am of the amount of sheer hard work that must have gone into memorising the words and sentiments of these poems and their “enactment”, I simply didn’t feel justice was done to them by Harvey choosing to overtly “dramatize” the narratives with extended movements and marked changes of voice-level for dramatic effect which resulted in a lot of the words losing their clarity and coherence. Someone I didn’t know who was sitting beside me confirmed afterwards that she too had struggled to make out many of the words for exactly the same reasons. Spoken words need clarity and focus in performance as strongly as music does; and I thought the clarity and focus of enunciation and meaning that was lacking in Harvey’s somewhat over-wrought verbal deliveries and depictions, were qualities that he and his musicians readily brought to the music throughout the concert, resulting in that side of things being a resounding success!

5 thoughts on “The Capital Band’s “Strange Meetings” a resounding musical success

  1. Allie says:

    I very much enjoyed the poetry and it helped create a strong narrative for the second half, and the delivery created context for people who aren’t familiar with the words and life of Wilfred Owen. The projection/volume could be improved with a microphone for the next time, but poetry shouldn’t be read at a single level without feeling.

    A ‘Strange Meeting’ I’d go to again.

  2. Caroline Campbell says:

    My friend, Sally, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Capital Band’s recent performance at Vogelmorn Hall. I particularly appreciate how Doug Harvey and his musicians are prepared to take risks and offer up something different to the norm. Moreover, I like that the band’s performance in an intimate space allows the audience to experience viscerally the chosen pieces, as well as the additional effects such as lighting, movement, and oration. Sally and I both felt that Harvey’s delivery of William Owen’s poems was heartfelt and moving.

  3. Egbert says:

    I thought the poetry reading was of a world class standard. The music was good but the poetry was heavenly. Rarely have I seen a man infuse his poetry with such diction, clarity and poise.

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