A girdle about the earth from Antarctica to Leningrad – the NZSO National Youth Orchestra concert

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

NYO Leningrad

IHIARA McINDOE ( NYO Composer-in-Residence) – Ephemeral Bounds
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 7 in C Major “Leningrad”

NZSO National Youth Orchestra
Gemma New (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 11th July, 2021

It was going to be something of a risk, programming a work by the NYO Composer in Residence against one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century. A risk – or an act of faith.

Ihiara McIndoe’s Ephemeral Bounds was written in response to a visit to Antarctica last year, courtesy of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. It used less than half the players required for the Shostakovich, and scattered a few of them around the stalls which added little moments of surprise. The work opened with bold gestures from conductor Gemma New turning on the lighting that illuminated them and other players positioned eccentrically on the staging (such as the double basses behind and above the brass).  Some supplementary NZSO players were also on stage.

The work itself sustained my interest for the full ten minutes. Shimmering ice was suggested by very small glissandi from the upper strings, with the flutes and piccolo creating a chilly distance.  Crystalline harp plus percussion. Muted trumpets. The distant sound of a small engine receding. Waves breaking.  And then the much larger engine of the ice; deep, grinding. Sostenuto tuba. The sound is briefly enveloping. Wind. The violas tell us something sad, something ominous. A crescendo of storm (trombones, bassoons, lower strings). Another growl of motors.  A melancholy tune from the concertmaster – but quickly falls silent. A siren-line sound from a solo cello. Woodwind chords.

The piece closed, as it began, with the tiny string glissandos, then silence.

As usual with a new work, it is hard to see past the many clever effects. I was busy throughout trying to determine which instrument created which effect before it ceased. Will this become a much-loved addition to the concert repertoire? Is it challenging to rehearse and stage? My guess is that it is fun to play, and Gemma New, who enjoys working with new and experimental works, clearly enjoyed conducting it.

At this point the NZSO took advantage of the full house to hand out some awards. This year, CEO Peter Biggs told us, every player in the NYO has been sponsored. In addition, all the string players had to re-audition for their seat at the start of the rehearsal period. The John Chisholm Concertmaster Prize was awarded to Peter Gjelsten (Violin I); the Alex Lindsay Memorial Award to Eli Holmes (Principal Bassoon); and the Norbert Hauser Viola Award to Zephyr Wills. The Bill Clayton Memorial Award winner was selected by Gemma New, who gave the award to Isabella Thomas (Principal Trumpet). The audience stamped its approval.

The pre-concert talk was a series of presentations by players on aspects of the Shostakovich. From the snatches I caught, the players were well aware of the circumstances of its composition and its historical significance. The orchestration is huge: 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, tuba, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, two harps, and at least 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses. Plus a big percussion section (5 timpani, 2-3 snares, and so on). To make up the numbers, the NYO was augmented by NZSO players as required, which meant we benefited from Robert Orr on oboe, Michael Austin on cor anglais, David Angus on contrabassoon, and Larry Reece on timpani. But the credit remains with the NYO players.

This is a monumental work, and the NYO approached it with the seriousness of purpose and steadfast application it demands. The author of the programme notes seemed to be of the view that Shostakovich wrote the symphony in response to the 1941 attack on Leningrad and its subsequent siege by the Germans. But the ‘invasion theme’ of the first movement builds to such a mirthless climax, that the hidden programme, the destruction of Leningrad and its people by Stalin in the 1930s, was clear to all who had ears. There is wreckage by the end of the movement. There are pitiable wails. There is almost no sign of life. The bassoon threnody is beautiful, but that relentless snare drum rhythm ticks away in a menacing undertone, and the trumpets are still ironic.

For those without ears, the NZSO provided ‘performance visuals’ by ‘leading creatives Nocturnal’. My heart sank when I saw this on the programme, but they were moody and unobtrusive (or as unobtrusive as a projection on a huge screen can be), and not too literal. I expect there were people in the audience who appreciated them, but to my mind Shostakovich’s music needs no visual interpretation, though some iceberg pictures may have usefully added to the atmospherics of the McIndoe work.

The second and third movements are freighted in sorrow. The brass choir that opened the third movement announced loss and doom. There were superb performances by Sam Zhu (tuba), Benedict van Leuven (clarinet), Harrison Chau (harp) and terrifying energy from the lower brass and strings. The percussion was splendid and inexorable. But it’s unfair to single anyone out: everyone played their hearts out, and if some of the best playing came from NZSO players, it hardly matters.

The C major climax in the fourth movement was preceded by elegiac themes in the strings, tenderness turning to tragedy, resilience haunted by loss. The climax itself presented a kind of triumph: grand, certainly, but for how long? Not long, the snare drum says. Not long at all.

I found this performance very moving. At some point in the fourth movement I had tears in my eyes, though I was not aware of them until it was over. All I wanted to do afterwards was to retreat to some quiet corner, alone and silent. The mirthless trumpets, the cynical snare drum came with me.




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