Spacious, enraptured, beautiful – Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Baroque Voices and Nota Bene

MARIA GRENFELL – River, Mountain, Sky
ELGAR – Variations on an original theme – “Enigma”
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Five Mystical Songs / Serenade to Music

Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Baroque Voices and Nota Bene
Will King (baritone)
Ewan Clark (conductor)

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 4th July 2021

For as long as I can remember, Wellington Chamber Orchestra has been a player-run orchestra which engages conductors by the concert.  This, I suppose, has some advantages. It gives the orchestra maximum freedom and minimum financial commitments. But it also tries to provide solo opportunities for young musicians, and given the inevitable coming and going of people from one concert to the next, the result must be a certain unevenness.

After today’s concert, I have a suggestion to make to WCO’s player managers. Hire Ewan Clark, and extract a two-year programme from him – and you will be going places, I guarantee it. Continuity, artistic vision, and stability have a lot to recommend them.

Ewan Clark is a composer and conductor as well as a trombonist. He has been conducting since he was a music student at Victoria University, nearly 20 years ago. Since then he has studied composition for screen at the Royal College of Music (MMus) and he also has a PhD from Victoria University. For years he worked mostly as a film composer, and his most recent score, for The Turn of the Screw (2020), has already won two awards at international film festivals.

This concert demonstrated what WCO is capable of under a talented conductor, with the support of excellent friends (in this case singers from Baroque Voices and Nota Bene, together with the phenomenal young baritone Will King).

The programme, as first glance, was not exceptionally interesting. Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs and Serenade to Music – all agreeable old war-horses – plus a short work by Australian/New Zealand composer Maria Grenfell to open the concert. Apart from the Grenfell work, it wasn’t interesting at all, in the sense of ‘I wonder what will happen next’, but it was very pleasurable. And there were surprises.

Maria Grenfell now lives in Tasmania, but she studied composition in Christchurch before going to Eastman in the US for her Masters, and UCLA for her doctorate. She tells us that she works from ‘poetic, literary, and visual sources’ as well as ‘non-Western music and literature’.  I discerned none of this in River, Mountain, Sky, which was commissioned for Tasmania’s bicentenary in 2004, but it was a delightful work nonetheless, with a clear programme and much to interest the ear. The first section features birdsong sounds from flutes and other woodwind, with first the timpani, then the horns suggesting spaciousness.  Sustained chords painted in a landscape of mountains and plains; recalling first Sibelius in the writing for the horns, then a dissolve into Vaughan Williams. The mountains section built in slow waves of sound, accented by unmuted trumpets and the harp (Anne-Gaelle Ausseil). I was sitting upstairs, and the harp was often overwhelmed by the timpani – perhaps an effect of the gallery? There was some lovely clarinet playing on the way to the sunset crescendo, and then the night sounds – oboe, the sussurations of the higher strings, muted trumpets, another lovely harp passage, and then an undertone of horns with flute, trumpet, and harp to suggest the starry night. A lovely work, I thought.

Next, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It demands a large orchestra, and bristles with solos, made even harder because everyone in the audience can sing or whistle the tunes. And the playing was patchy.  The upper strings were considerably weaker than the lower strings, with uneasy tuning and a general air of tentativeness that marred the opening of Variation I. But the back of the orchestra rose to the many challenges that Elgar gave them, and the winds played beautifully, with some superb oboe solos and secure flutes and clarinets. I have to say, though, that the horns were terrific. They and the trombones get a lot of work; whilst the trombones were always enthusiastic but not necessarily delicate, the horns were tender as well as bold. By the time they got to the crescendo in Variation IV, the orchestra was making a big, exciting sound. The lower brass were great in Variation VII, and there was terrific wind playing in VIII after the lovely oboe solo, with sensitive piccolo and flute. Nimrod crept out of VIII as intended but although the lower strings played as one, the upper strings sounded uncomfortable and out of tune. Never mind! Here come the horns, winds, and finally the trumpets. Variation X was a curate’s egg, but one with a nice bassoon solo. Variation XI showed off the brass to good effect. By the time we reached Variation XIV the orchestra sensed the end was in sight. They built well to a splendid Elgarian crescendo, with a few rough edges.

The choir came on stage for the second half of the concert, which began with Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs. The soloist was Will King, who was an Emerging Artist with NZ Opera in 2019, and is supported by the Malvina Major Foundation. He has already sung Orfeo (Monteverdi) and Count Almaviva (Marriage of Figaro), along with Sam in Gareth Farr’s opera The Bone Feeder for NZ Opera. He has performed Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and Brahms’s Vier Ernste Gesänge. Later this year, he will understudy Orpheus in the NZ Opera production of Orfeo et Euridice.  When he won the Wellington Aria in 2018, Richard Greagor described him as ‘a baritone clearly with the potential to make a fine career’.

Not surprisingly, Will King made a splendid job of the Five Mystical Songs. He has a big, beautiful voice and excellent musicianship. From his first entry, he demonstrated the vigorous, rapturous sound that these songs demand. His diction is superb – I could have taken dictation from him. At one point during ‘Love bade me welcome’ I wondered whether he understood the poetry – George Herbert was a religious mystic, after all. But it was impossible to tell, because he thoroughly understood the music, and gave a superb performance. ‘The Call’ featured a gorgeous oboe solo, and Will King was lyrical perfection.

The choir acts mostly as backing group for the first four songs, until let off the leash in number five, ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’. I first sang this in the Auckland University Choir under Peter Godfrey, back in the late Cretaceous, and recall it as a bit of a shout. Not in the hands of Ewan Clark and Baroque Voices/Nota Bene. It was big and glad and joyful, with WCO’s wind and brass romping all over it.

The final work in the programme was Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. This was written at about the time RVW was giving Douglas Lilburn a bad mark for the Drysdale Overture in his composition class at the Royal College of Music. The choir sang well, with various small solos being charmingly taken by one or two voices. Once or twice in quiet passages the orchestra overwhelmed the choir, but mostly the balance was good, with the choir’s sound delightfully imitating the instruments.  (I’m not sure whether to thank Ewan Clark or RVW, but it was lovely nonetheless.) The audience was enraptured, and applauded long enough to be rewarded with an encore, a reprise of ‘Let all the world’, which never sacrificed style for volume.

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