Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
The 50th Anniversary Concert
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Festive Overture Op.96
GARETH FARR Terra Incognita (2008)
GUSTAV HOLST – The Planets Op.32
Alan Gibbs Centre, Wellington College
Saturday 28th May, 2022
The Alan Gibbs Centre was packed to the gills, and buzzing with celebratory vibes, for this ambitious concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the WCO. The stage as well was crowded and festive, with past members of the Orchestra making a return to its ranks for this gala programme. In keeping with the mood and the occasion, the programme opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture (Op. 96). Written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution, this party of a piece contains no hint of the shadows and ironies that mark the composer’s more contemplative works – likely because he was given no time to contemplate it: the overture was commissioned at the last minute by the Bolshoi Theatre and had to be ready in three days, with couriers whisking each freshly-completed page off to the theatre to be copied for parts. The piece opens with an arresting fanfare whose grandeur was slightly blunted by the fact that two of the WCO’s brass players had had to be replaced that very morning due to untimely Covid infections. Here and elsewhere, the brass section struggled heroically on, but with a certain lack of cohesion that reflected the ad-hoc nature of the ensemble. Elsewhere, the effects of Covid (which disrupted the personnel, rehearsal schedule, and timing of the concert itself) were felt more occasionally, with the most supple and resilient ensemble playing coming from the woodwinds. Rachel Hyde’s crisp, clear conducting was a pleasure to watch, and yielded its best results in the pizzicato section of the work, where a crackling energy and rhythm drove the music forward.
Next up was Gareth Farr’s Terra Incognita (2008), written after a sojourn in Antarctica. Its libretto, by Paul Horan, incorporates excerpts from the diaries of Robert Falcon Scott and Frank Debenham (a scientist with Scott’s expedition), as well as from Tennyson’s Ulysses (Scott’s favourite poem, apparently) and Horan’s own “poetic” reflections on the breaking up of the Larsen B ice shelf. The mood thus runs the gamut from awestruck (“This earth was never ours”) to heroic (“Come, my friends….smite/The sounding furrows”) to elegiac (“Goodbye Larsen B”), as the ice first dwarfs, then kills men, only to be ultimately killed by them. Choristers made up from many Wellington choirs, including The Glamaphones, Cantoris, Nota Bene, Orpheus and others, singing in long static phrases evoked a frozen landscape and acted as a kind of Greek chorus of the “transient strangers” referenced by Debenham, “stunned and stunted” by the mystique of the ice. The foreground characters – Scott, Debenham, and the poems’ lyric speakers – were voiced by Samuel McKeever in a deep, imposing bass. The flat acoustics of the Gibbs Center, especially when filled with people bundled up in winter layers, did the singers no favours, alas. Nonetheless McKeever’s “Great God! This is an awful place” in the sixth movement – drawn from Scott’s diary – penetrated to the back of the hall, a grim highlight of the sung text.
The piece followed the overall form of a song cycle, without pauses between movements, the textures in the orchestra reflecting and co-creating the mood of each text. A hushed opening movement, “This earth was never ours,” began with glass chimes over tremulous (and slightly out of tune) pianissimo strings, a stylised evocation of cold and cracking ice, gradually joined by the woodwinds and then by the choir on its long, “frozen” chords. This gave way to the contrasting second movement, “Come, my friends,” in which the heroic words of Ulysses, sung by McKeever, were chased about by striving, strenuously rhythmic accompaniment from the orchestra, led by the strings. This in turn yielded to another “frozen” choral movement, “I never knew you” (to an original text by Horan), followed by a very cinematic setting of text from Scott’s diary, “Night light,” which McKeever managed to make genuinely songlike. The fifth movement, “Quiet land,” was heralded (counterintuitively) by a snare drum, with the woodwinds and percussion underpinning a restless setting of Debenham’s text (“Ever moving…ceaselessly circling”), joined by the strings and choir at its climax (“And above all, the dream is here”). A slow, foreboding sixth movement (“Eternal Silence”) juxtaposed Scott’s anguished words with a hushed but strenuous discord in the orchestra and choir, produced by asking each chorister to sing their highest comfortable note. If the mood here recalled Penderecki’s famous Threnody, the seventh and final movement, “Goodbye Larsen B” – elegiac in tone, with lush harmonies in the orchestra – was closer to Górecki. The circular structure that often distinguishes Farr’s works was evident here only in the return of the glass chimes, which seemed slightly incongruous given the narrative of the work, documenting the destruction of the icy wilderness they had evoked at the start. McKeever’s diction, excellent throughout, made it impossible to hide from the rather pedestrian character of the lyrics in this final song. His heroic performance was warmly applauded.
After an intermission, players and audience returned for Holst’s Planets. Covid notwithstanding, the number of musicians onstage amply bore out this work’s generic label, “Suite for Large Orchestra.” As Holst fans know, the piece’s seven movements proceed in astrological rather than astronomical order: Mars first, then Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. (Earth doesn’t get a look-in, but was, one supposes, indirectly represented by Farr’s Terra Incognita in the first half.) “Mars, the Bringer of War,” a regulation banger in 5/4 time, was beautifully shaped by Rachel Hyde’s eloquent conducting and went with a swing. In contrast, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” sounded initially uncertain, with some hesitant entrances and wobbly tuning. As sometimes happens, a collective loss of confidence seemed to set in, infecting each soloist in turn. On the other hand, in tutti passages, especially when playing driving rhythms or conveying a sense of sweeping passion, the orchestra made a magnificently lustrous sound. One might say that they felt more at home in war than in peace….a tempting metaphor for human nature.
“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” featured some lovely woodwind duets and an ethereal “celesta” contribution from the always excellent Heather Easting on an electric keyboard which doubled as the (sadly inaudible against a full orchestra playing ffff) “organ” later on. These were the moments where the triple subdivision of the beat in this movement felt most comfortable; elsewhere, the players could perhaps have used more help in navigating it. The problem of keeping stringed instruments in tune in an increasingly warm and humid hall also asserted itself here; a pause between movements to re-tune didn’t seem to help much. However, the alternately rollicking and majestic “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” with its maestoso middle section featuring the famous tune later adapted into “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” went with a bang, followed by the colder and more forbidding “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” with its relentless “tick-tock” theme and (slightly unsteady) plodding brass. “Uranus, the Magician” is built on a tension between the rather portentous four-note theme in the brass (later picked up by other instruments) and the mischievous, stomping dance led by a trio of bassoons. It feels rather like a circus parade until the sudden drop in tempo and dynamic fatally interrupts it, preparing the ground for the final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.” Some lovely playing from the woodwinds opened this disorienting, genuinely mystical movement, which closed on a hidden chorus of treble voices (supplied by the sopranos and altos of the choir seen earlier in Terra Incognita).
In a nice touch from a historical perspective, the chorus was conducted by Robert Oliver, not only a veteran singer and choral conductor himself but also the inaugural conductor (1972-74) of the WCO itself. This 50th anniversary concert thus concluded, fittingly, with two conductors, bookends as it were to the orchestra’s leadership from its earliest beginnings to the present. This poetic conclusion was not lost on the enthusiastic audience, which rose to its feet to applaud the orchestra as much for its performance of this epic programme as for its half-century of service to the Wellington music scene. A good time having been had by all, it remained only to secure a cup of tea and congratulate the performers. Felicitations to the WCO on its persistence through five decades of music and two years of Covid to bring this programme to us all.