NZSO – Enduring Spirit: Bloch and Shostakovich
Aaron Jay KERNIS (1960–), Musica Celestis
Ernest BLOCH – Schelomo
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony NO 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
Nicolas Altstaedt, cello
Sir Donald Runnicles, Conductor
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Friday 28 April 2023
This was always going to be a big concert, with Shostakovich 10 programmed alongside Bloch’s remarkable work Schelomo. It was also contrabassoonist David Angus’s last concert with the NZSO, after 42 years with the orchestra, so it was fortunate that he had plenty to do.
The Kernis work was unknown to me. The affable Runnicles, who spent several minutes briefing us in, was surprised that Kernis and his music were unknown to most of us. Musica Celestis means ‘music of heaven’, and the programme notes made references to the music of the mystical Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and to Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Runnicles described it as ‘mystical, medieval, magical, and modern’. It’s an attractive work, which began life as the slow second movement of Kernis’s String Quartet (1990), and was later re-scored for string orchestra. We got the full-fruit string orchestra version (eight desks of first violins, including Co-Concertmaster Giulia Brinckmeier, who took Vesa-Matti Leppanen’s chair for the first half of the programme).
Having sung some of Hildegard’s works, I’d have to say that, despite its grace, it did not remind me of her or her soundworld. It opened with the faintest hint of modal tonality and long, slow chords with a rather glittering tone, but apart from a very slow start that builds to a passionate, flowing crescendo, with a full-throated, warm orchestral sound, I failed to spot Hildegard or indeed anything remotely medieval. The next section was based on a single low note from the basses (‘almost RVW’, say my notes), via tremolo strings, and then silence, from which ultimately emerges a beautiful melody on the viola. The melody is passed to the first violin to complete, and the work draws to a graceful close.
The second work on the programme was Bloch’s remarkable Schelomo, for solo cello and orchestra. Before the concert started, Runnicles passed the microphone to the cello soloist, Nicolas Altstaedt, who told us something about the circumstances of composition of the work, the last movement of Bloch’s Jewish Cycle. He originally conceived the work as a setting of texts from Ecclesiastes for voice, but after meeting the cellist Alexandre Barjansky, Bloch decided to use the cello to represent the voice of King Solomon. Barjansky’s cello, Alstaedt told us with some excitement, was now in the possession of a local musician, Rolf Gjelsten, from the New Zealand String Quartet – something he had learned only the day before. (I understand that Gjelster and Altstaedt met backstage during the interval, so that the soloist could make the acquaintance of the very instrument that had inspired the composer.)
The work is scored for a large orchestra: three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two B flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, celesta, two harps, and full strings. In this case, there were 8 desks of first violins, 7 desks of seconds, 6 desks of violas (including Guest Section Principal Caroline Henbest), 5 desks of cellos (led by Pei-Jee Ng, Guest Section Principal and an old friend of the cello soloist, and Pei-Sian Ng, Guest Associate Principal), and no fewer than 8 basses. Bloch would have been delighted with these forces.
I have heard the Bloch work before, and it is always deeply moving, but I have never heard it played as Nicolas Altstaedt played it. It was as though he had a direct connection to the composer. There was no sense of ‘performing’; rather, it was as though these painful, moving passages of music were being drawn directly from Bloch, through the cello, directly to our ears. Bloch said that in composing it he ‘listened to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent…’, and that is exactly how we received it. It was a privilege to listen to such a powerful work so well played.
And after all the applause, there was an encore. I am no lover of encores. I would rather hold the work in my heart for a little longer than have it over-written by some short crowd-pleaser. In this case, I wasn’t too perturbed. Nicolas Altstaedt decided to give us a movement from a sonata by Jean-Baptiste Barrière (1707-1747), a renowned French Baroque cellist, which he played as a duet with Pei-Jee Ng, the Guest First Chair of the cello section. It was delightful.
The last work on the programme was Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. After the emotional depth of the Bloch, I hardly felt fit enough to listen to it. It is a monumental work at 52 minutes. There is a huge first movement; a terrifying second movement (the demonic portrait of Stalin, who had died only months before it was premièred); the beautiful and hopeful third movement, featuring the D-E flat-C-B motif that indicates Shostakovich’s name (D SCH, in German notation), a waltz, and a beautiful horn motif; and the dancing and ultimately triumphant final movement.
The orchestra rose magnificently to the challenge of the music. At times Runnicles stopped conducting, simply allowing the solos to unfold. There were wonderful solos from Robert Orr (oboe), Michael Austin (cor anglais), Sam Jacobs (horn), Bridget Douglas (flute), Johanna Gruskin (piccolo), Rachel Vernon (bass clarinet) – and, of course, the estimable David Angus on contrabassoon. This was the perfect repertoire to round off his NZSO career. The percussionists were terrific, notably the sinister side drum, which adds such menace to the mirthless Stalin music, and there was some truly memorable tam tam playing. At other times, especially in the 3/4 passages, the conductor nearly jumped off the podium as he danced along with the music.
I had the feeling that the orchestra was enjoying working with Sir Donald Runnicles. He is an understated conductor (compared with, say, Gemma New, who has directions to give for every bar, and gives them in a very expressive manner). But he achieved some wonderful effects. This was a magnificent and very moving concert.
As a footnote, there is a charming interview with David Angus on RNZ Concert. Bryan Crump (the Afternoons presenter) visits him in the workshop in which he machines parts for his motorcycles as well as fettling various bassoons and contrabassoons. The interview ends with Angus riding off into the sunset. It can be found here: https://www.rnz.co.nz/concert/programmes/three-to-seven/audio/2018887086/the-lowdown-on-dave-angus