Orchestra Wellington presents:
PROPHECY – Music by Thomas Ades, Benjamin Britten, Briar Prastiti and William Walton
THOMAS ADES – ….but all shall be well 1993
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – Violin Concerto 1939
BRIAR PRASTITI – Akri
WILLIAM WALTON – Belshazzar’s Feast 1931
Amalia Hall (violin)
Benson Wilson (baritone)
Orpheus Choir, Wellington (director Brent Stewart)
Wellington Brass band
Hutt City Brass
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday, 5th August, 2023
What appeared to be a nearly-full-house turned up at the Michael Fowler Centre for the latest of the 2023 season’s inspirational Orchestra Wellington concerts – I was intrigued to learn from Marc Taddei during the course of his welcoming remarks regarding the concert that the presented works were all written by composers when in their twenties or early thirties, and thus making up a bevy of youthful creative efforts, augmenting the concert’s “Prophecy” title with the idea of a foretaste of creativity still to come at that time. I hadn’t fully “taken in” the youthfulness of William Walton, for one, in relation to his work, so it certainly added an energy-charged degree of expectation to the proceedings!
The title of Thomas Ades’ 1993 work “….but all shall be well” is a quote from poet TS Eliot quoting in turn the fourteenth-century mystic seer Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love which she wrote at the time of the Plague and other widespread human tribulations continue to this day to inspire hope in people in the midst of human privations of great suffering, and of thus “finding calm and quiet and focus in a chaotic world”. Ades’s music begins as slivers of percussion, with additional keyboard notes gradually morphing into orchestrally-conceived impulses, which in turn give rise to repeated scales rising and falling half-an-octave, frequently counterpointed by deep percussion notes and occasional figures resembling dance-band scraps of melody, and evolving a seemingly limitless panoply of texture, timbre and colour in this constant mesmeric movement of impulse – an effect not unlike a slowly-revolving mirror-ball reflecting an entire surrounding world of contrasts, including an almost malevolent avalanche of sounds in one sequence which are eventually quelled. The fine programme notes (well-nigh impossible to read when the auditorium lights, as here, are dimmed, for whatever reason) performed a great service, here, if only in retrospect! – with new music (this being a New Zealand premiere) it can be helpful to have a guide to lead one through what can seem in some cases like a thicket of unfamiliar sounds. These from Thomas Ades, though relatively easy on the ear, still benefitted from the written commentary (presumably the meticulous work of Erica Challis) and allowed us, if largely in retrospect, to enjoy the expertise of playing and direction of this music all the more.
Next was Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, completed in the United States in 1939, a work which reflects the composer’s reaction to both the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the growing unrest in Europe leading to World War II. Inspired at first by the “intellectually emotional” character of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto which he had heard in 1936, Britten’s work runs a gamut of conflicting emotional states (he was in the company of his lover, tenor Peter Pears, throughout this time), which his partnership with the work’s first performer, Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa further refracted through the inclusion of technical demands of the utmost virtuosity. Various violinists have since remarked on the works’ difficulty, though with the consensus being that such obstacles are, in the words of one of the work‘s exponents, “always in the service of the music, and not for its own sake – sometimes the strain of the performer is actually the point! If the piece was too easy it wouldn’t communicate the struggle and anguish that Britten was going for”.
Amalia Hall, tonight’s soloist, certainly conveyed a no-holds-barred aspect to her addressing of the work’s many differing moods, even if the relatively unsupportive character of the MFC acoustic meant she had to work hard to make detail really “tell” in places for people like myself sitting some distance away. The first movement, with its portentous exchanges between the violin and the orchestra’s insistent rhythms, moved between a kind of charged serenity (lovely silvery violin tones alternated with chunky pizzicato interpolations from Hall) and more rumbustious declarations from orchestral winds and brasses, with the movement seeming to express its “soul” at the point where the strings, introduced by the harp, take up the beautiful cantilena theme, and the violin provides the motto-like accompaniment with a combination of arco and pizzicato notes, which exchange grows in intensity until soloist and orchestra seem entranced in a sea of dreamlike harmonics and gently plucked notes.
The Scherzo which then bursts in is driving and dangerous, Hall pushing her instrument over a number of obstacle-like ascents with verve and surety, with the orchestra both supporting and occasionally seeming to “duel” with the soloist! Hall and Taddei relish the sparrings of sequences such as the soloist’s exotically sensual theme gleefully “trounced” with boisterous chordings by the orchestral brass and percussion, leading to an amazing “trio” involving piccolos and the tuba whose angularity recalls Berlioz! And the orchestra reacts accordingly, with a crescendo that threatens to engulf all and sundry, breaking off at the point of internal collapse, and leaving the soloist to reassemble the music’s fragments in a cadenza, Hall displaying her technical armoury with unrelenting resolve, taking the music to its uppermost reaches before being joined by the trombones from out of the depths, intoning the first notes of the final Passacaglia movement.
Trombones, strings, trumpets, winds, percussion all impressively have their say, before the violin embarks on its journey of infinite variation, a journey made in conjunction with orchestral forces requiring utmost virtuosity from the soloist and big-boned responses from all orchestra departments in a magnificently resonant middle section whose aftermaths include a long-breathed kind of lament by the soloist over a D major chord in the orchestra, Hall’s instrument however, hovering undecidedly between F and G-flat, and seeming to tread a fine line between hope and despair, before letting the silence being the judge, and with it our enthusiastic, if somewhat dumbfounded, applause!
The interval gave us all time and space to realign our thoughts before squaring up to a new work by a composer presently making a name for herself, locally. This was Briar Prastiti whose work Akri we were about to hear and who has another work scheduled for the orchestra in a concert later in the year, besides having completed music written for a play, Prima Facie by Suzie Miller, recently staged at Circa Theatre. The title of Prastiti’s piece, Akri, means “edge” and symbolises a certain predicament experienced by people such as herself, who belong to two different cultures (Prasititi is of mixed New Zealand/Greek heritage), and feel never wholly at one with either.
Carrying the thought in my own head of having to experience such a conflict when preparing to listen to Prastiti’s piece I was surprised to find myself engulfed in the sounds of a gorgeously ambient opening chord which developed its own oceanic-type modulatory patterns, vaguely Sibelian or Baxian in character, resonant and flexible in surface aspect, the tones “bending” and pliably responding to impulse, somewhat belying the “edge” sobriquet borne by the composition’s title. The music opens up with full brass and percussion textures widening the sounds’ vistas, but with an intensity of focus giving birth to both rhythmic and thematic material, with particularly lovely writing for winds “caught” between gestures that have a rounded monumentality to my ears rather than any abrasive or intransient surface. I was naturally looking for tensions that would suggest alienation of a kind suggested by the piece’s name, but found instead a kind of kaleidoscopic change whose “dramatic contrasts” had more holistic “centres” whose presence meant life that had learned to coexist, though (as the piece’s abrupt ending seemed to demonstrate) not without a certain volatility…….I liked Prastiti’s idea of a unifying “thread” which holds the characters together and facititates the process of journeying from one kind of awareness to another…….it was. I thought, music with a certain filmic power of expression that I would be interested in hearing again…..
How ear-opening, therefore, to encounter in this same concert such marked variances of expression, when setting Prastiti’s all-encompassing soundscape variants against the young William Walton’s fervently bardic declamations delineating oppression, captivity and liberation of peoples from privation and slavery. Walton’s oratorio “Belshazzar’s Feast” is splendidly virile Old Testament stuff whose text is taken straight from the Bible (the Book of Daniel and Psalm 137) courtesy of Osbert Sitwell with whose family the young Walton had already formed a long-lasting association, most famously with the 1923 work Façade, its poetry by Osbert‘s sister, Edith having inspired Walton’s music.
First performed in 1931 under Malcolm Sargent, Belshazzar had a colourful genesis, with Walton originally commissioned by the BBC for a work with “a small choir, soloist, and an orchestra not exceeding 15 players! Walton found that, as the work proceeded so did his conception of the work “enlarge”. When the Leeds Festival agreed to stage the work’s first performance its director Thomas Beecham famously suggested to the young composer that he should “throw in a couple of brass bands” to the work (the Berlioz Requiem was being performed at the same Festival, and there were plenty of brass players on hand), as this was likely, Beecham opinioned, to be the only performance he would ever hear! However, thanks in part to the outstanding choral skills of Sargent the work was a great success, with Walton himself subsequently conducting (and recording) the work. In fact, on a visit to New Zealand in 1956 Walton himself conducted the work in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, all with the Christchurch Harmonic Society Choir and the (then) NZBC Symphony Orchestra!
Doing the honours with Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington this time round were baritone Benson Wilson (presently developing a career in the UK with the English National Opera), the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, and players from both the Wellington Brass Band (current New Zealand champions) and the Hutt City Brass. With the mentioning of Berlioz and all those brass players I was hoping for a similarly splendid kind of effect in places to that I’d experienced when hearing my first live Berlioz Requiem! – alas, the Michael Fowler Centre is certainly no Wellington Town Hall, acoustically speaking, so I had to be content with modified rapture….
What could be wrought from the occasion both the Orpheus Choir and the brass-augmented Orchestra Wellington splendidly achieved under Marc Taddei’s incisive leadership! The opening brass calls pinned back our ears, as did the stenorian “Thus spake Isaiah!” responses from the choir, the introduction’s essential theatricality given full rein with its pauses and dynamic contrasts, and the baritone’s sorrowful entry at “If I forget thee, Jerusalem”, intoning his words like a character rather than as a mere narrator. The choir, too conveyed the angst of the captive Israelites, both in the aching, arching lament “By the waters of Babylon”, and in the vengeful tones of the prophet at “O Daughter of Babylon”, hurling forth the words of doom, which resonated a kind of fateful ambience over what was to follow.
Benson Wilson made the most of his Babylonic “shopping-list”, allowing rather more fateful tones to take over his concluding item of currency “…and the souls of men”. In contrast to the lament-like aspect of the opening the Orpheus voices then relished their energetic and enthusiastic descriptions of the revels of the Babylonian king and his courtiers, backed up by terrific orchestral detailing, Benson Wilson leading in kingly fashion the acclamation for the pagan gods of Gold, Silver, Iron and others, echoed by the choir and amplified by the orchestral voices, including the brass players from their antiphonal positions with voices such as the saxophone underlining the composer’s jazzed-up rhythmic inflections, and the extra brasses adding splendour to the general acclaim for the heathen deities.
The fateful scene of the “fingers of a man’s hand” and the fateful words written on the wall was declaimed in suitably chilling tones by the baritone, then translated by the implacable choral voices – and the choir, of course, relished its famous “shouted” exclamation “slain!” in response to the soloist’s utterance of Belshazzar’s grim fate. The silences that followed were beset and then overcome with joyous energies from voices and instruments alike, with the bandspeople on each side rising to their feet to join in the acclamations, which, with the exception of a more reflective sequence, “…..the trumpeters and pilers are silent, and the harpers have ceased to harp, and the light of a candle shall sign no more….” express full, unalloyed joy at the deliverance of the Children of Israel from their yoke of captivity – and Marc Taddei and his players, to use the vernacular, “go for it” over the work’s final pages, with the youthful Walton’s exuberant writing for both voices and instruments given free and joyous rein. Even the relatively unresponsive recesses of the MFC could scarcely forbear to resonate in acknowledgement!