Orchestra Wellington’s “The Grand Gesture” presentation casts its spell

Orchestra Wellington presents:
THE GRAND GESTURE – a reflection of music and art of the Baroque era

IGOR STRAVINSKY – Suite from the Ballet “Pulcinella”
JOHANN SEBASTIEN BACH – Concerto for two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor BWV 1043
GEORGE FRIDERICH HANDEL – Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12 in B Minor
LUKAS FOSS – Baroque Variations (1967)

Amalia Hall (violin)
Monique Lapins (violin)
Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord)
Orchestra Wellington (Concertmaster – Justine Cormack)
Marc Taddei – Conductor

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 4th May, 2024

On this occasion I couldn’t get to the usual pre-concert presentation which can so rewardingly illuminate what’s about to be presented in the concert – I arrived to catch only the final stages, and caught some musical excerpts from the oncoming concert played in the foyer by members of The Queen’s Closet for the audience’s pleasure and delight. It was obviously enough to whet appetites of even those like myself who were standing at the back, probably feeling a bit like those “Gentlemen of England now abed (who) shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here!”

A few empty seats on the fringes of the downstairs auditorium apart, the concert appeared well-attended, and the mood expectant – as is the usual wont with any Orchestra Wellington concert these days, thanks to the sterling efforts of the players and maestro Marc Taddei in obviously putting body and soul into their presentations, and bringing to life even what might seem at times like somewhat intractable material!

Tonight’s presentation title “The Grand Gesture” set out to demonstrate some of the continuing resonances of the work of composers from the Baroque era – if not for our present specific time, certainly of living memory for some in the case of the work of German-born American composer and conductor Lucas Foss, and delightfully so regarding a neo-classical response from twentieth-century giant Igor Stravinsky to the music supposedly the work of a contemporary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, one Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36), more of which circumstance below.

A good deal of thought had obviously gone into the concert’s structure (a valued characteristic of this Orchestra’s work), including what were some unscheduled appearances of musicians playing what appeared to be on “first take” simply further examples of memorable and enduring Baroque music – thus to begin the concert we were treated to a dream-like vignette of violinist Amalia Hall spotlit amid the darkness and high up on the stage platform giving us a stellar performance of the Prelude to JS Bach’s Violin Partita in E Major that transported all of us to our own “other” places for its duration, and for some time afterwards.

Then came the Stravinsky all splendidly articulated, robustly trajectoried and beautifully-voiced throughout. The original “Pulcinella” ballet had its genesis in an idea by the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who wanted a work based on the long-established Italian theatre tradition of “commedia dell’arte”, one that used age-old characters wearing masks, “types” such as foolish old men, wanton courtesans, devious servants, and jesters or clowns – a well-known type of the latter was Harlequin, who became the “Pulcinella” of Diaghilev’s scheme.

At that time, the music Diaghilev gave to Stravinsky was believed to have been by Pergolesi (Stravinsky regarded his contact with this music as “a love affair” with the older composer), but much of it has subsequently proved to have been the work of others. In Stravinsky’s original ballet, the vocal sections of the score were based on songs genuinely by Pergolesi which Diaghilev had found, but the purely orchestral music used by Stravinsky from the suite we heard tonight was all adapted from the works of different composers, names otherwise unknown to history – Gallo, van Wassenaer, Monza and Parisotti.

Such an “inconvenient truth” hasn’t been allowed to get in the way of anybody’s enjoyment of what Stravinsky did with this music, who added to the original themes his own twentieth-century harmonies, cadences and rhythms, producing a suitably light-textured and nimble-footed score which served Diaghilev’s purposes admirably. The suite which the composer extracted from the ballet was written in 1922, two years after the ballet’s first performance, and uses eight of the latter’s original twenty movements.

Though Stravinsky took pains to reproduce in Pulcinella something of the reduced orchestral forces of earlier times, there were certain touches that “advanced” the musical language beyond the scope of eighteenth-century practice, mainly found in the “Vivo” movement towards the Suite’s end, such as the use of the solo trombone and double-bass with their “glissando” passages. I’ve always loved this Suite, and Marc Taddei’s and Orchestra Wellington’s performance was, I thought, musically engaging, stylistically evocative and technically outstanding!

Next came what for many would have been the “jewel” of the evening’s presentations, the adorable D Minor Double Violin Concerto of JS Bach, and with two soloists whose performances I wouldn’t imagine being bettered anywhere – Amalia Hall, the usual concertmaster of Orchestra Wellington, but a frequent concerto soloist with the orchestra itself to impressive effect was here joined by Monique Lapins, the sadly-about-to-depart second violinist of the illustrious New Zealand String Quartet, leaving for pastures afresh after eight years with the Quartet. Together with the orchestra they wove a diaphanous continuum of textured interaction that allowed the music to express whatever range of emotions and awareness of structural potentialities this performance couldn’t help but inspire among its listeners.

By inclination I tend to go for warmer, fuller performances than what I sometimes hear from so-called ”authentic” ones – but this performance seemed to tread securely between heart and mind, warmth and clarity, breathing-space and momentum, and deliver spades of intent and realisation from both worlds. And though ideally matched, the pair were not carbon copies of one another’s sound – I imagined a tad rounder, and more sensuous tone from Monique Lapins’ playing compared with Amalia Hall’s marginally brighter and shinier sound, as if what was passing between them was a REAL conversation. But, ah! – that slow movement! – why does it ALWAYS seem as though it’s over too quickly, no matter who the performers are?…….

As with the concert’s opening, the second half began with another performer “spotlit” up behind the orchestral platform in almost “deus ex machina” fashion! This time it was Jonathan Berkahn at the harpsichord performing a relaxed, even somewhat “other-worldly” rendition of one of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, the well-known E Major (K.380/L.23). As with the violinist’s rendition of the Bach Partita’s Prelude at the concert’s beginning, the episode had the air of some kind of “visitation” from distant realms – both beautifully-wrought moments.

In more “down-to-earth” mode then came the Handel Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12, the last of the set of concertos inspired by Handel’s great Italian contemporary, Archangelo Corelli. I was hoping we might get my favourite of the Op. 6 set, No. 9 (with its wonderful borrowings from the composer’s famous Organ Concerto “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). But this work, which I didn’t know as well, was itself, in the words of the vernacular, a “real doozy”, with plenty to do for soloists Amalia Hall and Monique Lapins once again, in the form of some enchanting moments along the way. There was appropriately ”grand gesturing” at the beginning, with the two violins sharing solo passages with a solo ‘cello, both in reply to and augmenting the orchestra. And what a delicious allegro to follow! – with some enchanting dovetailing of parts, and the silvery tones of the violin soloists inspiring some similarly feathery playing from the orchestra strings. A lovely and graceful Larghetto was followed by an even more enchanting Largo section, the soloists (both, I think) playing with mutes and producing, along with the solo ‘cello, some breathtakingly unworldly textures – brief but memorable moments in time to be savoured long afterwards. A sprightly dotted-rhythmed fugal Allegro brought us home with a no-nonsense, but still ceremonial finish.

Conductor Marc Taddei then issued for us something in the nature of the old-fashioned “Government Health Warning” regarding the programme’s final item, Lucas Foss’s “Baroque Variations”. He spoke of the piece being very much of the “psychedelic era” of the 1960s during which the work was composed, with numerous allusions to sounds associated with various electronic gadgetry of that time, but with its composer bent also upon reaching back to resonances as far distant as the music from the Baroque era which we had heard earlier in the concert, including the two pieces which our celestial-like “visitors” had performed in those uplifted and spotlit places!

The first of the three movements “On a Handel Larghetto” quietly and almost spectrally elaborated on fragments of the corresponding sequence in Handel’s Op 6 No.12 Concerto, the sounds seeming to do little more than resonate each other’s muted repetitions between strings and brass, lines occasionally drifting away from one another and exploring dream-like imaginings as more instruments joined in with the reminiscings, gathering tonal weight as notes were sustained for longer periods and percussive irruptions became more frequent.

A second movement also began mysteriously, its diaphanously filmic texture of sound featuring floating droplets of notes and occasional percussive thuds, into which sounded the strains of fragments of the Scarlatti sonata we had heard in full on the harpsichord. Here its themes and rhythms seemed as if they were being disconcertingly dismembered for us, as if the music was “a patient etherised upon a table” and referred to in fragmented and mesmerizingly repetitive terms.

After two somewhat restrained movements, the third “On a Bach Prelude (Phorion)” opened up the air-waves somewhat, beginning with the reappearance of the “phantom” Bach Partita violinist, whose playing was this time “echoed” in a fragmented way by the orchestra concertmaster and the other orchestral strings, as well as being “pecked at” by the orchestral winds and “wailed over” by the brass. This process became rather Charles Ives-like as the violas and the brasses played echoing notes and phrases against skittering winds and violins “chasing down” the lines, until the orchestra seemed to lose its patience with its wayward children and exploded a volley of indiscriminate sounds that added to the “things running wild” atmosphere, awakening an electric organ’s more seismic qualities. The “Phorion” part of the movement’s title was a reference to a Greek word meaning “stolen goods”, perhaps indicating how Bach’s violin prelude music was being chaotically rent via a plethora of sounds indicating an exhilarating (and liberating?) loss of control.

Afterwards I found myself talking with others of our different impressions of the work, the opinions ranging from “genius” to “madness” in general terms, but concurring regarding the hugely fascinating range and scope of the programming and the dedication and skill with which conductor and orchestra carried out its philosophy and execution – above all else, with a whole-heartedness whose qualities we’ve come to expect and hope to continue to enjoy.

Haydn and Mozart Camerata’s perfect fellow-churchgoers at Wellington’s St.Peter’s-0n-Willis

Camerata presents: HAYDN IN THE CHURCH 2023

Josef HAYDN – Symphony No. 17 in F Major Hob.1.17
Wolfgang MOZART – Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat K.364

Anne Loeser (violin) / Victoria Jaenecke (viola)
Camerata Ensemble

St.Peter’s Church-on-Willis, Wellington

Friday, October 20th, 2023

Sometimes one goes to a concert which by dint of the music and the playing seems  not a moment too short or too long – this evening, with merely two works on the programme (one of which took  less than two thirds of the time of the other), it felt as though we were transported from one to the other by a kind of osmosis, as there was no “proper” interval between the two, merely what felt like a “luftpause” to allow the slightly different arrangement of the two works to be set up.

The programme opened with a Haydn symphony (No.17 in F Major), part of a series that has been a feature of the ensemble’s presentations of late. This was an early work of the composer’s , and not unlike some kind of extended three-part operatic overture in effect – certainly a grand and varied beginning to one’s listening for the evening.

Straightaway I was transported by the openness of the sound during the work’s first few bars, with the horn timbres taking the music al fresco, and the joyfulness of the dancing rhythms doing the rest  As in some of the earlier Mozart symphonies, the winds also frequently coloured the texture with long but supple lines –  so although the strings had the bulk of the melodic material, the winds  (including the horns) frequently “coloured’ the ambiences, which in this symphony were lively and not a little exploratory, developing both the theme’s upward-rushing muscularity and making use of numerous “offshoots” of impulse in unexpected ways.

The slow movement was graciousness itself at the beginning, its sequences seeming to weave an endless continuation of variants of the opening – I became lost in its enchantment and its apparent inexhaustibility – no contrivance or striving for effect, but simply creativity being given quiet but purposeful energy. As with the previous two movements, the finale finds ways of making the expected unexpected – the triple-time Allegro turns, twists, runs and jumps, and generally led our ears a merry dance! Again, the horns open up the spaces suggested by the music’s energies, and the winds’ rustic colourings delight the sensibilities. Despite the movement’s brevity, Haydn’s seemingly boundless invention seemed to once more carry our interest along with the sounds’ continued delight in discovery.

Nothing could have better prepared us for the delights that were to follow, with Camerata leader Anne Loeser and violist Victoria Jaenecke entering to play for us Mozart’s adorable K.364, the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for violin and viola. From the beginning the sound was lovely, with especially telling dynamic variation from winds and horns and lower strings – the violins themselves seemed a trifle overwhelmed by their colleagues’ characterful strains at first, though the wonderful “Mannheim crescendo” that Mozart gives us in this first tutti here really made an exciting impact. Both soloists with their first notes were silver-toned and ethereal, each more so than I expected they would be, even though their passage-work was exemplary. Anne Loeser led the way into the beautiful minor-key development, each soloist making the most of the music’s pathos, and supported by the orchestra players so well. And their teamwork during the cadenza was exemplary, playing into each others’ music with real aplomb, though both gave me a start by plunging back into the allegro more quickly with their concluding trills than those on my favourite recording (the Oistrakhs pere and fils).

I couldn’t imagine the slow movement being better done than here, with each of the soloists seeming to “play out” more than in the first movement, while integrating their tones clearly and sensitively in the exchanges, the cadenza passage a highlight of the performance with its heart-stopping sense of time almost standing still. And the finale reinforced this “playing as one” kind of Elysium-like culmination of energies and purposes throughout the work – we all  enjoyed the  tidal ebbing and flowing between violin and viola, and also soloists and orchestra, as the work arched upwards towards its culmination in a final grand accord.

Anton Webern steals the show! – Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei with “Pharaoh”

ORCHESTRA WELLINGTON presents “PHARAOH”
GEMMA PEACOCKE – Manta
(with Arohanui Strings)
ANTON WEBERN – Passacaglia Op.1
JOHN PSATHAS – Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra  “Pharaoh”
(with Tomoni Nozaki – timpani)
BRIAR PRASTINI (vocalist) – White, Red, Black
WOLFGANG MOZART – Incidental Music to “Thamos , King of Egypt”
(with the Orpheus Choir of Wellington – Brent Stewart, Director)

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 7th October, 2023

Programme-holding audience members at Orchestra Wellington’s Saturday evening concert “Pharaoh” at the Michael Fowler Centre might have been a little confused upon turning to the opening page of a publication to find the heading “Prophecy” at the top of the page containing the evening’s listed items – hang on! – wasn’t “Prophecy” the title of the previous concert? There was also some disagreement in print regarding John Psathas’s scheduled Timpani Concerto – was it called “Planet Damnation” as on that introductory page with the programme listing? Or was the work’s name actually “Pharaoh”, which stood at the top of the section in the booklet devoted to each individual item, and which gave “Planet Damnation” as the name of the concerto’s third movement?

These things were, of course, minor hiccups which distracted little from the concert’s overall impact, which was considerable, and, thanks to Music Director Marc Taddei’s extraordinary empathy with young musicians demonstrated a heart-warming variety of delights throughout the presentation’s opening segment of music-making. Wellington’s long-established youth programme for aspiring string players, Arohanui Strings, were there in force, from tiny tots to teens, and obviously bursting to play their part in the concert’s opening item, Kiwi composer Gemma Peacocke’s beautiful, multi-stranded instrumental response to the subaqueous world of manta rays who populate the waters of the Outer Hauraki Gulf Tikapa Moana, as characterised in a story by Wiremu Grace, called Whaitere, the Enchanted Stingray.

Peacocke’s piece seemed wrought from sounds at once pulsating with movement and endlessly regenerating, beginning with attention-grabbing soaring and descending lines, a seascape with something of the quality of Sibelius in “The Oceanides”. The supporting winds and brasses sounded repeated figures and long-held pedal notes, with the youthful string-players steadfastedly holding their own lines as the creatures of the deep in the music reaffirmed possession of their world. A solo violin characterised for a moment something of a single creature’s adventure and undertaking, as the oceanic frisson with which the piece began rose and fell impressively once more before the waters resumed their preordained rituals of ceaseless movement.

Marc Taddei then took the opportunity to allow the youngsters their moment of glory, encouraging them to join in with a simplified version of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. After starting them all off, the conductor stood motionless, leaving them to it,  exclaiming to us “Don’t they all sound better when I stop conducting them?” to great amusement all round! Then it was the “Tiny Tots” turn to impress (with even more than their obvious cuteness!), coming on stage with their tiny instruments and playing a folk-tune, then playing it again much faster, to breathless effect! After a lullaby restored composure, Taddei proceeded to give all of us a hint regarding one of the pieces of music scheduled for the as yet unannounced 2024 programme for Orchestra Wellington, telling us the Arohanui Strings will play a tune that “will give the show away!: – which it certainly did! And with that the youthful players took their leave……

What then was wondrous was how such heartwarming vignettes of youthful musicians playing what might in some cases have been their first-ever concert notes then “morphed” into the spectacle of the full Orchestra Wellington on the platform with their conductor tackling a score which truly represented a kind of acme of orchestral execution and epoch-making-and-breaking composition – this was the 1908 Op. 1 Passacaglia of Anton Webern, the composer’s simultaneous tribute and farewell to Romanticism in music, his only composition to be performed in public that was written under the tutelage of his teacher at that time, Arnold Schoenberg.

The 20-plus variations of this work (a Passacaglia traditionally consists of a short theme in the bass which becomes a foundation for a set of variations on that theme) use a brilliantly-worked array of sounds, often lush in the manner of Mahler but at times hushed and sparse, with brilliantly inventive combinations of instruments – Webern organises his variations into an almost symphony-like plan of movements, with a central slow section and contrasting scherzo-like textures, all concluding with a ghostly epilogue. Listening to the players negotiating this tightly-worked scheme with what seemed like absolute confidence and conviction, I found myself simply taking off my mythical hat to both conductor and players – I knew the work reasonably well, but couldn’t remember hearing on record or seeing on film a more exciting and involving performance!

I must confess to finding John Psathas’s Timpani Concerto which followed a bit perplexing in contrast to what I’d just heard – and unfortunately my seat was in a place where my view of the timpanist was obscured by the conductor, so I missed some of the visual excitement of the soloist’s obviously virtuosic command of the instruments. As it wasn’t a work I’d heard before I figured earlier I might find a You-Tube performance with which to familiarise myself regarding the piece – and I found a clip which bore the title “Planet Damnation”, featuring a most exciting performance by Larry Reese, the NZSO timpanist. I didn’t know I was hearing and getting to know only the final movement at that stage, so the onset of the first movement nonplussed me for a while, as did what seemed like an over-insistence of the percussionist playing the woodblocks! The slow movement, when it came, was something of a blessed relief.

Though it was just as unfamiliar, I really enjoyed the slow movement, as it gave the timpanist, Tomoni Nozaki, a beautiful young Japanese woman, a chance to demonstrate the skill and variety of her touch and her ear for all kinds of sonority, instead of her being often drowned out by the rest of the orchestra (I found the woodblock part for one far too insistent!). Then came the movement I’d already heard, and I was able to better relate to the plethora of percussive irruption that the first movement had seemed to unfetter upon our sensibilities. I don’t think it’s a work I shall ever love, but the skills on display by the soloist were sufficiently interesting to make the piece work throughout those two latter movements.

We had a different running-order to that of the printed programme, so we got Briar Prastiti’s “White, Red, Black” after the interval. I liked this work a lot, admiring the composer’s orchestrations of her material, the wind-blown ambiences of the opening carrying my sensibilities along with the music’s trajectories, sharpening my interest more with bird-song-like figurations suggesting in places things coming into focus. What I found slightly disappointing was not being able to hear a single word of the vocalist’s line (despite a microphone being used) from where I was sitting (and my companion similarly reported that he could not hear the singer, and nor could somebody else I spoke to afterwards)….the accompaniment was invariably beautiful, but whenever the song’s intensities sharpened or  grew in body, so did the accompaniments! For this reason, the most telling vocal moments for me were towards the end, when the voice became as an orchestral instrument, the wordless vocalising as haunting as any other of the sounds we were hearing.

Before the final item of the evening, Marc Taddei announced certain salient details of the Orchestra’s 2024 programme, certainly whetting our appetites with some of the detailings – it seems to be a kind of survey of masterpieces representing different eras of artistic creativity, beginning (if I remember correctly) with the Baroque era, and finishing with a contemporary work (I didn’t write all the “clues” down, but Taddei assured us that full details would be released at the Orchestra[‘s final programme for the year, “Red Moon”, on November 11th.

And so to the evening’s final item, which, though splendidly performed and presented, with resplendent singing from Brent Stewart’s Orpheus Choir, and, by turns, stirring and meltingly beautiful orchestral playing, either in support or leading the way, I thought it all essentially lacked the last modicum of focus and interest to be truly engaging. Perhaps if we had had the words, the extra focus would have enlivened the undoubtedly “Game of Thrones” like scenario for which Mozart produced this music. Or, perhaps we needed a narrator with a suitably theatrical “presence” to knit the scenario together more readily –  In reality, everybody – choir and orchestra – did their best with the material, but for me it never really caught fire! I found myself wishing at times that the orchestra was instead giving us the G Minor Symphony K.183, which was what the music occasionally sounded a bit like. And, as I walked to my car after the concert, the thing I found myself wanting to do the most was to get home and play that sensational Webern work again! It was , for me, the evening’s indisputable highlight, and I remain grateful to Marc Taddei and his players for THAT most of all – a truly remarkable experience!

 

 

Evocations of Spain, from Ewan Clark and the Wellington City Orchestra

Wellington City Orchestra presents:
CHABRIER – Espana
TURINA – Danzas Fantasticas
BIZET – Carmen Suite No. 1
RODRIGO – Concierto de Aranjuez
(Owen Moriarty – guitar)
BIZET – Carmen Suite No. 2

Wellington City Orchestra
Conductor – Ewan Clark

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

Saturday, 16th September 2023

There were probably quite a number of people attending this concert who were in exactly my situation regarding our relationship with the music we were about to be served – the Chabrier, Bizet and Rodrigo Items I had heard many times before and knew reasonably well, but the Turina work,  Danzas Fantasticas, never.

Audiences are more often than not disparate and largely unconnected fraternities, but here from the outset one sensed a kind of “anticipatory listening camaraderie” hovering about St.Andrew’s Church  in view of the afternoon’s programme. I liked imagining that it promised both the pleasure of hearing so many well-known items, and the thrill of discovering and getting to know at least one work of Turina’swhose title alone promised more of the same qualities as its companions in the programme.

Well, I can’t speak for my companions in the church this afternoon, but by the time the Danzas Fantasticas had strutted its stuff, I was flabbergasted! I kept on thinking, listening to conductor Ewan Clark’s expert “putting the players through their paces” reading of the work, why have I never before investigated this music ? What a peach of a work! I had actually heard of it (probably the only Turina work I could name if pressed to do so), but it didn’t for me provoke anything like the “instant recognition” that any of the other pieces on this afternoon’s listening menu did. It would therefore be fair to say than Joaquin Turina isn’t as yet a “single-work composer” in the popular regard of things, as one could say about Chabrier with his Espana” or Rodrigo with his “Concierto  de Aranjuez” – and, in many people’s minds, perhaps even Bizet with his “Carmen”.

However, it wasn’t for me the only reason that this Wellington City Orchestra concert gave such particular pleasure on this occasion – though not yet entirely consistent in its responses to the demands of the music, I felt that the band under conductor Ewan Clark had captured the character of every piece we heard, from the vibrancy of rhythm and colour evident in Chabrier’s Espana” to the sheer variety of emotion and situation portrayed for us in Bizet’s music for his opera “Carmen”. A friend afterwards remarked upon the vividness of the playing’s recreation of the opera’s powerful atmosphere and intensely dramatic situations. And besides the vividness of Turina’s picture-postcard evocations of Spanish life, the playing of guitarist Owen Moriarty brought home to us the intensely-wrought emotion embedded in the famous “Aranjuez” Guitar Concerto, the orchestral response to the soloist’s and his heartfelt ruminations impressively of a piece with the music’s character and depth of feeling.

A few remarks regarding what I heard here and there in the music and its playing – at the very beginning of “Espana” there were a few tentative moments with the difficult syncopations between strings and wind (I played in this work once in my halcyon days as a percussionist, and remember never feeling entirely sure of what I was doing in relation to my fellow-musicians, including the conductor! – AND I also remember not being able to get Perry Como’s famous “Hot Diggety Dog” song out of my head for some time so I could properly concentrate on Chabrier!). Here, the introduction came together beautifully as the players overcame these uncertainties and started to develop the music’s engaging feeling of “schwung”, the piece’s occasional “rolling crescendi” also carrying us along with great exhilaration! Ewen Clark got a treasurable moment from the strings with a “comma” inserted at one point just before the players’ big-hearted taking-up of the juicy lyrical theme! – and I also liked the elan with which the brasses made their alternating calls just before the coda.

Next up was the Turina work, about which I must report that my anticipation was all the more whetted by the appearance on the platform at that point of a contrabassoon that seemed twice the size of the player who was carrying it! Despite my slight bewilderment at the programme note not being entirely “on the button” with its descriptions of the openings of each of the first two movements, I still thoroughly enjoyed the sounds that I heard! The first opened with mysterious string chordings, followed by a sudden irruption, stimulating rhythmic sequences of sounds by turns lively and sultry, with a lovely, romantic melody dug into by the strings varied by some beautiful lines from a cor anglais  – then the strings returned with their mysterious opening chords before bidding us a kind of sweet and nostalgia-ridden series of “adios”. A bracing call to attention began the second movement, which then morphed into a more relaxed and somewhat angular 5/4 rhythm with beautiful writing for both strings and winds. Yes, the finale was indeed of a “lively and rhythmic character” – very Spanish, with the themes contrastingly sultry and charming, with an exciting coda, a brief cello solo, and a coruscating orchestral pay-off!

We then got the first of the two Carmen Suites from the opera, beginning most appropriately with the baleful “Fate” theme (which I recall never before hearing until I encounted the opera proper!) – great brass and lower strings here! The Aragonaise theme came next, delivered with great brilliance and atmosphere – it was followed by the beautiful “Intermezzo” a moment of flute-and-harp calm in the opera amidst a sea of troubles! Carmen’s tempting invitation to Don Jose, the Seguedille followed – after a slightly shaky start, oboe and strings nailed it! Les Dragons  d’Aicala, Don Jose’s marching tune, featured both bassoon and clarinet in fine fettle, while the suite’s most popular number Les Toreadors made an excellent first-half concluding piece, not too rushed, but delivered with real swagger!

After the interval Owen Moriarty took the platform with his guitar, to perform the much-played but ever-enchanting “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo – this occasion was no exception, as the soloist despatched his part with a remarkable amalgam of spontaneity and fluency throughout – did the wind players occasionally get slightly ahead of the soloist at times when he seemed to “give space” in  the turning of a phrase-end? – even if such was the case, no violence to any particular bar or phrase that I could pinpoint was enacted by any of the players in the making of this music! A deservedly-mentioned highlight of the performance was the playing by Rodney Ford of the cor anglais solo in the second movement, for which the latter received acknowledgement at the work’s end – the playing had a plangency I couldn’t remember being bettered in any previous performance I’d heard. In fact the “live” occasion gave the music an extra level of intensity throughout that made a huge difference to how one responded to the work as a whole, the occasion thus more deeply “touching” my sensibilities than has been usually the case with the music.

Nothing could have “rounded off” the concert better after this than the second of Bizet’s “Carmen” Suites – though Owen Moriarty did his best to help us return to our lives with an encore by a Serbian composer Miroslav Tadic – a most entertaining and vigorous piece called “Walk Dance”, which certainly “cleared the air” of any Iberian excess that may have hung around after the concerto’s final notes had died away. Then it was all orchestral hands on deck again for the Bizet, beginning this time with a more-than-usually circumspect piece for this opera, the Marche des Contrebandiers  (Smugglers’ March), but whose relative unfamiliarity was made up for in spadefuls by the deservedly famous Habanera. Afterwards came some of the most beautiful music from the opera, that given to Micaela, Don Jose’s would-be sweetheart, in the throes of searching desperately for him in the mountains – lovely horn-playing, at first, followed by the solo violin with the melody, the Concertmaster Paula Carryer here doing an excellent job!

More familiar to those who hadn’t yet seen the opera would have been the following Chanson du Toreador (Song of the Toreador) expressing the necessary courage and bravado of Escamilo, the bullfighter, with solo trumpeter Neil Dodgson making a brilliant job of it, as do the brass in general in the following La Garde Montante (The Changing of the Guard) together with the winds, giving the scene plenty of ceremonial elan! Finally, we heard one of Bizet’s most exciting creations, the Danse Boheme, sung in the opera by Carmen and two of her gypsy cohorts in a vivid description of a wild and abandoned gypsy dance, Ewan Clark and the orchestra responding by pulling out all the stops, as they say in the classics, and bringing the concert to a suitably brilliant conclusion. We clapped and shouted our approval of it all, a great and deserved success for all concerned – well done on all counts to guitarist Owen Moriarty, to conductor Ewan Clark and to the stalwart players of the Wellington CIty Orchestra.

 

 

 

Orchestra Wellington’s “Prophecy” – promise and fulfilment by young composers

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
Orchestra Wellington
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!

Expressions of joyful energies – JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos from the Amici Ensemble

Waikanae Music Society presents:

The Amici Ensemble
JS BACH – The Six Brandenburg Concertos

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday, 23rd July 2023

Time can easily wrong-foot one’s perceptions of things through distraction and/or inattention  – to read in Sunday afternoon’s Waikanae programme featuring the splendid Amici Ensemble that the group is currently in its 34th season was for me something of a jaw-dropping realisation, not the least because the performers themselves all seemed as imbued as ever with youthful zest and boundless enthusiasm! – how on earth could it be so many years’ worth? Where did all the time go?

And if that wasn’t enough, what a stupendous undertaking it all was on this present occasion! – one with which a music ensemble could justly demonstrate its capabilities and proclaim its calibre! I don’t know whether this was actually the first time all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos had been performed in a single concert in this country, but the music’s sheer variety of invention and its technical and interpretative challenges seemed to me the perfect vehicle with which a group could make a “who-we-are” and “what-we-do” statement that would resonate so readily and widely among audiences.

Pretty well every instrumental ensemble worth its salt world-wide would have had a “go” at the Brandenburgs at one stage or other, and the recordings on all kinds of carriers are, of course, legion! Longer-term listeners like myself have found ourselves living through different “eras” of style and performance practice that have variously established and then turned on their heads ways of doing things over the duration, but leaving us, I think, enriched in the process. I still treasure my 1950s Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra LPs of these works, for example, while being newly invigorated by some of the later and totally different efforts of various modern-day ensembles.

As is the case with all music performance the listener’s “individual preference” factor continues to lend a fascination to hearing performances that can differ to what’s hoped for and/or expected. Of the performances we heard, I can say that I unreservedly enjoyed every one of the “middle” concertos, Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5, while finding myself responding positively to PARTS of the First and Sixth Concertos – I simply didn’t want to feel quite so “rushed” in either of the latter two’s opening and (in the First Concerto) closing movements. (I’ll get such subjective niggles out of the way, first, in order to be able to express my unreserved joy regarding the rest of the concert!)

I did think the playing order that the group devised made good sense, particularly concerning No. 1 being placed last, this being the grandest of all of the concertos, with the most instruments and the greatest number of movements. It was an obvious choice for the concert’s finale, and especially with the horns making their only appearance across the entire set, and, in a sense stealing the show with their spectacular playing. Still, here, I wanted the tempi for the first and last movements to be “chunkier”, more bucolic and rustic-sounding, and not create quite such a “hurried along” impression as I gleaned. I found myself thinking “Why rush through such delightfully detailed music?” as, to me, if felt that that this performance of the “grandest” of the works didn’t evoke quite enough grandeur…..

My other bout of “modified rapture” came with the opening of No. 6, where I wanted the violists to phrase more “affectionately” and relaxedly together, instead of the crisp repartee it seemed we got – (this is a “preference” of course, as I’ve said) – and I straightaway must add that violists Nicholas Hancox and Beatrix Francis beautifully dovetailed their phrasings in the finale, which more than  made up for the impression of undue haste in the first movement – I particularly enjoyed the ensemble’s’ wholehearted  “plunge” into the minor-key section of the finale – real “temperament” at work here, and most enjoyable!

As I’ve said, the rest of the concert was sheer undiluted delight! Beginning with No. 2, and its joyous and energetic opening, we were enchanted by the stellar playing of trumpeter Michael Kirgan, whose dexterity upon his instrument was little short of wondrous, both here and in the finale, a single note during the latter at one point failing to “sound” being neither here nor there!  His fellow-soloists (Donald Armstrong, violin, Bridget Douglas, flute, and Robert Orr, oboe) were not to be outdone in this work, as the slow movement gave them the opportunity to bring out a most touching melancholy, so creating something of this great music’s “eternity” in their evocations of sounds amid a deep sense of stillness.

No. 5 seemed to lap up the musicians’ energies with glee, with flutist Kirsten Eade and violinist Donald Armstrong at first sharing the solo limelight with harpsichordist Michael Stewart, whose “concerto” this work ostensibly is, and whose solo cadenza on this occasion was momentarily “held up” by a page-turning mishap which necessitated some quick rearguard action by the player to regain his place in the music before launching into the movement’s cadenza – which he eventually did with what seemed like unflappable surety! – (I noted one of the ensemble helping him out by becoming his page-turner for the next little while!) The slow movement of this work – harpsichord, flute, violin and cello – was gorgeously done; while the gigue-like Allegro finale resembled a dance to which all the players gradually joined, with both spring and girth making an irresistible combination of buoyancy and energy!

I remember my first “live” encounter with these works in earlier days was through the Third Concerto, a kind of Baroque “Concerto for Orchestra” played at an NZSO concert, though I can’t remember who conducted – in any case, it all made for a vastly different sound-world to the one which the Amici Ensemble recreated here at the second half’s beginning, a briskly energetic, light-footed dance with crispy-wrought lines and plenty of tonal and textural variation in the strings-and-harpsichord sound. It all worked so well, especially the finale, whose wonderfully-wrought crescendi were irresistibly grown out of the molto-perpetuo rhythms before scintillatingly breaking at their apexes like finely-modulated oceanic waves – all very exciting and visceral an experience!  Incidentally, the  famous “chordal modulation” that constituted the slow movement was made into a satisfyingly “mysterious and enigmatic moment” from which the work’s finale whirled us into those “other realms” outlined above.

This was followed by the contrasting No. 4, one probably vying in popularity with No. 3, and perhaps even surpassing the latter in terms of having singable melodies! Two flutes (Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade) and a solo violin (Donald Armstrong) were the soloists, supported here by strings and harpsichord. Light and vivacious on its feet, the music featured delectable duetting from the flutes, and some violin pyrotechnics from Donald Armstrong that caused sparks to fly, both in the first and last movements. In between were sequences of exchange between flutes and strings, creating a fanciful aura that evoked exchanges between mythical beings, such as Echo and Narcissus, Apollo and Daphne, or Pan and Syrinx. The finale brought the strings into the limelight via a brilliant Presto, during which all the instruments adroitly interwove their lines, while revelling in the sharing of songful expressions of joyful  energies.

Certainly, such “songful expressions” and “joyful energies” were readily brought out by the musicians, keeping my sensibilities on the boil for practically all of the concert, a response obviously shared by the Waikanae audience, judging by their prolonged applause at the concert’s end. I haven’t mentioned all the musicians by name thus far, and want to pay tribute to both their individual and collegial skills in helping to make this “Brandenburg journey” such a delightful and resounding experience – Anna van der Zee (violin/ piccolo violin), Malavika Gopal (violin/viola), Andrew Thomson (violin/viola), Ian Greenberg (‘cello), Ken Ichinose  (‘cello), Damien Eckersley (bass), Louise Cox (oboe), Michael Austin (oboe) Justin Sun (bassoon), Alex Hambleton (horn), Kate King (horn). All deserve acclaim for their part in making these works for our pleasure at once a wondrous evocation of an era and such living, thrusting expressions of timeless human relevance.

Worlds of difference and sympathy – rapturous Beethoven and Saint-Saens from the Wellington City Orchestra

Wellington City Orchestra presents
BEETHOVEN and SAINT-SAENS

BEETHOVEN – Violin Concerto in D Op.61
SAINT-SAENS – Symphony No. 3 in C Minor “Organ” Op.78

Helene Pohl (violin)
Max Toth (organ)
Wellington City Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)

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

Saturday 24th June, 2023

Small wonder that this concert drew what seemed like a full house to St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington on Saturday afternoon. – not only were the two featured works on the programme sure-fire drawcards, but each presentation had the kind of “ädded value” that made their pairing difficult to resist.

The lately-renamed Wellington City Orchestra’s second 2023 outing was this time with the much-respected Rachel Hyde taking her turn on the podium. First up was Beethoven’s adorable Violin Concerto, with great interest centred around the soloist, none other than Helene Pohl, the leader of the internationally renowned New Zealand String Quartet. Having heard Pohl lead her ensemble with enormous distinction through complete cycles of the composer’s string quartets I was naturally intrigued to hear how she would tackle the very different role of a concerto soloist, albeit in the same composer’s music .

What first grabbed my attention.however, was the sharply-defined focus of the orchestra’s introduction to the work, once the slight uncertaincy of the timpanist’s opening strokes had passed – Rachel Hyde secured finely-wrought dynamic contrasts between tutti and chamber-like passages with solo wind lines imparting great character. It was playing that created great expectancy regarding Pohl’s first, ascending-octaved entry, her tones beautifully “growing” out of the orchestral ambiences that had preceded the solo violin’s arrival.

I loved the “elfin” quality of Pohl’s tone throughout, with its shades of expression whose every utterance seemed to simultaneously evolve from whatever she had previously played and respond to whatever solo or ensembled phrases accompanied hers. Her instrument’s voice had a silvery quality which took on a more burnished- golden aspect in places where Beethoven’s thoughts were at his most profound, then returning to a diaphanous quality when, in places, dancing with similarly delicate orchestral solos. For their part, Hyde and her players both supported the soloist and took the lead when necessary, splendidly initiating and controlling the tensions leading up to the tutti outbursts leading to the movement’s solo cadenza.

Pohl’s sounding of this was like a prayer, chordal-like ascendings, followed by playful duettings of themes, and heroic passages in thirds, before her summonsing of the orchestra once more, true greatness in her playing of the melody’s valediction, and of the single note which sang out so purely at the top of the phrase’s final contouring – exquisite!

Hyde got her string players to sound the slow movement’s first trance-like phrases with wonderful “innigkeit”, horns, and then clarinets confidently taking over from the strings and preparing the way for the soloist’s birdsong-like rhapsodisings. Even more rapt was the movement’s central section, Pohl’s playing resembling a kind of hymn to existence, even more so when orchestral pizzicati provided an enchanting backdrop for the solo violin’s spell-weavings.

An orchestral call to arms, and a short, cadenza-like flourish from the soloist brought in the work’s finale, the orchestra taking a while to settle into the soloist’s rhythm, possibly the result of the players having, like the rest of us, “blissed out” during the heavenly Larghetto! Pohl took it all in her stride, alternating a characterfully rustic treatment of the main theme with more quixotic-like poise when repeating the same an octave higher. Then, in the more pensive minor-key second subject, the line was delivered with great emotion, ably supported by the bassoon – and, when the opening returned Hyde seemed to have reawakened her players so that they were with their soloist all the way, building those horn and wind fanfares into a mighty cadenza-welcoming shout! This was one to which Pohl responded with a cadenza I wasn’t as familiar with as I could have been, but which, using material from the finale itself, built quickly and spectacularly to the point where the orchestral cellos and basses were INVITED to make a “what do we think?” comment on the proceedings! – duly satisfied, soloist and orchestra here exchanged, syncopated, inverted and brought things to a by-then ecstatic close!

During the interval that followed, I gleaned. from all sides of where I was sitting. that things had been extremely pleasing thus far, the performance having created a suitable buzz in the minds of my neighbours, young and old. It seemed to augur well for what was to follow next, the orchestra having meanwhile “growed” some extra personnel for the second-half performance of Camille Saint-Saens’s well-known “Organ” Symphony, an undertaking obviously sparked by the not-too-distant (April 2021) refurbishment of the St.Andrew’s church organ.

I was a bit surprised that the organist for this occasion, Max Toth, was not given a special mention in the printed programme – though to be fair Saint-Saens’ work is not a “concerto” with a star soloist, but a “symphony”, and with works described as such individual instrumentalists’ names are normally mentioned only in orchestral listings of players. And the organist’s name was certainly there, even if the noise he conjured up from his splendid instrument was out of all proportion to his modest rank-and-file listing – a minor matter, and certainly in the light of the “special ovation” he was accorded at the piece’s end, at the prompting of Rachel Hyde herself…

As to the piece we were about to hear, Saint-Saens once remarked of himself that, as a composer he produced music as an apple tree produced apples, though he obviously meant he had great facility, and not that he considered his work facile and repetitive. The “Organ” Symphony was something of a biological “sport” for its time – the only reference I have found to a previous use of the organ in an orchestral symphony (1877) is by the nearly-forgotten Austrian composer Johann Ritter von Herbeck (1831-1877), though the fame of Saint-Saens’1886 work spawned a number of imitators, most of them French!

Right at the beginning, Hyde and her players opened up the work’s spaces, the strings’ first floating chords answered first by the oboe and then the flutes, their upward phrases drifting into what seemed like a void, but sparking a response from pizzicato strings and winds which suddenly and excitedly awoke the rest of the strings whose tumbling, chattering phrases spread through the textures galvanising the entire orchestra.

Hyde’s direction imparted just enough urgent impetus for the movement to maintain its course and for the players to keep the syncopated rhythms together, which they did most impressively throughout. And I enjoyed the occasional bedecking of the textures with detailed impulse, such as the tuba making its presence “tell” for a moment of glory, along with the brass and timpani, in underlining the importance to the work of the composer’s use of the “Dies Irae” variant by capping the climax of the excitement with great elan.

The slow movement was beautifully “prepared” for by pizzicato strings and brass, the organ establishing the requisite mood for the strings to fill the spaces with gorgeous tones, then allowing the wind and brass the chance to sing the same melody, the organ judiciously providing the transitions between the different orchestral forces’ sequences. Apart from some slight imprecision between the string “voices” in the duet-like-like sequences, the players delighted us with the beauty and focus of their playing of the movement’s gorgeous outpourings. At first I thought the organ pedal during the lyrical theme’s last great reprise not robust enough, but its deliciously tummy-wobbling aspect began to tell as the music soared to its conclusion – moments of glorious, ultra-Romanticism, capped off by the authentic-sounding reediness of the organ’s registrations at the end.

In terms of commitment from the players and cool-headed control from the conductor, the symphony’s Scherzo was for me a highlight of the performance (also bringing back vivid memories of my days as a percussionist, and our orchestra in Palmerston North tackling this work!). Strong, vibrant attack at the opening was capped off by on-the-spot timpani, and vibrant playing from the winds – Hyde kept the tempo steady, allowing her players room to shape and “point” the rhythms. As for the Trio, it was very properly a riot of impulse every which way, with the piano’s tumbling figurations adding to the excitement. The players did so well with these vertiginous rhythms and syncopations – while not every detail was perfect, the few spills simply added to the excitement and dare-devilry of the whole.

Both the Scherzo and the opening of the Trio were repeated, the latter dominated by the brass, with the winds capering all about underneath, and the strings steadying the euphoria with some meltingly beautiful playing, joined by the winds and brass, with the “Dies Irae” ominously sounded by the basses below – after all of this one could easily forgive the not-quite-together wind chord which prefaced the finale!

The voices awaiting within those organ pipes to sound their utmost simply burst forth magnificently as organist Max Toth activated the instrument! How emotional it all seemed, with the C major melody (the much-lauded “Babe” tune as garnered for use in the eponymous movie!) firstly stealing in via the strings and piano duettists underpinned by the deep organ pedal notes, then allowed its full magnificence with organ and orchestra each given its head, cymbal crashes, bass drum thwacks, brasses and all replying to the organ’s splendour! The strings made a sterling job of their fugal passage which followed, taken up vociferously by the brasses and then quelled by the lines being allowed to soar and “float” by the strings and winds, as a respite from the energies and excitements already unleashed and still to come. Enough to say that the performance of the rest fully expressed the “cri de coeur” of the composer: – “I gave everything to it I was able to give! – what I have here accomplished I will never achieve again….”

It seemed fitting that, right at the end Rachel Hyde gave the last voice to the organ, allowing the instrument to hold the final chord for a few moments after the orchestra had ceased playing (a gesture I’d not previously heard made in this work, but which certainly had its effect – not unlike the organ chord which continues sounding at the end of the opening (!) of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra”). But the glory was as much the Wellington City Orchestra players’ and conductor’s as the organ’s, and of course the music’s. Both composers and their respective works were on this occasion certainly done proud.

Myth and Ritual in everyday life – from Orchestra Wellington

RICHARD STRAUSS – “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome”
ARJUNA OAKES – “Safe Way to Fall”
JOHN PSATHAS – Zahara
BELA BARTOK – “The Miraculous Mandarin”  Ballet

Orchestra Wellington
with……..
Arjuna Oakes (singer)
John Psathas (piano)
Valentina Michaud (saxophone)
Orpheus Choir, Wellington
BalletCollective Aotearoa
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei  (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday June 3rd, 2023

“Myth and Ritual” was something of a concept-bending title, to my initial way of thinking, as a description of the programme Marc Taddei and his musicians put together on Saturday evening (June 3rd). Myth brings to mind legendary figures and events, while ritual suggests some kind of rite to do with religion or culture.

However, with the boundaries pushed out wider, as here, we saw that the concert’s range and scope took in both individual and societal aspects of the human condition, involving both transgressors and victims.

Bookending the evening’s presentation were portrayals of obsession matching that of any mythical hero – while the two central items presented conflict of diametrically opposed kinds, one in terms of individual resolution, and the other in epic, broad brush-stroke happenings putting groups of people at risk.

Not only was the evening‘s content far-flung, but the means by which the performances worked their magic were varied, which was part of sustaining our interest through spectacular orchestral, solo vocal, instrumental, choral and theatrical means.  Perhaps it wasn’t everybody’s “cup of tea” in toto, but it did have a readily-welcomed “different strokes for different folks” sense.

Things began spectacular with the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” written by Richard Strauss for an episode in his opera “Salome”, which was a setting of Oscar Wilde’s play (written in French) whose subject was the eponymous Biblical character, the beautiful step-daughter of Herod, the Judean king of around the time of Jesus Christ.  Strauss’s set both French and German texts of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome” which makes mention for the first time of the “Seven Veils” (in Matthew 14 she merely “danced for the guests”).

Wilde designated for Salome a kind of growing sexual obsession with John the Baptist (Jokaanan, in the opera), one which, along with the erotic nature of the Dance Strauss readily took on for the entirety of the character, presenting her as no less an obsessive figure than any mythical hero or heroine bent upon achieving great deeds.

An extraordinary tour de force of composition, the Dance brought forth from Marc Taddei and his players a brilliant response in both corporate orchestral and individual soloistic terms. From the frenetic opening, through the most languid sequences and right up to the final whiplash chords, the playing caught every mood, superbly voicing the chameleon-like progressions with that unique combination of sensuousness and “edge” to themes, rhythms and textures.

What particularly held my attention was the spaciousness of the phrasings in the early stages of the dance by both solo players and sections,  Taddei and his musicians enabling the music’s essential bitter-sweet character to emerge, setting the strings’ almost decadent voluptuousness against the winds’ piquant flavourings, the latter pungently activating the dancer’s growing excitement and urgencies, leading to the unbridled excitement of the concluding section’s abandoned flourishes, the knife-edge wind arabesques, and the cataclysmic whiplash chords at the end – stunning!

Nothing could have been further from these excesses than the concert’s second item, a song for voice, piano and orchestra called “Safe Way To Fall”. Written as a collaboration between singer/songwriter Arjuna Oakes and composer/performer John Psathas, the work grew from a “springboard” award from the NZ Arts Foundation which enabled Oakes to choose Psathas as a mentor, and led to a creative partnership between the two. The pair shared a desire to explore ideas that would “make musical ideas hit home emotionally”, and the song was one of four tracks that emerged from this initial collaboration.

With Psathas himself as the pianist (his debut as a performing pianist in public, he told us afterwards) and the orchestra providing backing of what seemed a “filmic” kind of orchestral texture, Oakes delivered his song via a microphone, words expressing the idea of feelings of vulnerability giving rise to strength in relationships. Psathas’s most telling comment afterwards. I thought, was that collaboration seemed a way for an individual to grow stronger, or in other words, a “Safe Way to Fall”, considering that any creative journey will involve occasional failings and fallings. What I got from the item and its presentation was an insight into creative process that’s outside popular perception of that process, but nevertheless produces a result, whatever one might think of the same as heard here.

John Psathas’s other (somewhat more substantial) contribution to the concert was in a more traditional “inspired by various stimuli” kind of mode, in this case a two-part synthesis of other people’s literary and musical skills. The composer was entranced by author Dean King’s “Skeletons on the Zahara” outlining the historical shipwreck of a group of American sailors off the western coast of Africa in 1815, and their subsequent travails in a hostile desert landscape and at the hands of nomadic tribesmen – so when saxophonist Federico Mondelci, who in turn had been inspired by an earlier concerto for the instrument by Psathas, approached him to write another concerto, it was Zahara which came into being.

Saxophone soloist for the concerto’s performance Valentine Michaud provided considerable visual as well as musical stimulus, appearing on the platform in a stunningly voluminous (social-distancing-style?) orange-crimson dress whose undulating folds seemed to become as desert sands as she launched into the first of the concerto’s four movements,  her instrument straightaway “possessing” the ambience created by the long lines of the ambient orchestral accompaniments, denoting rituals of both physical and spiritual identification.

The concerto moved through these exotic realms with considerable variety, a second movement establishing ostinato-like rhythms as the soloist’s playing gradually “enlivened” the music, the exchanges massively and dramatically irrupting and falling away almost to nothing in attention-riveting ways; and a third movement prayerful and ethereal, the music’s haunting aspect enhanced by the soloist’s playing of multiphonics (two notes played at once) above what seemed to me like enormous blocks of air, as if one was a bird soaring over a landscape far below, before the ostinato rhythm was re-engaged and the soloist rhapsodised with the orchestral winds, oboe, bassoon, and clarinet.

The final movement straightaway re-invoked the whole scenario, creating in my mind a desert environment through winds and brass, over which the strings soared as the sky and beneath which the percussion rumbled as of the deep earth. Valentine Michaud used a soprano sax to scintillate through the movement’s first part, then returned to her tenor instrument to deepen the “earth-connection”, the orchestra keeping the ostinato thread going throughout, and lifting the ambiences into a “cheek-by-jowl” fusion of excitement and oneness with the soloist, all scintillation and coalescence to finish!

Michaud returned us to our lives at Zahara’s conclusion with an encore, playing a fun work which she told us was called “cuku” (a chicken), and further demonstrating her virtuosity with multiphonics, as if two birds were simultaneously calling to one another – a very “rustic farmyard” piece which entertained us most delightfully!

And so, after the interval, we entered the very different world of Bela Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin”, having, incidentally, been warned at the beginning by a “voice-over” announcement that the work we were about to hear contained scenes of rape and sexual violence (one might imagine the present-day general cultural entertainment scene well-versed in such antics, though of course government health warnings are still bandied about, and “live” performances might still shock the unsuspecting with the unexpected!)

Musically, I found the performance as enthralling and satisfying as was the Strauss work in the concert’s first half. The opening vortex of bedlam-like sounds – “humanity’s mad, inhuman noise” (as Alan Jay Lerner wrote in “My Fair Lady” in a somewhat different context) – was superbly and sonorously delivered, though it was disconcerting how, for me, the advent of the dancers (members of “Ballet Collective Aotearoa”) radically changed the focus of my attention to the visual drama (the result of having previously “immersed” myself in the music via recordings).

Each of the clarinet solos depicting the girl’s “luring” of prospective clients to be robbed by her cohorts was superbly wrought as was the orchestral support, given that the visual aspect constantly took one’s focus away from what one was “hearing” to that which was being “watched”. Bartok’s evocation of relative “innocence” in the case of the young boy was touching, as was the girl’s response to him, a situation brusquely ended by the ruffians (who, at one stage seemed to morph as a group into a quartet rather than the original trio).

The dancers conveyed what they could of the different scenarios, hampered as they were by the lack of space which a proper stage would have otherwise afforded. Dramatically, the most effective moment  was the appearance of the Mandarin, who emerged from a trapdoor centre-stage, dressed in a red robe and bathed in bright light. That, and the impact of  the sickly green light which illuminated the Mandarin’s transfixed form after his stabbing by the ruffians were theatrical highlights of the presentation – I only wish someone had thought of deploying an additional light upon the mandarin after he had “embraced” the girl and “satisfied” his desires, at which point his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies – a blood-red spotlight would have provided an apt contrast to the colours that had been previously used.

In all, I thought the presentation was a great success, and especially from the orchestral point of view, in which the flow of the story, the drama and the tension never let up. The Orpheus Choir, too, sonorously and atmospherically played its part, beautifully accompanied by the orchestral violas as the voices gathered intensity, helping to breathe life back into the Mandarin so as to fulfil his destiny with the girl – musically, a scalp-pricking moment, even if hardly the visual embodiment of erotic consummation of desire we had been “threatened with” at the outset.

A definite “feather in the cap” of Orchestra Wellington, then – and the success of “The Miraculous Mandarin” left me longing for the point at which Marc Taddei and his players might again enlist some dancers and give us Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloe” – just a thought, but meant as a compliment for all concerned.

 

 

Tribute to Souvenirs, Sovereigns and Soulmates from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents
“EMPEROR”

Paul Lewis (piano)
Eduardo Strausser (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

ROSS HARRIS – Cento (2005)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto in E-flat Op. 73 “Emperor”
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.61

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 11th May 2023

“The work is an abomination” declared fellow-composer Jenny McLeod upon hearing Ross Harris’s “Cento”, commissioned and performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra for its 25th Anniversary in 2005. According to the excellent – in fact, indispensable! – SOUNZ website (containing ‘most anything one wishes to know regarding Kiwi music and its composers!), Harris was given the brief of using “pieces that the orchestra has made its own over the last 25 years”. His response was the musical equivalent of a poetry “cento” (a work made up from brief quotes taken from other verses), deftly constructing a musical tapestry of excerpts which takes the listener on a whirlwind orchestral ride of far-flung compositional variety and drawing from at least three hundred years of musical provenances in doing so.

It was all a kind of “first cousin” of antics familiar to those who could recall the zany Hoffnung concerts (which seem to have fallen out of fashion in recent times), with the composer tacitly inviting us to “tease out” from the kaleidoscopic array of sounds any references we detected to works from the standard classical repertoire. Depending on their respective tastes and sensibilities, some listeners might well have sided with Jenny McLeod’s reproachful  reaction to such a farrargo, while others, like myself would have taken the opposite viewpoint and admired both the skill and daring of the accomplished collage of tones, marvelling at the frequent fusing of contrasting sound-colours and rhythmic impulses, here with predictably volatile, and there with surprisingly harmonious results.

I wrote down as many references as my memory could muster during the piece’s eleven minutes, delighted at greeting old friends, abashed by some I knew but couldn’t name, and puzzled by a couple of strangers whose tones rang no bells! To give just a few examples, I noticed the recurring preponderance of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” vying with Beethoven’s Seventh, Mahler’s Third and Brahms’ Second Symphonies, along with several “Ivesian” touches of combinations of opposites that “worked” despite diametrically-opposed essences – the most outlandish of these for me being Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony finale being jostled along by F.J.Ricketts’ cheerful “Colonel Bogey” march-rhythms! Conductor Eduardo Strausser’s and his players’ juggling of such determinedly whimsical snippets out for mischief and mayhem was itself, I thought, sheer delight, exhibiting both control and panache in abundance.

After such a work-out the musicians must have been more than ready for whatever challenge was next – and it came with the music of Beethoven, in the form of the “Emperor” Piano Concerto (hence the concert’s title), no less. The orchestra was joined by the English pianist Paul Lewis. making his first-ever appearance in Wellington, following a previous visit during 2022 to Auckland, where he’d already performed a complete cycle of the concertos to  critical acclaim.

Following in the wake of the Harris work, Beethoven’s music was always going to give a more-than-usually purposeful and cogent impression, something that the grand opening exchanges between orchestra and piano further emphasised, proclaiming a kind of “sovereignty” which obviously fuelled the idea in some quarters of the piece having imperial associations, and resulted in its nickname (though whatever its provenance the title “Emperor” had nothing whatever to do with the composer!)

The opening gestures done, the orchestra straightaway took up the “swing” of the music, with conductor Eduardo Strausser encouraging magnificent tutti passages that contrasted memorably with the beautiful “voicings” from the different groups. The strings brought both strength and sensitivity to the journey via eloquent shadings and colourings, as did the winds with phrasings as individually ear-catching as were their various ensembles. The horns sounded wonderful with their duetting lines, while the trumpets and timpani were excitingly impactful! All of this preceded the soloist’s re-entry in which the piano seemed at first very much part of the ensemble’s musical fabric, before building to a more substantial and authoritative soloist’s voice.

I must say Paul Lewis’s playing surprised me at first with what I felt was an amiable quality, having previously listened to various of his piano recital recordings and thinking at the time that he was a very serious musician indeed! Throughout the concerto’s first movement his playing readily exuded both poetry and vivacity by turns, never “barnstorming” the line, even when delivering the great, hammered chords exchanged with the orchestra towards the end of the development section of the music. This was a quality underlined by his sitting still at the instrument, and letting his hands and fingers do the work in relation to the rest of his body. It all suggested what seemed to me something of a “victory beyond the battle” kind of approach to the work, more so than I’d been used to in my previous listening experiences of it – definitely a “musician’s” more than a “virtuoso’s” performance, and one that resulted in my finding myself continually leaning forward in my seat to take in the detail, instead of sitting back and letting the grandeur of it all wash over me….

With the slow movement’s opening the orchestral playing again enchanted the ear, Strausser drawing from his strings a rapt quality of utterance which the pianist’s first notes illuminated like early evening stars, the opening notes of each entry “placing” the sounds to a most disarming effect. Lewis’s subsequent fuller-toned chordal ascent then glowed as if moonbeams were issuing forth from behind a cloud, suggesting warmth more than out-and-out grandeur. After the pianist and the winds had resounded in turn the rapt opening theme, a moment of hushed wonderment led eventually to a joyous explosion of pianistic energy into which the orchestra unreservedly threw itself also. We were aroused, galvanised and charmed in our turn, with Lewis again playful of pianistic aspect rather than scintillating or trenchant, and thoroughly enjoying, along with his conductor and cohorts, the various adventures throughout the finale, right up to that moment of poignant rapport with Larry Reese, the timpanist, at the end of the work! A sudden pianistic irruption of energy goaded the orchestra into doing the same, into which exuberant valediction Lewis actually joined with the players – a final, heart-warming gesture of solidarity!

The interval’s leg-stretching ritual having been undertaken, I was back for the second half, eagerly anticipating the Schumann Second Symphony, the first of the composer’s four I’d gotten to know while still a student. I recall having read over the years various commentaries professing to explain why it was Schumann couldn’t REALLY write for the orchestra and had to be “helped”, a process which certain conductors had gone along with and apparently edited the scoring to order, while others had declared the practice “an abomination” (where HAVE I heard that word before?). As I had not too long ago bought a couple of CD sets of the complete Schumann symphonies conducted by a new generation of maestri who HADN’T thus interfered with the composer’s scoring of his music in any way, I felt heartened that Maestro Strausser, tonight’s conductor, might be of a similar bent in such matters. And so it thankfully proved.

From the outset, the sounds of the brass rang forth clearly and atmospherically over the Bach-like contourings of strings and winds that made up much of the character of this beautiful work. Nowhere was there heard any kind of obfuscation of detail, the lines beautifully balanced and the trajectories nobly advanced. The allegro, when it came perhaps felt at first a bit tense under Strausser’s beat, with the dotted rhythms slightly clipped, as if a shade TOO eager; but the development section of the movement, with its beautiful “sighing” motif enchanted the ear, as did the syncopated wind chatterings and undulating timpani rolls which lead back to the allegro’s beginning. This time, all was suitably heroic and energetic, with repeated-note fanfare figures adding to the excitement and giving the lie to any thought of technical ineptitude on the composer’s part.

The Scherzo, a splendid creation, here bristled with near-obsessive energies, conductor and players making the most of each of the two contrasting Trio interludes, the first featuring quixotic, even garrulous exchanges between the winds and strings, and the second a throwback to the Symphony’s polyphonic opening (Schumann’s homage to the spirit of Bach), again with winds and strings here gorgeously blending lyrical and cerebral lines in masterly fashion. I loved it all, apart from what I thought a somewhat vulgar presto-like tempo adopted by Strausser for the movement’s coda, one certainly not indicated at all in my score – my favourite versions on record (conducted by Kubelik, Sawallisch, Karajan, Schuricht, etc.) all bring out the timpani and the brass to thrilling effect without unduly speeding up the tempo!

Of course the effect here was as momentary as it was subjective, as Strausser and his players then proceeded to give a reading of the slow movement that was as enchanting as any I’d previously encountered! – the opening strings imparted a quiet, deeply-felt beauty to the melody similarly taken up by the solo oboe and counterpointed by the bassoon. The horns, joined by the other winds, with clarinet and flute taking their turn, all made their own magic and paved the way for the strings to return to claim the melody as their own – or so it seemed to our entranced ears, amid all the re-echoings bringing us to the movement’s end.

Strausser took the final at a goodly lick, enough to emphasise the music’s girth and energy in the playing from all the sections, festive brass fanfares alternating with vertiginously swirling string textures and babbling winds at the beginning, before the music got down to an equally vigorous “working out” interaction, the winds calling attention to a kind of redemptive theme which other instruments swirled around and about , as if encouraging it to “flower”. Of course, in tandem with the return of the work’s opening fanfares it eventually blossomed, bringing about a most vibrant conclusion, a sense of recognition and concourse between creative souls, sonorously celebrated on this occasion by superb playing from the entire orchestra.

Rather than the proverbial “darkness to light” journey of the kind beloved by the Romantics, what came across to me seemed like a coming together of different energies – the opening movement’s fanfares posed the question, and then, throughout the course of the work interacted with similar kind of questing impulses, until, step-by-step, the music was able to reach a true synthesis in the work’s final movement. It was, I felt, conductor Eduardo Strausser’s and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s real achievement with this performance that these elements came together so magnificently at this concert

Fundamentally thrilling – Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington – Fundamental Forces

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH – Symphony in E Minor
Igor STRAVINSKY – Violin Concerto in D
Josef HAYDN – Symphony No 39 in G Minor, ‘Tempesta di Mare’
Sergei PROKOFIEV – Scythian Suite

Natalia Lomeiko, Violin
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei, Music Director
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 15th April, 2023

The concert was billed as ‘Fundamental Forces’, but the disparate collection of works confused me. What could a symphony by CPE Bach possibly have to do with an early work based on a ballet by Prokofiev?

Having missed the pre-concert talk, I was none the wiser by the time the small orchestra (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns, plus strings, with Jonathan Berkahn on harpsichord) took the stage. The stage had already been set for a much larger work, with percussion stations at the back of the orchestra for 8 percussionists, and three sets of cymbals at the front of the choir stalls.  The little orchestra was surrounded by many empty chairs. That kindled a feeling of anticipation.

My companion (who had attended the talk) helpfully whispered in my ear that the programme was ‘all about the beginning of emotionalism in music’.

The CPE Bach symphony was a delightful work, stylishly played. On the basis of his work with Wellington Youth Orchestra (2002-2007), I had always considered Marc Taddei a late Romantic specialist, preferring Mahler to pretty much everyone else. His work with Orchestra Wellington has made me review that opinion.

Although the orchestra used modern instruments at concert pitch, Taddei had his head in the period, the last days of the Baroque, when new ideas were exerting their influence. Taddei’s programme notes quoted Mozart: ‘Bach is the father; we are the children’, and explained that Mozart was not referring to the great JS Bach, but his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788). The symphony was written in 1759, nearly a decade after the death of Bach père, and already you could hear ideas and approaches that the three-year old Mozart would later make his own. The symphony is in three movements, lasting 12 minutes, which simply made me wish it had been longer. According to Taddei’s notes, Bach fils used to say, ‘Play and compose from the soul!’ His aesthetic approach came to be known as the ‘Sensitive Style’. This symphony has plenty of musical ideas and is full of terrific effects, such as abrupt changes of dynamic within a big dynamic range, and the most alluring hesitations, when everyone stops playing, then suddenly resumes with the next set of brilliant notions.

The second work in the first half was Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D of 1931, with a big orchestra and the Russian violinist Natalia Lomeiko as soloist.  Born in Novosibirsk, Lomeiko made her debut with the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of seven, and was appointed Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music in London in 2010 (surely whilst still a child, as she looks about 25). She won the Michael Hill International Violin Competition in 2003 and the Premio Paganini in 2000. The Paganini is one of the most important violin competitions in the world. My high expectations climbed higher when my violinist companion whispered that Stravinsky was not a violinist, and didn’t realise that the opening chords of the concerto were unplayable. ‘Watch her left hand!’ he said.

I watched her left hand, but even knowing that Stravinsky had created a remarkably tricky chord, stretching two and a half octaves, from D4 to E5 and (yikes) up to A6 did not detract from its effect. Stravinsky had been commissioned to write the concerto for the Polish violinist Samuel Dushkin. Dushkin, so the story goes, recoiled in horror at the sight of the chord when Stravinsky wrote it on a napkin over lunch but found, once he tried it at home, that it wasn’t quite as hard as he thought. Just as well: Stravinsky called the chord the ‘passport to the concerto’, and used it to start each of the four movements.

The concerto is scored for full wind (piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 clarinets, 2 oboes, cor anglais) and brass sections (3 bassoons plus contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, and tuba), as well as timpani and bass drum. Not surprisingly, it was noisy at times, and the gorgeous sound of the solo violin was a bit overwhelmed. (Indeed, I overheard a confident remark on the stairs on my way out that it was ‘under-powered and unimpressive’.)  I disagree – the orchestral texture was at times as lush as you’d expect from that line-up, but was mostly kept thin so that the violin’s presence was heard. That thinness, together with the rhythms, gave it a wonderful vitality. There was some stunning bassoon playing from principal Jessica Goldbaum and colleagues, and lovely clarinet solos from Nick Walshe and team on B flat, A, and E flat clarinets. The work is full of surprises: rhythmic; harmonic; textural. I especially enjoyed the audience’s reaction of surprise at the end of the second movement: a collective, involuntary ‘Oh!’ Once again, at 22 minutes, it was all too short. I could have listened to it all over again. But no. Instead the soloist played a movement from a Bach partita as an encore, as emotionally rich a reading as anyone could wish. What a player!

After the interval, a second pair of works. This time, an early Prokofiev work was paired with (or introduced by) Haydn’s Symphony 39, ‘Tempesta di Mare’. The Esterhazy orchestra, for whom it was written in 1765 (a couple of years after the CPE Bach symphony), was big enough to run to two oboes and four horns, which made the tempestuous first and fourth movements lots of fun. This was one of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) symphonies, a precursor of Romanticism. Again, interesting and unexpected harmonies, clean rhythms, and a wide dynamic range. The opening movement was busy and energetic, but with odd silences – as though the wind was building, but with sudden lulls. The Andante second movement, E flat minor and in 3/8, was delightful. No horns or oboes, but full of expressive pauses. The Menuet and Trio were in contrasting minor and major keys, with gorgeous accents from the horns and lower strings. and charming duets in the Trio between horns and oboes. Back to a 4/4 allegro molto for the Finale – fun and fast and all too short at 16 minutes.

Finally, the moment the percussionists had been waiting for: the Prokofiev Scythian Suite. The work was commissioned in 1914 as a ballet ‘on prehistoric Russian themes’ by the impresario Diaghilev from the 23-year-old Prokofiev, fresh out of the St Petersburg Conservatory. Prokofiev was then known for his dissonant works for piano, impossible to play by anyone but him.  But Diaghilev didn’t like what Prokofiev wrote, so he turned it into a suite instead, retaining the blood lust, demonism, and ritual sacrifice.

The scoring for this work included 8 horns, as well as the aforementioned 8 percussionists, contrabassoon, bass trombone, tuba, lots of trombones and trumpets, and two harps. It must cost a fortune in extra players which accounts, perhaps, for its not being performed very often. That is a huge pity. I’d rather hear the Scythian Suite again than another Rite of Spring or even another Firebird.

The work opens at an electrifying fff (it has to be said that Taddei literally ran to the podium, as though he needed to catch the orchestra before they took off, which added to the drama), and doesn’t let up until all the cymbals and every other bit of percussion kit have been played, very loudly. That’s not to say it lacks beauty. The third movement, ‘Night’, featured shimmering muted strings, tuned percussion, and ravishing harp chords. But if (as I do) you like loud, rhythmically exciting music with lots of unexpected effects, then this work is for you. It’s only 20 minutes long, which meant that it stopped all too soon.

So there you have it. A fantastic concert made up of unusual works tied together by an interesting idea. The audience applauded with gusto. The subscribers do love Taddei and his extraordinary programming. I walked out into the night with a big grin on my face , as did – I noticed – most of the performers.