Steadfast Wellington Chamber Orchestra brings off an exhilarating concert to finish an eventful year

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade for 13 instruments
VIVALDI – Double Flute Concerto
ARNOLD – English Dances (Set One)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.17  “Little Russian”

Kirstin Eade and Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

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

Sunday, 12th December 2021

Congratulations right at the outset are in order to whomever devised such a scintillating programme for the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to finish this remarkably unpredictable year of years with!  It certainly was one that made up in part for earlier schedules being plagued by the vagaries of Covid-19 and the resulting ripplings of disruption! Here we were freely delivered plenty of satisfyingly full-blooded excitements and festive revelries, side-by-side with contrasting episodes of great beauty, resonant circumspection and purposeful action – a living, breathing entity of life-giving expression!

A lot of the credit must go to conductor Ian Ridgewell, whose direction of much of this eclectic range of music was focused and very much to the point, directly and unfussily intent upon bringing out the music’s “character” in each of the pieces presented. I liked how the conductor left the flute duo of Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade entirely free to interact with the continuo instruments in the Vivaldi Concerto’s slow movement as if sharing amongst themselves some exquisite chamber music!  Just occasionally elsewhere I felt a slight “tug” of discrepancy between the conductor and his players, most notably in the Tchaikovsky Symphony’s Andantino movement, the strings in particular wanting to push the march rhythm along more tautly in places – and there were dovetailing difficulties aplenty between orchestral sections in the same work’s treacherous Scherzo movement that required watchful shepherding from the podium!

The concert began most winningly with the early (1882) Richard Strauss work for winds, the piece a kind of homage by the seventeen year-old composer to Mozart’s own Wind Serenade in B-flat Major for the same number of instruments (Mozart’s work is sometimes performed with a string bass, sometimes with a contrabassoon), one obviously a model for Strauss.  I thought the performance by the WCO winds a most affectionate one, a beautifully easeful opening, with the contourings of melodic lines both gorgeous-sounding and characterful, and the different dynamic levels of the music consistently producing ear-catching results. I particularly liked the sonorous contribution of the tuba to the music’s foundations, and relished the crunchiness of the harmonic changes that accompanied the oboe’s lead-in to the piece’s second half. The ensemble’s blend grated ever so slightly once or twice in places during the latter half, but the final paragraph of the work, with its beautiful ascending flute-line, was most felicitously essayed by all concerned.

I was surprised to learn that the Vivaldi Concerto for two flutes and strings was the composer’s only essay for this combination, particularly as the soloists Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade amply demonstrated the manifold delights of the work’s seemingly endless invention, aided by some on-the-spot playing from the WCO strings in the outer movements. Straightaway the music captivated one’s attention with its gaiety and exhilarating energies, the dynamics placing solo-instrument delicacies alongside rumbustious tuttis that made the most of both the contrasted and concerted sounds. Though short, the work added a dimension of intimacy with the player-directed slow movement (simply flutes and continuo – two ‘cellos and a harpsichord), beautiful canonic writing alternating with passages in thirds – exquisite in effect!

Ian Ridgewell returned to direct the finale, consisting of more gallivanting and frolicking in Vivaldi’s most ingratiating style, though closer attention also heightened my appreciation of both the composer’s and the players’ skills in realising the singular beauties of the music’s interspersing of solo, chamber and ripieno sequences. It all demonstrated how the composer’s justly famous “Four Seasons” concerti ought to be a “starting-point” and not merely a “one-work” experience for the Vivaldi listener!

To my great delight, Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade acknowledged the concerto’s brevity by way of playing us an encore, the final movement from a work by an American composer, Gary Schocker, Three Dances for Two Flutes and Piano, one divertingly subtitled Coffee Nerves, Prestissimo! It’s a very bluesy-vigorous piece with driving rhythms for the flutes in unison lines breaking occasionally into thirds, and with the piano (played by Heather Easting, who had also contributed the harpsichord part in the  Vivaldi concerto’s continuo) punctuating the discourse with droll interludes – also one of the flutes (Kirstin’s on this occasion) indulged in startlingly “ornery” deviations, which were “coaxed” back into seemliness by the other flute – an interesting relationship between the two!

Malcolm Arnold’s invigoratingly breezy English Dances (the first of two sets of four of these) came next, works I’ve always loved for their colour, energy and original inspiration (the melodic invention throughout is the composer’s own, rather than the pieces being orchestrated versions of English folk-songs). I greatly prize a set of these richly and lovingly recorded by Arnold himself, though Ian Ridgewell’s direction took a rather more direct and vigorous view of the music, the opening Andantino’s bell-like awakenings on the move here right from the outset, and a central section sounding like a fairground in the middle of the countryside! If a shade raucous in full tutti, this could be put down to the effect of a largish orchestra playing in a smallish venue. Amends were made by lovely descending wind figurations at the piece’s end.

More chimings, this time vigorous and arresting, were brought into play throughout the second movement’s Vivace, with great work from the horns and winds throughout, the brasses capturing the music’s roisterings most excitingly, and the tutti filled with ear-catching detail.  The following Mesto (“sad and pensive”) flipped the mood of the sounds into melancholy, with tremolando strings, harp and bassoon joined by strings in a most authentic-sounding folk-melody, the wind-choir also making the most of their expressive opportunities, a strongly-focused mood beautifully sustained throughout by the players.

The final dance, Allegro Risoluto, allowed conductor and players to really let their hair down, the uproarious opening “nailed” by the brasses, here, punctuated by squawks of approval from the winds, catching the music’s unbuttoned and celebratory mood – I particularly loved the sound of the tuba’s star turn, egged on by the winds! The whole performance resounded with high spirits and jocularity, the composer here mercifully untroubled by the mental storms and stresses which throughout his life beset his sense of well-being.

A similar sense of well-being over-riding troubles and anxieties also permeates Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which took up the concert’s second half. Called the “Little Russian” (though not by its composer) because of the frequency of its use of Ukrainian folk melodies, the music has a joyous energy throughout, which the playing readily capitalised upon, coming to fruition in the final movement with its racily colourful variations on a folksong called “The Crane”. I particularly enjoyed the “Russian Sailors’ Dance”-like energies of the strings in places, along with the finely-played antiphonal brass calls punctuating the blending of the finale’s two themes, and the skitterish sequence which featured the piccolo (beautifully played) and the other winds towards the work’s end, immediately prior to the tam-tam stroke which calls the band to order for the work’s “give it all you’ve got” coda!

The horn-playing at the symphony’s beginning beautifully set the atmosphere, carried forward by soulful wind-playing, building the tensions towards the allegro’s snappy beginning, both winds and strings excitingly on the button! Ridgewell kept things on a tight rein throughout, getting good ensemble from the players, though I thought he might have allowed the second allegro subject a bit more breathing-space, the players sounding a little “pushed” here and there. However, the lead-back to the horn’s repeat of its opening solo was nicely controlled, the playing leaving us eager for more.

The March was beautifully brought into being, even if the strings seemed to want to slightly push ahead of the winds’ pointed drolleries – when the march rhythms resumed after the heart-easing middle-section, some of the opening “swagger” seemed by then flattened out, but the grandly ceremonial utterance of the “tune” was brought off nicely by strings and brasses. The Scherzo was a mixed bag, with the dovetailed syncopated figures struggling at times to “fit themselves in” – however the Trio worked beautifully, with the winds enjoying themselves, the flutes being especially on the ball (a lovely solo over pizzicato strings), and with clarinets, oboes and bassoons in full accord.

Altogether, a most successful concert, and a heart-warming way to conclude a somewhat troubled season – and how encouraging to be given notice of the orchestra’s plans for 2022 as well, consisting of four varied concerts, the first commemorating the band’s 50th Anniversary season! One wishes all involved in the undertaking the very best for it!

 

Orchestra Wellington under Taddei with Adam Page triumphant in Psathas’s saxophone ‘concerto’

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei 
“Virtuoso Composer”

Mozart: Symphony No 25 in G minor, K 183
Psathas: Call of the Wild with Adam Page (saxophone), Premiere
Beethoven: Symphony No 4 in  B flat, Op 60

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 July, 7:30 pm

It was no surprise, after coming into the city on a thinly populated train, then a wet and windy wait for a bus and into a less than busy auditorium vestibule, to find the Michael Fowler Centre only about 60% full, when this orchestra’s concerts are normally sold out. There was nothing wrong with the programme.

In fact, the programme was admirable. Mozart and Beethoven are rather well-known, and both are full of energy and distinction. Nevertheless, the two symphonies in the programme are not so familiar, even though the opening of Mozart’s No 25, in G minor (which Mozart wrote in 1773 when he was only 17) was, as the programme note said, used most effectively to background Miloš Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus.

Mozart’s Symphony No 25
Taddei launched into the Mozart dramatically, with vigorous rhythm and striking dynamic contrasts which were immediately in evidence between the syncopated, opening theme and the calm, more regular rhythm and more reflective second theme. The contrasts between instruments were somewhat more distinctive than is heard in some performances: cellos and double basses contributed more noticeably than the rest of the strings; a plangent oboe sounded and, particularly interesting, there are four horns, allowing for chromatic details; four horns instead of two was uncommon till the mid 19th century. The absence of clarinets was normal till a little later: Mozart first used clarinets in his Symphony No 31, five years after No 25.

The second movement is markedly calmer and quiet, and the playing was curiously secretive, each phrase carefully expressed with charming delicacy. The third movement – the typical Menuetto and Trio in triple time – restored an emphatic quality which that the Trio highlighted by playing distinctly slower.

And the last movement, that might have lightened the mood, does no such thing, Taddei took pains to emphasise its seriousness, to illustrate Mozart’s purpose in sustaining the symphony’s emotional seriousness.

Beethoven No 4
The other classical symphony was by Beethoven, but one that was performed with such flair and conviction that an audience may well have thought deserved fame equal to that of the odd-numbered works. The admirable programme note described the circumstances of its composition interestingly.

The fourth opens with a longish, contemplative introduction that offers no hint of what’s to follow, and the orchestra exploited it mysteriously, slowly emerging into daylight in a sudden attack: the Allegro vivace. It lifted the spirit with its energy and joyousness, with a rise and fall of dynamics that inspired an optimism that was elaborated throughout the magical, development section, secretively supported by timpani.

The Adagio was taken at a deliberative pace, though slightly more brisk than I remembered in others; likewise, its main theme sounded richer and more beautiful, particularly by the clarinet’s subtle contribution. The third movement is entitled Allegro vivace rather than simply ‘Scherzo’; holding the attention through its rather mysterious first episode. The Trio followed its title, un poco meno allegro, to prepare for the spirited return of first section. The fourth movement was driven with splendid precision, adding delight with a few bars that dip momentary into the minor key. Emphatic bassoons, clarinets, oboes and flute were enlivened by racing violins.

Both symphonies were performed with sensitivity and remarkable panache, offering a splendidly polished ambience for a rather distinctive masterpiece.

John Psathas
The showpiece of the concert was the premiere of John Psathas’s Call of the Wild. Psathas is Orchestra Wellington’s Composer in Residence, for a three year period from 2020. This is not his first saxophone concerto: that was in 2000 with a work called Omnifenix and was played at a festival in Bologna in Italy.

Psathas’s own programme note described the origins of the work most illuminatingly: a vivid, programmatic work that deals with the experience of both sides of his family over the past century: the terrible population exchanges between Greece and Turkey with awful loss of life on both sides after the First World War, and then the crippling, murderous Civil War after WW2 (Communism v. Capitalism, the war conducted in proxy style by the United States and the Soviet Union). The three movements deal with the experiences and character of his mother, his father and finally Psathas’s own children ‘hearing the call of the wild’ and talking now of living abroad.

The Greek civil war between the end of WW2 and 1949 was still a dominating memory when I was posted in 1964 as Vice Consul at the new New Zealand Consulate General In Athens; that war was still a divisive memory for the Greek people and it continued to influence Greek politics. Twenty years after the end of the Civil War, it was an element in the barbaric coup by the Colonels in April 1967 two months before my return to Wellington, That coup overthrew the democratic government on the pretext of possible left-wing success in approaching elections. Psathas’s reference to experiencing “normalised xenophobia, racism and religious mistreatment” when the family lived in Taumarunui and Napier, relates to my own surprise at encountering similar attitudes among, particularly, many English-speaking residents in Greece, including diplomats. For me, the three enriching years in Athens have remained a profound influence, linguistically, politically and culturally.

A considerably larger orchestra filled the stage for Psathas’s work, with many percussion players, as well as, most vividly, Adam Page’s tenor saxophone. Page led the opening passage, an arresting, rising motif that called us to order, and proclaimed the distinction of his instrument which, while still not standard in orchestras, has been imaginatively used by many composers, notably Ravel, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Milhaud, Richard Strauss, among others.

I have never heard the saxophone playing with such flamboyant confidence, employing such a wide range of techniques throughout the piece. With the accompaniment of a sharp-voiced side drum and many other percussion-driven features, suggesting civil war, there seemed little doubt to me that at least some of the music was inspired by the political strife after both World Wars. The sounds constantly announced the strong-minded inspiration that spoke clearly of disturbing events and a confident handling of them. And it was very often a partnership between saxophone and brass, along with percussion that carried it. Some of those exuberant episodes were nevertheless supported by quiet string accompaniment.

The music was always very conspicuously inspired by the sort of experiences Psathas had in mind with his parents. The second movement (He can worship it without believing it – his father) began with a sense of mystery: not a conspicuous feature of a saxophone one thinks, but it seemed to find its true character, such as when linked with sounds of marimba

The third movement, Tramontane (meaning, ‘on the other side of the mountains’), featured a frenzied orchestra, that allowed a more subdued saxophone to emerge, perhaps like the revealing of a beautiful landscape after reaching to peaks of a mountain range

This vividly individual music seemed to reinforce my long-held belief that contemporary music doesn’t flourish, or even survive, through sounds that are purposely challenging, tuneless, avant-garde, original in every possible sense. It can and should, like this successful work by Psathas, call for an opportunity to be heard again… and again. It was good to see microphones suspended above the orchestra (one recent and rewarding concert passed without being recorded at all).

This was a highly successful concert, featuring the orchestra and Marc Taddei, along with Adam Page’s saxophone, at their brilliant best.

I look forward to hearing it again – ideally another live performance. And it is noted that the place will be Christchurch, with the CSO, the Psathas piece’s joint commissioner.

Amalia Hall splendidly embodies Virtuoso Violin with Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents:
Virtuoso Violin

Frédéric Chopin Polonaise Op. 40 No.1 “Militaire”
Nicoló Paganini Violin Concerto No. 2 “La Campanella”
Franz Liszt Mazeppa
Franz Liszt Les Prêludes

Amalia Hall (violin)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 12 June, 2021

Marc Taddei introduced the concert with a few words of explanation. This programme reflected a significant change in music history, the dawn of a new era, the shift from concerts performed in salons in aristocratic palaces to concerts performed by widely celebrated virtuosos in concert halls to large audiences. It also reflected the changes in instruments, violins with longer necks and strings and pianos with stronger frames that could produce sounds that could fill the larger venues. It was about the rise of the artist as a hero, a celebrity, not a mere servant of some nobleman, like Haydn, who was in the house of Eszterházy, or Mozart, in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg. This change called for a large orchestra with a full complement of brass, winds and percussion. It is the story of the rise of the virtuoso. It was innovative and interesting programming, as we are now used to from Mark Taddei.

Frédéric Chopin Polonaise Op. 40 No.1 “Militaire”

This was an orchestral arrangement by Glazunov of one of Chopin’s most popular works. It was part of a suite of arrangements of four pieces he called Chopiniana, written 1892-93. The work was subsequently choreographed by Mikhail Fokine 1907 and was taken to Paris under the umbrella of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe season in 1909 and was renamed “Les Sylphides”. I am sure that as ballet music it works well, but the subtlety of Chopin, which was one of his hallmarks as a composer, was inevitably lost. As a work for a large orchestra it is very different from the original piano version, with too much brass, too much bombast. The noted pianist, Anton Rubinstein described this piece as the symbol of Polish glory. Whatever Chopin intended, Glazunov turned the orchestral version into something triumphal.

Nicoló Paganini Violin Concerto No. 2 “La Campanella”

Amalia Hall (soloist)

Hearing the Paganini Concerto was a once in a lifetime opportunity. In many years of concert going I don’t recall ever hearing it played live. It is undoubtedly a showy vehicle for a violin virtuoso without the substance of the great concertos of the repertoire, but it was written in a different age with different expectations. Above all, it was written by Paganini, the first international celebrity, a star, to show off his amazing skills as a violinist, and perhaps to put his rivals, other great violinists of his age, in their places. This concerto was born in the age of Rossini that soon yielded to more profound composers, Weber, Wagner, and Verdi. The work starts with an orchestral tutti which announces the main themes to follow, builds up an expectation and then lets the soloist take over like a great tenor with his signature aria. It is very vocal writing, with the custom of the earlier generation of singers and violinists to elaborate and ornament the melodies. Amalia Hall asserted her mastery from the very moment of her entry. Her fiddle sang with a penetrating beautiful tone, the melodic line flowed gracefully. She sailed over the great technical challenges that Paganini placed in the concerto to discourage the faint-hearted. Her phrasing was beautiful, clear, her tone dominating, but singing. Her cadenza established that she was a master of her instrument.

The second movement started with the horns, the hunter lurking off stage, birds chirping until the violin took over with an ever so beautiful melody, like a tenor coming in, singing a soulful serenade. Amalia Hall played this with freedom, as if playing this aria for every individual member of her large audience. And then La Campanalla, like a sudden burst of light, the piece de resistance that we were waiting for, joyful, playful, such an irresistible captivating tune that Liszt transcribed it and embellished it for the piano, one of his most popular studies. Paganini used this theme to demonstrate all the tricks that he could show off on the violin, double stops, harmonics, spiccatos, left hand pizzicatos. It is a great challenge for the soloist, and a credit to Amalia Hall that she took it all in her stride. The audience responded at the end of each movement by the now unusual, but very appropriate applause, and a tumultuous ovation followed at the end of the concerto. Amalia Hall rewarded the audience with a solo for violin, Orange Blossom, an American barn music theme, all great fun.

Franz Liszt:  Mazeppa
                         Les Prêludes

These two symphonic poems presented huge challenges for the orchestra. Tone poems were an innovation in Liszt’s time. They are, unlike symphonic movements, not constrained by traditional musical forms. They set out to evoke in the minds of listeners specific scenes, moods, images, stories.

Mazeppa was inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem of the story of Ivan Mazeppa, who seduced a Polish noblewoman. As punishment he was tied naked to a wild horse that carted him to Ukraine. There he was released by the Cossacks, who made him a hetman, a leader. Strings suggest a wild gallop, which is transformed and distorted with six strokes of the timpani that evoke the fall of the rider. Strings, horns and bassoon express astonishment at the injured man who is then raised, as depicted by the Allegro Marziale on the trumpets. The constantly recurring motif announced by the massed brass suggests a spirit not easily overcome. The final theme signifies the return of the hero and his end in glory.

Les Prêludes is Liszt’s interpretation of Lamartine’s poem, though it was originally conceived as an overture to settings of four poems by Joseph Autran for choruses. It is the earliest example of an orchestral work that was performed as a “symphonic poem”. The purists, believing in absolute music, found music that tried to describe anything other than music a contradiction in terms. Yet it became the most popular of Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems. It uses a large orchestra and evokes a wide range of sounds. It is a challenge to blend these themes and sounds for an orchestra. Orchestra Wellington, with its part-time structure may not always rise to the height of the great orchestras that one can hear on recordings, but it was a brave attempt by them to showcase these key works in the development of romanticism in music.

It was a fine, enjoyable concert. Well done Orchestra Wellington!

 

 

 

“Strings for Africa” joyously fill the vistas of St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sinfonia for Hope and Stringendo presents:
STRINGS FOR AFRICA

JS BACH – Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor BWV 1052
Antonio VIVALDI – Concerto for 4 Violins and ‘Cello – No.10 of Op.3 “L”estro armónico” RV 580
Gabriel FAURE – Cantique de Jean Racine (arr. for ‘cello ensemble)
JS BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 BWV 1051 (arr for viola/’cello ensemble)

Diedre Irons (piano),
Amelia Hall, Martin Riseley. Monique Lapins, Konstanze Artmann, Rupa Maitra, Martin Jaenecke, Lucas Baker, Claire Macfarlane, Sandra Logan, Sarah Marten, Robin Perks, Lucy Maurice (violins),
Sophia Acheson, Peter Barber, Elyse Dalabakis, Xi Liu (violas)
Inbal Megiddo, Heleen du Plessis (‘cellos)
Chris Everest (continuo guitar)
Stringendo
Sinfonia for Hope
Donald Maurice (conductor)

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

Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

Back In November of 2019 I attended an event called “Cellos for Africa”, at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua City,  one described by its organisers as “a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration”, featuring a variety of performing individuals and groups brought together by Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice. The event’s primary purpose was to raise funds for a school in Africa which had been established in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011 by New Zealander Denise Carnihan and her husband Chris. More than $8,000 was raised by this Porirua concert to support the venture, named the “Tamariki Educational Centre”, and situated in the poorest part of Nairobi. This latest concert, “Strings for Africa”, was a kind of follow-up, the funds intended to help establish a fully-fledged music programme at the school.

Both Denise and Chris Carnihan were present at this latest concert, and at the conclusion expressed their heartfelt thanks at the efforts of the event’s organisers and the assembled musicians, as well as acknowledging the support of the members of the audience. We were, throughout the evening,  treated to what could be best described as a kind of “string-fest” – if one forgot official designations and regarded Diedre Irons’ piano as a “stringed instrument”, one could indeed say that the entire company of musicians were string-players!

As befitted the occasion’s focus on the establishment of a school music programme, a goodly number of the evening’s instrumentalists were school-aged children, members of a group called Stringendo, a Wellington-based children’s string orchestra, one which opened the evening’s programme with a performance of JS Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, conducted by Donald Maurice, the soloist with the ensemble being none other than the aforementioned Diedre Irons! Playing the St.Andrew’s grand piano set back amidst the ensemble players as befitted a kind of “sinfonia concertante” work,  Irons gave a sturdily-focused and clearly-articulated reading of the first movement’s solo part, duetting most charmingly with the violins in a number of places, and plunging into a mini-cadenza which sparked and scintillated like a firecracker, the pianist’s characteristic spontaneity of manner keeping us nicely guessing as to the moment of her instrument’s reunitement with the orchestra!

The sombre, unison statement of the slow movement’s opening theme gave it all great gravity, and a modicum of tension as to its eventual destination! I enjoyed the accompanying strings “sighing tones”, a touching sensitivity evident in the young players’ relating their phrases to the soloist, and the latter in turn elaborating upon the simple, emotionally-direct string figurations. The final  episode enchanted as well, with the strings quietly joining Irons’ melodic line in unison, the utterances spare, and extremely moving!

Sprightly, energetic and animated at the outset, the finale began with the piano creating its own frisson of excitement, and the orchestra its own version of exhilaration, the notes clearly played and their energies well-conveyed. The soloist was never left unattended by the strings for long, the fount of Bach’s invention astonishingly vigorous and varied throughout, and the detailings never less than ear-catching, such as the observance of different dynamic levels and the setting of soaring lines against rapid-fire accompaniments. Irons’s solo part became somewhat fired up towards the piece’s end, but the orchestral musicians maintained active participants right to the final exchanges – well done!

One couldn’t help catching one’s breath as the soloists for the next work on the programme, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins RV 580, came on to the platform – it was as though the concert had momentarily “cornered the local market” regarding violinistic talent! With Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley on one side, and Monique Lapins with Konstanze Artmann on the other, sparks were ready and set to fly in this work, the music catching into conflagration from the very opening, Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley setting things in motions, answered by Monique Lapins and Konstanze Artmann with the ensemble’s support, straightaway establishing a dynamic variation in the exchanges by way of indicating that no stone of interpretative contrast would be left unturned.

Every solo was characteristically “eventful”, not only notes-wise, but in dynamics and antiphonal direction and its augmentation by any one or more of the “company”, the interchanges filled with the drama of variety of utterance – what to the casual listener might have at first seemed a “sameness” of texture and figuration, with the propulsive opening theme driving the music along, drew us with each repetition further into the panoply of the music’s fantastic world.

The slow movement began with a series of dramatically-delivered gestures, the big dotted-note chords alternating with shimmering arpeggiated figures for both the soloists and the ripeno  – a central episode contrasted this solemn mood with a ghostly dance, as if a chorus of sprites lurking behind the great columns of sound briefly and impishly showed themselves, enjoying their “moment” before dancing out of sight once more.

The sprightly, triple-time finale reinvigorated the sound-picture, the company bending all backs in delivering the vigorous opening theme, before each of the soloists launched by turns into an elaborately modulated discourse, Amalia Hall getting the lion’s share at first, but with the others joining in the rapid-fire exchanges, Inbal Megiddo’s cello as well reminding us at times that the concerto is actually designated “for four violins AND ‘cello” in its place in the Op.3 “L’Estro L’Armonico” collection! What else could one feel when it was all over but privileged to have “been here” to witness the euphoric joy of such music making!

The next item was “unprogrammed” in a written sense, being intended as something of a “surprise”. A group of ‘cellists currently under the tuition of Inbal Megiddo, here gave us a transcription  of an 1865 choral work by Gabriel Faure, Cantique de Jean Racine, originally a four-part work for mixed choir and keyboard. I forgot to actually count the cellists in the group, but there must have been at least eight, including Inbal herself – a gorgeously rich sound! The players infused their various lines with plenty of feeling, nicely inflected and tellingly shaped – I thought there was remarkable strength and confidence in the lead cellist’s playing (at the opposite end of the line from where Inbal was sitting). I liked the group’s intensities in the softer moments of the piece, catching the feeling as readily as during the more outwardly-expressive moments in the music, concluding with a particularly touching final phrase.

Finally, it was the turn of the Sinfonia for Hope to perform for us, an orchestral group established in 2018 for fundraising purposes supporting humanitarian causes, the present Nairobi project being the group’s 2021 focus. Before the group’s item got underway conductor Donald Maurice expressed thanks to both Inbal Megiddo and Heleen du Plessis, describing them as central to the organisation of the evening’s music-making, after which he invited the organisers of the Nairobi Project, Denise and Chris Carnihan, onto the stage as well, the couple expressing their thanks to the musicians, organisers and the audience for their support for the Nairobi venture via the evening’s musical activities. It was gratifying to be told that, as a result of this evening’s concert, the projected music programme at the “Tamariki Educational Centre” in Nairobi would be able to be established.

The Sinfonia’s item was one with a difference, a performance of JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 played by an astounding assemblage of no less than twenty-four viola players, along with a large group of ‘cellists, plus a continuo guitar, all conducted by Donald Maurice. It all began with a will, the rich massed viola sound rolling around and about the church’s vistas, each group’s phrases gleefully bouncing off the other’s with almost bumptious heft in places, though allowing ample spaces for the lines of the two ‘cello groups to come through as well. At the outset I found the reiterations of the main theme exciting when re-emphasised by each of the groups, but my ear began increasingly to listen for and appreciate the less assertive lines and phrases and their interplay, finding a different kind of excitement in the play of the “terraced” sounds at the varied dynamic levels.

The slow movement then provided the greatest possible contrast to what we had heard thus far, with solo strings and guitar continuo, the four players, Peter Barber and Sophia Acheson (violas), Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Chris Everest (guitar) transporting our sensibilities in the most delightful fashion, a truly memorable performance expressing such finely-wrought contrasts of light and shade, warmth and focus, and strength allied to delicacy as to disarm critical processes…..

After this, the finale’s “jolly hockey sticks” effect of the massed strings’ return brought us back down to earth in the most appropriate way, with sequences of tumbling warmth vying with moments of delicacy and playfulness.  I enjoyed the music’s modulatory swerves into more distant realms, and the dogged meticulousness of the figurations’ homeward journey to the point where the main theme relievedly gathered the threads together and roared out for the last time – what palpable pleasure there was in its final delivery, and in the audience response , a moment to acknowledge and truly cherish as a memory of the evening’s delights!

Welington Youth Orchestra and Mark Carter with violinist Lucas Baker – a Transatlantic treat!

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
TRANSATLANTIC
Music by Barber, Britten, Gershwin and Vaughan Williams

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Overture “The Wasps” (1909)
BARBER – Violin Concerto,  Op.14
BRITTEN – Sinfonia da Requiem,  Op.20
GERSHWIN – An American in Paris  (1928)

Lucas Baker (violin)
Mark Carter (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

St. James’ Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Saturday, 15th May, 2021

The idea of “music that makes one’s mouth water” is, of course, an entirely personal matter, there being literally hundreds of pieces and combinations of pieces which would produce such a response amongst music-lovers – but for me, the Wellington Youth Orchestra’s presentation at Woburn’s St.James’ Church on Saturday hit the spot from the moment I opened the printed programme just before the concert began. I’d seen the “Transatlantic” publicity blurb, with its highlighting of the Barber Violin Concerto, performed by Lucas Baker, but only the names of the composers whose music was to be played alongside this work – so I was all the more delighted at the prospect of hearing the other three pieces, all particular favourites, in the one concert!

Another pleasant surprise was rediscovering the positive aspects of the venue’s acoustic regarding the orchestral sound, one which I’d commented on in a previous review as actually being somewhat “too lively” – here, the  different orchestral textures of the opening piece, Vaughan Williams’ attention-grabbing orchestral frolic  The Wasps  Overture, rang out most divertingly, from the raucous whirrings which opened the piece to the plethora of instrumental strands delivering the concluding “combined” themes of the work at its climax. The generous reverberation gave added weight and tone to parts of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and enhanced various touches of glamour and sophistication to Gershwin’s adventurous An American in Paris. We certainly felt as if we were inhabiting the “same space” as the band, and enjoying a lot more besides just the notes!

Any concert that begins with VW’s “Wasps” Overture immediately “commands” its audience’s attention – and so it proved here, with the great orchestral “buzzings” goaded to a frenzy by various percussive punctuations. Mark Carter set a jolly dancing tempo for the allegro which allowed the combination of rhythmic verve and soaring melody to “swing” in entirely complementary ways, leaning nicely into the “big tune” which was taken up gloriously by the strings, the winds giving poignant support as the music’s colours rang the changes. The jauntiness of rhythm got by Carter from the players at the return of the “wasps” was positively infectious, leading to the brass’s exciting  clarion calls and irruptions of percussion which pounced on their opportunities to join in the welter of sound! – I liked the lovely legato of the trumpet’s reiteration of the soaring theme, beneath which the strings energetically danced the allegro, the ensemble splendidly robust, conductor and players capping the piece’s ending off with an exhilarating sense of arrival.

What could have contrasted more to this than the opening of the Barber Violin Concerto? – a lovely, lyrical outpouring from soloist and orchestra alike began the work with great tenderness and ardour hand-in-hand, the winds contrasting this heart-on-sleeve manner with a dancing, descending motif that reappeared throughout the movement.  The evolving orchestral textures by turns took us through sequences where full-bloodedly melody gave way to sequences of wistfulness and playful impulse which were suddenly became irruptions clouding the soundscape. Lucas Baker’s playing seemed, chameleon-like, to flower with the music –  more confident, I thought, with the bigger gesturings than with some of the more filigree figurations, his vigorous attack steadfastedly carried the music through the dancing sequence towards those massive orchestral gesturings which seemed suddenly to collapse under their own weight! Baker and his oboe soloist colleague together brought us reassurance by turning once again to the composer’s comforting descending dance theme, one which floated upwards to finish the movement.

A beautiful oboe solo began the slow movement, superbly delivered here, the strings , clarinet and horn taking the melody onto the soloist, whose first focused musings were “charged” by orchestral agitations led by the brass. Though Baker seemed less sure of himself in the heavier, more angular sequences, his confidence returned for the more romantic horn-accompanied passages – and the  rarefied solo sequence just before the impassioned entry of the strings was simply lovely, as was the recitative passage immediately following the orchestra’s taking on of the full-blooded gesturings, Baker delivering the open-hearted beauty of the writing to the rapt ending with great commitment.

A timpani figure began the finale, over which the soloist began a molto-perpetuo rhythm, with the orchestra contributing flecks of colour, a wonderfully rollicking journey brought off here with great aplomb. Baker’s control was splendid throughout, his energies carrying everything along with his instrument as the orchestral presence grew through a crescendo to a hammered climax, the strings taking over the rhythm, the soloist wrestling it back for a few measures, and the orchestra seizing control once again. At the work’s end, soloist and orchestra went for broke hammer and tongs, mixing concerted shouts with helter-skelter solo figurations, and  unequivocal concluding chords.

The church’s ample acoustic helped make the beginning of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem something of a sonic event, highlighting the committed efforts of the players, the irruptions thunderous and oppressive, engendering a sense of deep hurt, sorrow and anger, the instruments speaking for human voices and giving tongue to feelings. From the utmost depths the sounds gradually ascended, the strings followed by the brass and winds, the textures increasingly strident and agitated. With the heavy percussion adding its weight the full orchestral force was superbly brought into play, through to a shell-shocked aftermath – the sudden irruptive fragments of energy then re-ignited brilliantly spreading inexorably through the orchestra, tongued notes from the winds, stinging col legno strings and mocking chatter from brasses. The saxophone lamented, the trumpets sneered, the percussion flecked off shrapnel-shards of notes, while the rhythms built to brutal unisons at the climax, after which the exhausted textures fragmented into silence – how heart-warming, then, was the ensuing dialogue sung here between winds and horns, with the strings turning the textures into upward-thrusting columns of light, augmented by the whole orchestra! The aftermaths were so very moving, with the brass solemnly sounding a warning phrase for the future before the final hope-filled roulade from the strings dissolved into the quietly stoic wind chords at the end. Such great work from the orchestra, conductor and instrumental soloists!

The concert concluded on a rather less burdened note with George Gershwin’s exuberant An American in Paris, a world that seemed far removed from the previous work’s troubles! I’d thought the Britten piece showed off the orchestra’s qualities splendidly, but this differently-focused, more  extroverted Gershwinreally opened up the band’s corporate and individual capabilities, even if the first Parisian taxi whose horn we heard had a first-note hiccup! – but no problems thereafter! That first orchestral paragraph really “set the scene” here, with the tunes roaring through, a prominent one being  “My Mum gave me a nickel”, a vivid contrast with some of the piece’s mood-changes, as the traveller wandered from place to place, the loneliness (a gorgeous violin solo) as palpable as the hustle and bustle.

Throughout, I thought Gershwin’s score was made a living entity by these players, as with the cool bluesiness of the famous trumpet solo, and the insouciant swagger of the accompanying rhythmic trajectories, the style caught to perfection, its extrovert manner beautifully tempered in places by the playing’s tenderness and sensitivity (the strings’ delivery of the bluesy tune, for instance), and the ebb and flow between the two modes beautifully controlled by Mark Carter. Gershwin’s scoring of this work throughout indicated here that both of the eminent French musicians he approached for lessons were right to recognise there was little either of them could teach him, and that his own home-grown “idioms” were the important things to further nurture and develop, the second, jauntier trumpet tune, for instance, again played here with incredible panache – and I loved the “drenched” string/wind sound the players brought to the swinging theme that followed soon after, immediately precluding the music’s “breaking up” and reforming with a vigorous rendition of the original bluesy trumpet theme.

Suddenly we were swinging along with the opening music, taxicab horns and all, and heading for a great peroration – a final bluesy turn of phrase, a crashing chord, and we in the audience were left applauding and shouting our approval! Heroes all, these players, with some star turns, all of which were properly acknowledged – very great honour to all at the realisation of such a splendid concert!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camerata at St.Peter’s-on-Willis does Haydn (and others) proud…..

CAMERATA  – Haydn in the Church

JS BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major BWV 1049
MOZART – Serenade No. 6 in D Major K.239 “Serenata Notturna”
HAYDN – Symphony No. 13 in D Major Hob.1:13

JS Bach – Kamala Bain, Louise Cox (recorders), Anne Loeser (violin)
Mozart – Anne Loeser, Ursula Evans (violins), Victoria Jaenecke (viola),
Joan Perernau Garriga (bass), Laurence Reese (timpani)
Haydn – Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Camerata
Anne Loeser (director)

St. Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington

Saturday, 1st May, 2021

Camerata’s leader, Anne Loeser was kind enough to alert us to two musical anniversaries on this particular day, opening the concert at St.Peter’s-on-Willis with one, and concluding the evening’s music with another as a delightful “encore surprise”, more of the latter in a moment.  It was in fact the 300th anniversary of the presentation by JS Bach of his six Brandenburg Concertos to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, though not of their first performance in this form, as Bach had assembled a collection of already-composed works for purposes of the gift. No record exists of their performance for Christian Ludwig, whose ensemble in Berlin seems not to have contained the players needed to perform these highly variegated pieces; and the original manuscripts were rediscovered in the Brandenburg archives only in 1849, and published the following year.

So this music had waited an incredible hundred and twenty-eight years for the re-discovery that led to its publication in its “Brandenburg” form, though it’s hard to imagine Bach himself resisting opportunities to perform these works with his own ensemble at Köthen, which DID have the players to do so – but we don’t know for sure whether this ever happened. The earliest known recordings come from the 1920s from ensembles with “historic” names such as the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. As Bach had written for almost every instrument in the orchestra known to him in these works, twentieth-century ensembles would at first have had to do a fair amount of “adapting” the music for modern instruments, though more recent advances in historical knowledge of and skills in early music performance practice have resulted in many successful performances and recordings of these works more akin to what Bach himself might have imagined (or heard!).

Concerto No. 4 as performed this evening featured a solo violin and two recorders, along with strings and continuo, Bach’s score specifying a pair of “fiauti d’echo”, a description perhaps reflected in the pair’s playing of their instruments at the very back of the ensemble during the slow movement, as in a kind of “echo chamber”, most effectively conveying the music’s spatial characteristics in the ample St.Peter’s acoustic. I thought at the concerto’s beginning, the fleet-of-finger tempo conveyed a bright-and-breezy spirit, if in places the figurations sounded to my ears a tad breathless, with the recorders’ lines speeding by, and missing something of the charm of interplay. At times it seemed as if the lines were “running together” and thus sacrificing a little definition, even though the ensemble held, with Anne Loeser’s beautifully diaphanous solo violin-playing a tour de force of gossamer dexterity.

At the back of the ensemble for the slow movement Kamala Bain’s and Louise Cox’s playing blossomed, their instruments more clearly-defined and characterful than when in the front, their interplay beautifully filling the ambient spaces, the sounds remarkably “opened out” – and, by some alchemic means, maintained with the third movement’s beginning, even with the wind soloists returning to the front of the platform. I felt the tempi here sprang eagerly and naturally from the music’s character, a kind of out-of-doors ebullience driving it all. Bach delightfully “played” with his listeners by  blurring the distinctions between soloists and ensemble, making as if the movement was fugal at the beginning, but then introducing a violin solo (whose helter-skelter character was brilliantly thrown off by Anne Loeser), and going on to mix tutti and solo passages with fugal echoes, the ensemble relishing the accented dance-like hesitations towards the end as a precursor to a kind of “well, that’s it, folks!” concluding gesture.

Next came the adorable “Serenata Notturna” by Mozart, his “Serenade no, 6 in D K.239”. Despite being one of many originally written as background music for social occasions, this particular work merited direct listening attention, with its timpani-augmented introductory march, and quixotic middle section alternating arco and pizzicato figurations. Laurence Reese’s period timpani made a suitably pompous impression throughout the opening March, further enriched by the loveliness and variety of the ensemble’s “inner voices” and the warmth and vigour of Anne Loeser’s violin playing.

The middle movement Minuet began fairly conventionally with an engaging “kick” to its rhythmic gait, but with writing which constantly engaged one’s attention via the occasional unexpected modulatory “swerve” that delighted with its impudence. And the Trio’s garrulous triplet figures here and there over-ran themselves with cascading energies that sparkled and babbled impishly – here, altogether delicious in effect, as played by the quartet within the ensemble (with a double bass instead of a ‘cello), an ear-tickling contrast to the full band!

Straight into the finale we went, introduced by the droll opening violin theme, with its hearty answering phrase from the ensemble, and, to everybody’s delight, developing into an entertainment that the composer himself might well have relished, with the fun by turns hearty (buoyant timpani interjections), quizzical (“After you…” – “No, after you!” kinds of expressions shared in the exchanges between the Quartet’s Ist and 2nd Violins!) and faintly subversive (nonchalant interpolations of ANOTHER Mozartean Serenade, from the timpani and double-bass!). Happily, we all enjoyed the goings-on at least as much as the players did, and the music framing the fun was, as with the rest of the work, not just a pretty serenade, but filled with interest and variety.

For the final work on the programme the platform seemed to be suddenly crowded with extra players, most notably horns, whose contributions certainly added tonal weight and colour to the ensemble. Haydn’s Symphony No, 13 in D was in fact written for his largest orchestral complement to date available, with an extra pair of horns and timpani, even though the latter part in the autograph score seems to have been penned by someone else! The full-blooded D Major chord that began the work reflected this exciting new sonority, the winds and brass holding their lines through the strings’ and timpani’s sprightly opening figures – an extremely ceremonial and festive beginning! – rather like great and sonorous tolling bells sounding while human beings scurried busily about on the ground below!

The adagio cantabile that followed was notable for a solo ‘cello part accompanied by strings without winds, Ken Ichinose’s playing heartfelt and direct, the repeats giving the sequence something of an epic serenity, a mood which the following Minuet set about enlivening! Here, the timpani were a joy, and Karen Batten’s flute-playing eagerly took the chance to shine in the Trio. In my earlier Middle C review of the concert published a day ago I expressed puzzlement at the programme note-writer Gregory Hill’s comment that the finale, like the parallel movement in Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, quotes a theme based on Thomas Aquinas’s 13th Century Hymn “Pange Lingua Gloriosi”, which was one I thought I knew well, having frequently sung verses from it during my school days. By way of response I opinioned that the Haydn/Mozart “crib” could have been actually taken from the “Kyrie” of the sixteenth-century composer Josquin Des Prez’s Missa Pange Lingua, a work derived from Aquinas’s hymn. However, after a revelatory exchange of messages, I’m find myself both surprised and indebted to Gregory Hill, who precisely pinpointed for me the occurrence of the motif in the original hymn – thus, I stand corrected! Certainly Haydn’s “treatment” of the famous four-note sequence yielded little or nothing to his great contemporary’s better-known exercise, using a similar amalgam of sonata form and fugue to telling effect, ranging from magnificently-sounded horn statements to ubiquitious string and wind exchanges, the whole enhanced by the liberal observance of repeats, and making for a veritable feast of orchestral interaction.

At the symphony’s conclusion, Anne Loeser made her “anniversaries” announcement, the second of which involved one of music’s most notable “one-hit” composers, Engelbert Humperdinck, whose name is forever associated with the opera “Hänsel und Gretel”, first performed in 1893, and whose death occurred one hundred years ago this year. Perhaps too,  it was partly the presence of all of those horns for the Haydn Symphony which inspired the choice of music for the encore, the opening “Evening Prayer” sequence from the opera’s Overture, the melody here superbly sounded by the heroic quartet of players in their most meltingly heart-warming mode, with alternatingly sonorous and delicate support from the rest of the ensemble – Haydn would surely have approved!

 

 

 

Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s Mendelssohn and Shostakovich make for stimulating contrast

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MENDELSSOHN – Violin Concerto in E Minor Op.64
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5 in D Minor Op.47

Hayden Nickel (violin)
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 17th April, 2021

It says a lot about Wellington’s musical life that groups such as the Wellington Chamber Orchestra – an orchestra made up of about 70 players, all proficient amateur musicians, young, and not-so-young – can thrive and enrich the city’s music, with four interesting and varied concerts during this 2021 season.

This concert began with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of the most popular works in the repertoire, and understandably so – a loveable work , full of delightful melodies, yet unpretentious.

The music is not about showing off the artist’s virtuosity – there are no bravura passages to distract from the sheer beauty of the melodies. There is no high drama, like the opening drum beats of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, or the opening operatic tuttis pf the Mozart concertos that anticipate the drama to follow. There is just one orchestral chord and the soloist is right into a beautifully-sustained melody. The orchestra echoes the soloist as if to imply that “we are with you – we are a team supporting each other”. There are filigree passages  requiring agile finger-work from the soloist, but these don’t distract from the music’s flow.

The slow movement is one extended song, presented through the interplay of soloist and orchestra, and a challenging double-stopped passage where the soloist seems to accompany himself. The last movement starts with a few dark E Minor chords, then moves into E major and becomes exuberant, a joyful, sun-filled spring!

The simplicity of this work presents special challenges for the soloist – although there are technically difficult passages, nothing distracts from the piece’s essential beauty. Hayden Nickel, a young Samoan violinist who is studying at Victoria University, has been involved with various music programmes around New Zealand, including Arohanui Strings and Virtuoso Strings. His was an impressive performance, playing with a beautiful, and in places, powerful tone, and was a complete master of the music, playing with the freedom that allowed him to impose his own vision upon this great concerto.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 5  was an ambitious work for an amateur orchestra to programme. It is to the great credit of the group and the conductor Rachel Hyde, that they gave a thoroughly moving performance. The work made great demands on the various soloists, particularly the wind and brass players, and they are to be commended for doing justice to their parts for 45 minutes of intense concentration!

The Symphony starts with a slow, descending melancholic theme, which heralds the ambiguity of the work throughout. Ominous brass chords, dark and disturbing, interrupt the second theme, with the raucous music that follows merely adding to the sense of unease . This turns into a furious march dominated by the side-drum. Where does this march lead to? And does the ethereal flute solo at the end suggest some sort of Arcadia?

The second movement is also a march, but like fairground music, for clowns or a carousel. A sense of cynicism prevails, an “enjoy it while you can” kind of fun.  Conversely, the third movement Largo begins with an exquisitely beautiful passage, but as the music progresses, tensions develop and suggest a sense of agony. A vigorous triumphal March begins the last movement, with echoes of popular songs, but is there a suggestion that this sense of something triumphal is not to be taken seriously?

This symphony was written in 1937 after Shostakovich had already withdrawn his Fourth Symphony, fearing “official disapproval” . He was already in deep trouble because Stalin and his cultural tzars had taken exception to his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and he couldn’t afford to fall foul of party orthodoxy.  In the event, the new Symphony, the Fifth, was an unqualified success, being received with a forty-minute ovation (it was probably this reception which saved the composer’s life!).

The symphony was subtitled by its composer “The creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism” – even if Shostakovich’s biographer, Solomon Volkov claimed that the composer had said “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth (Symphony). The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…you have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.”

 

Music of magical flight – Palmer, Mozart and Stravinsky from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents
FIREBIRD

Juliet Palmer – Buzzard
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A K.488
Igor Stravinsky (ed. Jonathan McPhee) – The Firebird Ballet

Diedre Irons (piano)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 8th April, 2021

Throughout the first half of Canadian-based New Zealand-born composer Juliet Palmer’s work Buzzard, I was enraptured,  totally enthralled by Palmer’s self-proclaimed “digestion” of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. I was bowled over as much by the former’s mastery of orchestral techniques we all readily ascribe to the latter’s music, the brilliance of the orchestrations, the motoric rhythms, and, by turns, the fluency and the angularity of the changing time-signatures, as by the curious phenomenon of the music having been “masticated” by Palmer into resembling in many places something more like Petrouchka! I confess that for some time I couldn’t extricate myself from imagining fairground ambiences, even complete with a slow-motion thematic “quote” at one point in the music! Still, the essence of Stravinsky was all there, the rumbustious rhythmic trajectories, the dynamic punctuations, the angularity of the different cheek-by-jowl time signatures, and the ear-catching variety of orchestral texture, feathery and diaphanous soundscapes co-existing with explosive irruptions and roistering rhythms.

This was “transmorgrified” Stravinsky, wondrous and strange in its “familiar-but-new” guise, and even possibly emerging (as the composer put it) somewhat “damaged” and “disfigured” as a by-product of the process. Gradually, it seemed to me that the ambience of the piece was shifting to something more sombre, though Palmer chose to indulge mid-way in some Ibert-like sequences involving sounds evoking whistles, shouts and extraneous noises, before introducing an almost “worry to death” motif, one which created what sounded almost like an impasse in the work’s unfolding. An oboe-led sequence which finally suggested something of the atmospheres of Palmer’s “other” subject for “dismemberment”, one relating to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, with its mystery of Odette and her enchanted cygnets under the sway of an enchanter, was given but a brief moment to develop, before being overtaken by a skitterish section of sounds that for me reflected only the helplessness and vacuity of the swan’s and her cygnets’ peregrinations, with few “echoings” of the would-be-lovers’ predicament – in general, on one hearing I felt a far more resounding sense of identification with Stravinsky’s work than of Tchaikovsky’s, on Palmer’s part when the piece had finished. (I note that microphones were present, suggesting the concert was recorded, and presenting the possibility of my hearing the work again)….

Moving on to the concert’s second item, Mozart’s adorable A Major Piano Concerto K.488, I instantly warmed to the work’s opening, played here by the orchestra with what sounded like a certain expectation, something of a “wait and see” exposition. Hamish McKeich and players gave the full tutti in the opening its due, but elsewhere brought out a dynamic differentiation that nicely suggested things held in reserve. Diedre Irons, whose playing I’ve always greatly admired, appeared also to hold the music “up for inspection” at first, her passagework having a delicacy that seemed to me to resemble a flower about to open, but with a certain tremulousness, bent on a kind of journey which I felt began to “flow” more freely as the first-movement cadenza approached – the orchestra then proclaimed and the pianist responded, the display exhibiting a marvellous gathering of flowering energy, the confident flourishes conveying to us that the Mozartean “oil” had begun to flow.  In the slow movement which followed, every piano note resounded and shone, with both clarinet and then flute in response to the piano so eloquent, and the bassoon so steadfast in support. The playing’s rapt togetherness created an intensity from which the winds gave us some relief, some gorgeous quintessential Le Nozze di Figaro-like moments enabling us to breathe more freely before immersing ourselves once again in the music’s deeper waters, with the piano and then the winds leaving us spellbound once more, right to the movement’s end.

Played almost attacca, here, Irons set the finale on its course with supreme poise, the effect playful rather than breathless or thrusting, the phrases and rhythms having real girth – some listeners may have wanted a touch more rumbustion in the galumphing, two-note descending figures, but I enjoyed the “spin” of the rhythms, and the “delighted” interaction between the soloist and various sections of the orchestra. Irons’ occasional impishly energised impulses brough such life to places such as her perky interchange with the winds just before the final recapitulation of the opening – both the relish with which she then launched this concluding paragraph of the music, and the enthusiasm with which McKeich and the players responded, underlined for us the pleasure of its overall presentation, the musicians’ efforts warmly received at the work’s conclusion.

I had previously heard (and reviewed) a performance of Jonathan McPhee’s “reduced orchestra” version of Firebird before, presented by Orchestra Wellington in May 2017, one which on that occasion presented an orchestra seemingly at the top of its game, a “spectacularly-realised performance” (to quote the Middle C writer!). I’ve not been able to ascertain whether, amidst these somewhat astringent times, that concert was actually recorded by RNZ technicians, as I believe this present one was – if not, a pity that posterity has denied local music-lovers the chance to compare performances of the same work from Wellington’s two foremost orchestras.

As with the Orchestra Wellington performance (and I shan’t mention the latter again), the great glory of this evening’s realisation was that the work was given complete, allowing people familiar with only the “suites” assembled by the composer from the work, to place such excerpts in the context of a glorious performance of the whole ballet. This gave the composer’s idea of using folk-inspired diatonic music to portray his human characters and octatonic and chromatic music for the story’s supernatural characters far greater focus and dramatic ebb-and flow than in a performance of either of the suites. Of course this “great glory” here became like a word made flesh over the course of the work’s unfolding, with conductor and players realising, by turns, every subtlety and shade of atmosphere and detailing while, at the other end of the dynamic range conjuring up the weight and brilliance of the music’s more forthright sequences with incredibly sustained focus and
unflagging energy.

At the beginning the evocation of dark, mysterious space was palpable, the playing enabling the scene’s ambivalent interplay of wonderment and menace to register, preparing the way for the Firebird’s brilliance and her interaction with Prince Ivan, who was able to capture her, before securing a magic feather from her as the price of her freedom – all characterised with a beautiful violin solo from the concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and taken up tenderly by other instruments. Both irrepressible gaiety and youthful grace marked the accompaniments for the Twelve Princesses, whose Round Dance was accompanied by the fresh folksiness of the Borodin-like oboe melody, courtesy of Robert Orr. The strings’ taking up of the melody was superb, at the same time liquid and focused – how adroitly McKeich and his players were able to  move between diaphanous delicacy and full-throated feeling, as Ivan and one of the princesses fell in love! Similarly, the trumpet warning set in play a superb transition from these scenes to those depicting the arrival of Koshchey, the ogre, and his followers. As mentioned before, the famous Dance of Koshchey’s Cohorts brilliantly burst from the agitated build-up and wrought appropriate havoc (I loved the trombone glissandi, “rescued” from one of the composer’s “retouched” suites by Jonathan McPhee to great effect here!). And what coruscating playing from the orchestra as the Firebird reappeared! – the music dashing and crashing the dance to its scintillating conclusion.

None of the suites depict the actual destruction of Koshchey’s magic egg and the death of the monster, a sequence whose vivid sequencing here brought about a true sense of cathartic release from oppression, the music burgeoning from its subterranean beginnings to a tumult whose seismic force couldn’t help but move mountains. Then came the famous Berceuse, from out of which, via the golden horn-tones of Sam Jacobs, grew various manifestations of rebirth from the once-besieged land – fabulously and grandly epic phrasings at the first climax, whereupon the music burst forth excitedly and festively as Ivan and his Princess were farewelled by the Firebird and the garden’s rejuvenated inhabitants.

All of this received a properly enraptured reception from a thrilled audience, who were pleased to respond to conductor McKeich’s acknowledgement of his players both individually and collectively with the acclaim they deserved. Somebody said to me as we walked out of the hall, “Well! – if the orchestra can do that so wonderfully, isn’t it about time we had a complete Daphnis et Chloe, with a chorus? What an occasion THAT would be, with playing like this!” I couldn’t have agreed more!

NZSO launches into 2021 determined, with a splendid, dynamic programme to evade Covid 19

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Stephen De Pledge – piano
First concert in ‘Podium’ Series: entitled Carnival

Ravel: La Valse and Piano Concerto in G
Anna Clyne: Masquerade
Stravinsky: Petrushka Ballet (1947 version)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 26 March, 6:30 pm

The first of the NZSO’s main concert series, which is entitled the “Podium Series”, proved a conspicuous triumph. Though it might have seemed difficult to account for the name “Carnival” which was given to this particular concert, it was vividly illuminated in Feby Idrus’s colourful and well-informed programme notes, indirectly with La Valse, but quite specifically with Petrushka, where the word relates directly to Stravinsky’s setting of the first tableau of the ballet – Carnival or Shrovetide which precedes Lent.

However, it was a near full house, marking an encouraging change from audiences in the past year or so; it also marked the steadily rising reputation and popularity of the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in Residence, Hamish McKeich.

The programme booklet was free: an excellent move, considering the intelligence and illuminating character of Feby Idrus’s writing.

There were two distinctive aspects to the programme: two of Ravel’s most distinguished works and one of Stravinsky’s first ballet scores: Petrushka which retains its undiminished popularity as a vivid and colourful ballet as well as being a brilliant, luminous orchestral masterpiece.

La Valse
I must seek vindication for the pleasure I get from Ravel’s La valse, in live performance compared with a recording, since I’ve recently been enjoying a personal Ravel festival, recapturing CDs, recordings of Ravel from the SKY Arts channel, and on the ubiquitous You Tube on the Internet. This music reflects both Ravel’s and my love of the Viennese waltz, especially of the Strauss family, Waldteufel, Offenbach, Kalman, etc.

This performance illuminated the music’s dynamism and rhythmic energy through Ravel’s remarkably colourful scene of a Viennese dance-hall which, in her programme notes, Feby Idrus captured beautifully. She related not only the scornful reaction by ballet impresario Diaghilev to Ravel’s piano performance of the score, but an illuminating description of the evolution of the music and its ‘growing wildness’, depicting a ‘heartbeat fraught with panic’. They were words that vividly described this frenzied yet disciplined performance.

Ravel’s piano concerto (for both hands) is a profoundly different work, with the piano part in the hands of one of New Zealand’s leading pianists, Stephen De Pledge. It emerged with clarity and the careful application of rhythmic energy, even in the jazz coloured Adagio movement with its extended solo piano opening: idiomatic but essentially classical in character. To quote again from the programme notes, the concerto as a whole ‘remains aerated by jazz’s sweet perfume’. After several returns demanded by the audience, De Pledge played Couperin’s fairly familiar song La Basque with a lively spirit; though its translation from the clarity of the harpsichord to the modern piano is not quite the same.

Masquerade 
The second half began with what I assume was the first New Zealand performance of a rowdy piece written for the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 by 40-year-old English composer Anna Clyne: Masquerade; inspired by the kind of music played in London’s 18th century pleasure gardens, such as the famous Vauxhall Gardens; judging by its spirit and liveliness it would have been a hit there, as it probably was at the Proms. Boisterous and constantly varied as it was, it hardly matched Stravinsky’s melodically and rhythmically inspired ballet music that followed.

Petrushka 
Stravinsky revised the 1911 original version of Petrushka in 1946 (performed in 1947) for a slightly smaller orchestra, altering certain instrumental features, but partly because the original was not covered by copyright in all countries, and thus delivered the composer no royalties. The orchestra played that later version, probably detectable to no one but the relative instrumentalists and conductor.

Of course, the theme of the ballet doesn’t demand music of a profound character, but it is nevertheless a unique score, quite as remarkable as The Right of Spring which rather outshone Petrushka two years later with its violence, rhythmic and thematic complexity. The score derives its profundity by means of its unique, half-hour-long musical inspiration.  Yes there were moments of a certain ensemble smudginess in Petrushka, but the overwhelming energy and passion were dominant throughout the entire performance.

But if you’d like to see and hear a very remarkable, yet somehow genuine performance of the composer’s Three Movements for piano, look at Yuja Wang on YouTube.

What a splendidly successful way for the orchestra to open its year!

 

Camerata – continuing the joy of new discovery with Haydn at St.Peter’s-on-Willis.St Church

HAYDN – Symphony No. 12 in E (1763) Hob.1/12
Concerto for ‘Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D Major, Hob.VIIb:2

Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Camerata  (Anne Loeser – leader and concertmaster)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis St. Church

Saturday, 20th February, 2021

I do have recordings of Haydn’s early symphonies (part of the first-ever “complete” recorded cycle of the works made back, it now seems, when Adam was a boy, by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica), but prior to attending each of Camerata’s concerts featuring these works I didn’t make a point of listening to them. This was because I wanted to experience as far as possible that “thrill of excitement” at hearing something new, which this ensemble and its leader, Anne Loeser delivers in spadefuls every time (excuse the somewhat agricultural metaphor, but its earthy aspect seems here to admirably suit the invigorating “al fresco” quality of both music and performance!).

What a delight was provided by the opening of the E major No.12 – an innocent, “conversational” phrase suddenly energised  with attack, light, and colour, augmented by horns and winds to which the St.Peter’s acoustic gave a lovely “bloom”, the whole conveying a kind of existentialist joy which must have galvanised the sensibilities of the work’s early Esterhazy listeners, if the performance had anything of Camerata’s joie de vivre, here. I loved, too, the sudden descent into the unknown with the development’s beginning, moments of minor-key mystery, as quickly chased away by the reappearance of the sun through the clouds. The sounds all had both a “play” and “play with” aspect which conveyed a sense of the players relishing the work’s colours, energies and contrasts.

A sombre but graceful Siciliano made up the second, E minor-key movement, its decorum occasionally ruffled by impulsive strands shooting upwards or plunging downwards, something in the style of CPE Bach, I thought, the whole a compelling encapsulation of melancholy. It was all chased away in no uncertain terms by the work’s Presto finale, with the ample acoustic seeming at first to make the rushing figurations sound less crisp than they were actually played, something the ear then “sorted out” better at the repeat.  Again, both the ear-catching dynamics and occasional unison energies reminded me of CPE Bach, and brought home the idea of the latter’s influence on a whole generation of composers – “He is the father – we are the children”, said no less a person than Mozart. The driving energy of this finale, with its potent dynamic contrasts swept our sensibilities along in grand style, somewhat belying, I thought, the writer of the otherwise excellent programme note’s assertion that the symphony was “a slight, intimate work”. How differently people hear and interpret the same music!

I had been occasionally “peeping” at a post concerning a 2016 UK Classic FM project involving the Haydn Symphonies, one in which a single commentator was asked to listen to and “rate” all 104 of them in order of what he considered their “merits”. To my surprise this symphony was put at slot No.101 by the adjudicator with dismissive comments such as “a fun bit of fluff”, and “a lot of composing by numbers, especially the PONDEROUS slow movement” (Heavens! – whose performance was he listening to?), and finishing with a bit of a kick down the stairs, vis-à-vis – “Not without interest, but there’s so much better to come!” (Incidentally, it doesn’t say anywhere in the post whose recordings the hapless listener was auditioning.) To my mind, all the exercise proves is the point I made in the last paragraph – that we all hear music and its performance quite differently!

A more “tried and true” work for concertgoers was the ‘Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major (Hob.VIIb:2) which was considered for a long time (a) to be the work of a contemporary of Haydn, Anton Kraft, a cellist of some repute, and then (b) to be Haydn’s only effort in this genre. The work was given the extra title No. 2 when a manuscript of an earlier, cheekier and spunkier work turned up in 1961, and was dated as an earlier work than the D Major concerto by the scholars.

Andrew Joyce was the soloist, well-known as the NZSO’s Principal ‘Cellist and as a chamber musician in Wellington, regularly performing with the Puertas Quartet (which he founded), and exploring the chamber repertoire with various colleagues. He seemed right in his element here, joining in with a will in the opening orchestral tutti of the concerto, and winningly projecting his smokily attractive tone at his first soloist’s entry, bringing to the writing a plaintive, lyrical quality in the solo line during the first interchanges with the ensemble. Later he brought out plenty of the quixotic aspect of Haydn’s writing with some deft fingerwork and bowing, illustrating how the music “dances” its way through much of the movement’s terrain. I liked also the vein of melancholy which coloured the music just after the return of the recapitulation’s first subject, the beautifully half-lit notes which rounded the phrases most beguiling, as did the passages in sixths (?) between the soloist and the orchestral violins. An extraordinarily virtuosic cadenza, somewhat apart from the character of the movement as a whole, produced some exciting, full-stretch playing to finish!

The second movement gently lulled us into a reverie, the soloist supported by the orchestral strings, before the full orchestra repeated the opening, leading to a subsidiary theme which was loveliness in both itself and the playing. Such was the delicacy of it all that every detail could be heard, the contrast with a brief moment of minor-key angst making its point before passing as quickly as it came; and the cadenza just as briefly reaffirming the music’s inclination towards beauty of utterance.

The Rondo-finale’s graceful opening trajectories allowed for both elegant lines and subsequent mischievous energising figurations on the soloist’s part. Andrew Joyce left us in no doubt as to the work’s capacity for generating excitement, with some spectacular jumps and runs, and at one particularly and excitingly trenchant point, some especially nifty octave double stopping pricking up our ears! The whole left behind in no uncertain terms any expectation of this work being a relatively “contained and well-mannered” classical piece, the music’s energies infusing the final tutti with a truly joyous and festive quality that brought forth great acclamation from the near-capacity audience at the end.

We were generously given an encore, something I didn’t know, and guessed that it might be Scandinavian! – it turned out to be a piece by Max Reger, “Lyric Andante”, its lyricism seeming to carry both warmth and a hint of remoteness, the cello in concert with the ensemble at first, but with a solo line in a subsequent sequence – a lovely, sonorous conclusion to the concert.