Orchestra Wellington ends its year in blaze of irreverent glory

Orff: Carmina Burana; Haydn: Symphony No 87 in A.

Arohanui Strings, an El Sistema-inspired programme providing string instruments and tuition to children from deprived areas: at Pomare and Taita Central schools

Orchestra Wellington, the Orpheus Choir and Wellington Young Voices, conducted by Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 November, 7:30 pm

This last of Orchestra Wellington’s most successful 2014 subscription series not only delivered the last of the Haydn’s Paris symphonies, but brought together Wellington’s other major, locally-specific musical organization: the Orpheus Choir, to perform what is one of the most popular, large-scale compositions. Also called for in Carmina Burana is a children’s choir and Christine Argyle led Wellington Young Voices to contribute that element.

In the first half, Haydn’s No 87 was given a splendid, full-blooded performance, opening in four-square, positive spirit, staccato and emphatic. Only in the development section of the first movement does Haydn temper the joy, saying, ‘But look here! Life’s no bed of roses’. And Taddei lent emphasis to the caution by his exaggerated pauses between sections.

Several wind players had their place in the sun, particularly the oboe, in the Trio of the Minuet. And while the Finale resumes the optimism of the first movement, Haydn again makes us pause with his not uncommon phantom endings that can lead to untimely applause. Not here though; yet, after what I thought an utterly delightful and characterful performance, the applause petered out rather abruptly.

The concert also offered the opportunity for a high-profile appearance of Arohanui Strings, founded in the Hutt Valley by Orchestra Wellington violinist Alison Eldredge and inspired by the Venezuelan-originated El Sistema; the project involves children from less favoured areas learning instruments and playing in an orchestral setting. The performance began with a simplification of the opening of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, with many of the more experienced children sitting at the orchestral desks alongside members of the Orchestra: pretty good!

Then another group of younger children carrying violins emerged from both sides and took up their places across the front of the stage, ranged in size from left to a surprisingly small girl on the right (her evident feeling for rhythm, at least, must have drawn the audience’s attention particularly). They followed Alison’s gestures, all lifting their violins in unison, and placing them professionally under the chin. They played Pachelbel’s Canon and then a square dance by Brooker and an approximation of the tune known to Mozart as ‘Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman’, the English version known as Twinkle, twinkle, little star’.

The whole affair had the faces of the audience wreathed in smiles. It was a delightful episode.

But it’s not enough for such an important phenomenon to exist as a result of isolated initiatives in one or two places nationwide. These things should be funded and guided, though better not actually run, by the Ministry of Education.

As if that wasn’t enough of delightful diversion, one of the most astonishing pieces of music of any era filled the second half. Perhaps we should forget that Carmina Burana was written by a German composer, in Germany, just before the Second World War; at the time when the music of most classical composers, especially the Jews, was being classified as degenerate by the Hitler regime, this work was a success and was acclaimed by the cultural gestapo. It’s a wonder that Orff was not, like Wagner, condemned for being approved by a nasty political regime.

Though many of the poems, written in medieval Latin and various vernaculars, were the work of students and clerics, piety is hardly present; it is the secular, popular notion of Fortune that rules, and perhaps it was the rather irreligious, satirical, earthy, not to say occasionally bawdy character of the texts that allowed the Nazis, notably heathen, to feel comfortable with the work.

The Michael Fowler Centre was emphatically the right place for this performance. First, because contrary to much ‘informed opinion’, I like the place as a whole, including the acoustic, which does have varying sound characteristics in different areas of the auditorium; and Saturday’s  full house would have meant hundreds turned away from any other suitable city venue.

Timpani and brass launched the performance with a mighty, stunning attack which established a benchmark for the rest of the evening. There was no lack of fortissimo and sheer energy (a different thing) from the choir and orchestra; the staccato assertions from the men’s chorus, with chilling side drum, of the inevitability of Fate in ‘O Fortuna’, the medieval notion that underpins many of the miscellaneous poems and songs, also set a standard that never slackened. Nevertheless, the many rejoicing episodes were no less convincing as the Springtime songs proved, illustrated with choral and orchestral colours. One of the main delights of the work lies with the varied and pungent use of individual sections of the choir, sometimes small and sweet as in ‘Floret silva…’  which drew attention to the many younger voices in the choir.

The children’s choir becomes an important element in the third part, Cour d’amours, and though I wrote in my scribbled notes ‘not unduly perfect in ensemble’, the sheer innocence of their voices worked its magic.

Three very fine soloists were a major strength. First, Australian baritone James Clayton who entered with ‘Omnia sol temperat’ and grew in histrionic impact with every successive entry. He became a one-man theatrical performance with his combination of vocal and gestural energy.

It’s curious that the biographical note about James Clayton omited his earlier New Zealand connections. Middle C records his performances in Rigoletto (Count Ceprano) in 2012, in the bass part in the Mozart edition of The Messiah from Orchestra Wellington and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir in June 2013 and this year the totally over-the-top Baron Ochs in Days Bay Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier. We’ve noticed before that the notes about visiting artists often omit mention of earlier New Zealand appearances, as if the person putting the programmes together does no more than copy the agent’s hand-out, which can very well omit appearances, such as those in New Zealand, that are deemed unimportant in building an artist’s profile for international consumption. I suppose it could be a commentary on our own often ill-based inclination to boast that we punch above our weight in many things, such as the arts.

We at Middle C would be happy to be consulted by New Zealand concert and opera promoters to help flesh out inadequate biographies. Or anyone can search our archive without any sort of barrier to check such things – the archive goes back to our beginning in 2008.

Australian tenor Henry Choo emerged from the left of the choir In the Tavern, as it were, in ‘Girat, regirat garcifer’, a clear and penetrating voice that did show a little strain at the top but made a truly musical and dramatic impact. Dunedin-educated Emma Fraser is well-known: here she waits for her first outing till the ‘Amor volat undique’ in the Cour d’amours part, but the wait was fully rewarded, and she handled her last florid, operatic peroration in the ‘Tempus est iocundum’ with a keen feel for the message and musical style. In that part, Clayton and the children’s choir also join, as the minor key reasserts the power of the Wheel of Fortune – of Fate; that all worldly pleasures are passing fancies and futilities.

There was a shouting and standing ovation at the end, that went on and on. It’s hard to imagine a more magnificent climax to what must have been, in every way, one of the orchestra’s most successful years. Marc Taddei has again proved to be a marvellous gift to Wellington’s musical culture.

In speaking to the audience, Taddei spoke about next year’s plans which will follow the pattern in 2014 with a series of six symphonies to be played in six concerts. Tchaikovksy was the obvious candidate and the Russian theme will lead to a lot of other Russian music, mainly 19th century, that will be explored most rewardingly. In addition, Michael Houstoun will be piano soloist throughout, again in a series of mainly Russian piano concertos, including less familiar but splendid examples like Scriabin’s in F sharp minor.

Good to stay alive for another year!