‘Close encounters’: NZSO’s admirable enterprise to get good music on to the street

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Walls

A free lunchtime concert

The Waltz from Farquhar’s Ring Round the Moon; Overture to Il Seraglio (Die Entfürhrung aus dem Serail) by Mozart; ‘Le bal’ from the Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz); Liebestod (orchestra alone) from Tristan und Isolde (Wagner); Enigma Variations (Elgar) – Theme (the  opening Andante), and Variation No XIII (***); Ravel’s Bolero – conclusion.

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 9 October at 12.30pm (repeated at 6.30pm)

The aim of a concert of this sort is not to prove to a highly discriminating audience that it is in the presence of one of the world’s finest orchestras (though, of course it is), but to seduce both that class of listener and any others who have strayed in, because there was nothing better to do this particular Tuesday midday, with some highly entertaining, non-challenging music.

A fine orchestra like this plays itself, but an expressive conductor’s arms and hands and body can vividly illuminate the music for the audience, in the same way that choreography does with ballet music.

It used to be common for critics to remark on the physical style of a conductor, the nature of his gestures, the expressiveness of hands or of the entire body; there’s almost an unwritten convention now about what a critic should comment on and what is hors de combat; most of that is pretentious and silly.  I found Peter Walls’s movements most engaging, suggestive of emotions and the spirit of the music, varied in character, never falling into the sort of repetitive movements that can became tedious, or employing both hands in the same circular manner: he uses each arm to delineate distinct aspects of the music.

The programme at this concert was well-chosen, reflecting much of the music I am personally most deeply attached to – Mozart, Berlioz, Wagner and French music in general.

And it began with one of the few pieces of New Zealand music that has made it into the international repertoire – David Farquhar’s incidental music to Christopher Fry’s play, Ring Round the Moon (adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s L’invitation au château). The lilting strains of the Waltz created the most beguiling atmosphere, and I’d have loved the rest of the suite to have followed.

Peter Walls then spoke, a little about that music, more about Mozart and the opera and his first years in Vienna, and the Turks and Viennese fascination with that cruel, romantic people who had nearly captured Vienna less than a century before… Whether others are as ready as I am to listen to interesting, well-informed people speaking from the stage, I don’t know, but I suspect the sterility of what now passes for education, in history, literature, languages and the arts leaves too many baffled and bored as soon as such things are spoken of.  The performance gave striking prominence to cymbals and drums to support Walls’s remarks.

Then came the second movement from Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony – The Ball, which Walls noted was linked to the Romeo and Juliet story which the composer had already discovered through the famous visit of an English theatre group, and which he later turned into his sprawling Romeo and Juliet dramatic symphony.  The orchestra played it with perhaps too much ease where greater tension might have etched the phantasm of the Harriet Smithson theme, the Idée fixe, more eerily, but its spectral quality was not lost, beautifully played by clarinettist Patrick Barry.

Walls developed the relationship between Berlioz and Wagner interestingly, with little-known anecdotes, striving in few words to bring to life the Tristan story.

In passing he said that the concert doubled as a taster for the 2013 season which will shortly be announced, and the thought that we could get a concert performance of Tristan made me so excited that I scarcely took in anything else.

But this orchestral version, without the soprano, recalled my first hearing of the Liebestod, as a young teenager who listened avidly to ‘Early Evening Concert’ which opened 2YC’s daily transmission at 5pm every day (in the early 1950s).

The exquisite opening, again on clarinet, was followed by a lovely performance.

Walls then talked interestingly about the New Zealand connection of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. He didn’t say whether he subscribed to Professor Heath Lees’s theory about the underlying theme that the whole work is enigmatically based on (you will find the problem well summarised in Wikipedia); the opening Andante was played and the audience invited to submit ideas about the basic theme (prize: phial of Tristan’s love potion). But he did deal with the arguable matter of the *** at the head of Variation XIII, evoking his early love, Helen Weaver, who broke off the relationship and went to New Zealand for her health. The rattling low C on timpani, played with side drum sticks, perhaps evoke the sound of the engines of a 1900-era steamship crossing the Atlantic.

But this variation has more commonly been connected with a friend of Elgar’s, Lady Mary Lygon, who had just departed with her husband who had been appointed Governor of New South Wales, with a reference to Mendelssohn’s Overture: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, played on the clarinet. The latter seems to be the more persuasive story, but the New Zealand connection has its appeal.

The last few minutes of Ravel’s Bolero ended the concert, starting from the point where strings pick up the mesmerising, ostinato theme, raising the temperature several degrees. Fittingly for a concert like this, all its colour and underlying rhythms and exoticisms were played for all they were worth.

Admittedly, most of these pieces are to be expected in the programming of any symphony orchestra: it’s the Tristan that has the blood racing. Nevertheless, the concert was an excellent experiment which deserves to be tried in other centres, perhaps with slightly less erudition and more drollerie.

A generation or so ago I suspect a concert like this would have filled the hall. The reason for the empty seats had nothing to do with the reputation of the orchestra, the quality of the music or its performance; but everything to with the decay of education in the arts and the widespread resulting idea that most pop and rock music is as valid and as good as anything in the ‘elitist’ classical repertoire. One can expect that opinion from the youth, but when it is shared by ‘educated’ adults, it’s a worry.