Rich opportunities for NZSM Orchestra’s youthful freshness, commitment, poetry and dynamism

Dreams and Meditations: NZSM Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Young
Jane Curry, guitar; Martin Riseley, violin; David Groves, speaker

Mendelssohn: Incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Rodrigo: Fantasia para un Gentilhombre
Jack Body: Meditations on Michelangelo
Schubert: Symphony No 8, ‘Unfinished’

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Tuesday 25 March, 7:30 pm

This interesting and varied programme opened with Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kenneth Young set a whacking pace for the Overture but the players rose confidently to the challenge with exemplary clarity in the demanding high speed pianissimo passagework, excellent intonation, and effective balance within the orchestral forces. The phrasing and dynamics of the more poetic sections were thoughtful and musical throughout, as were those of the Nocturne, which was especially enhanced by the beautiful horn solos of guest player David Moonan. Kenneth Young had the familiar closing Wedding March blast forth in an unrelieved band-style fortissimo, relying entirely on the quieter central section for dynamic relief, which was surprising given his musical approach to shaping the dynamics of the previous movements.

Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre was written for the virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia in 1954, and is based on material by the C17th Spanish composer Gaspar Sanz. It was an ideal choice for this programme as it offered a major solo role to Jane Curry, who heads the classical guitar programme at NZSM, and a work whose wonderful orchestration particularly highlights the skills of most wind and brass players.

The Villano opened with a thoughtfulness and musicianship that remained constant as Kenneth Young guided the group through the entire work. The interweaving fugal lines of the following Ricercar were beautifully enunciated by the soloist and developed in clear and balanced interplay with the orchestra.
The low pitched theme of the Espanoleta was also well projected and poetically shaped by Jane Curry, as were its variations by both guitar and wind soloists. The following Fanfare has delicious writing for winds and trumpet in particular, who all performed with exemplary clarity, intonation and phrasing. The Danza was fresh, vigorous and spirited, and led into the Canario finale, taken at a rather sedate pace given that it has been characterized as “a fiery wooing dance” with “rapid heel-and-toe stamps”.

I was impressed throughout this work by the orchestra’s clear bright passagework and solo lines, spot-on intonation and musicianship. But I was baffled by Jane Curry’s recurring lapses and mistakes, given her exemplary proficiency on every other occasion I have heard her play. This was particularly sad for the brilliant cadenza of the finale. I could only conclude that she was either very nervous, which seemed unlikely in view of her wide performing experience, or unwell. Nevertheless I was most grateful to hear this work live, as it tends to take a back seat to Rodrigo’s better known Concierto de Aranjuez.

Jack Body’s Meditations are a setting of seven extraordinary sonnets by Michelangelo which honour male beauty and love. In these deeply moving lines the great artist pours out the anguish of his struggle between the utter conviction of his experience and the damning dictats of church dogma. Before each movement the Italian verses were read out by David Groves with a wonderful clarity and passion that poised the listener for each of Body’s Meditations.

The string ensemble writing was often spare and dissonant, by turns agitated, anguished, haunting, or contemplative, according to the mood of the text. Yet there was never a rank aftertaste, rather only the expression of grief, despair, and a longing for resolution. The solo violin part, beautifully expressed by Martin Riseley, took a pivotal role in encapsulating these moods in a single voice, as it soared above the ensemble like a condemned Lark Ascending. The setting of the sixth sonnet, which “laments the ravages of age” (Body), was particularly intense, with powerful tutti unison lines fading into spare solo string melodies which set the scene for the final stanza. This pleads for blindness, numbness, and the gift of undisturbed sleep, and the power of David Groves’ closing words “parla basso” laid a deep hush over the space. Body’s work and its musical realization that evening would have left very few unmoved.

The choice of the Unfinished Symphony to close the programme turned thoughts again to the other end of the life span. Written by the youthful Schubert and presented here by the flower of New Zealand’s aspiring young musicians, it was a fresh and enjoyable reading, displaying a good range of dynamics and tone, plenty of passion and commitment in the big tuttis, and delicate playing in the gentler parts. The contrasts were effectively expressed by consistently good wind solo work and beautifully shaped melodies from the strings.

Kenneth Young seemed to bring out the best in this orchestra, and the choice of works for this programme gave every opportunity to highlight their skills and musicianship. I look forward to hearing more from them as the year unfolds.