Orchestra Wellington on brilliant form opens six-concert series dominated by Tchaikovsky, Michael Houstoun and Russia

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Michael Houstoun (piano)

Glinka: Kamarinskaya
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op 30
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 1 in G minor, Op 13

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 18 April 7:30 pm

The year’s programme which this concert inaugurated, has been most interestingly designed; with aspects that should kindle the interest of newcomers, of which I imagine there were many, as well as those more familiar with the orchestral repertoire.

This was achieved by the brilliant device of offering all six concerts for $108, or $18 each, so filling the auditorium.  I’m sure this is an example of the sophisticated economic phenomenon: ‘Less Is More’.

Given the numbers unfamiliar with real orchestral repertoire and the fact that Radio NZ Concert was recording it for use in June, it was sensible for genial and witty radio presenter Nigel Collins to appear on stage to coach the audience in useful radio audience behaviour and in the formalities followed as concert-master, conductor et al. arrive on stage.

This took a few minutes and I was surprised to hear, and hear of, certain grizzles from those to whom it was all ‘old-hat’, about the intrusion into their time.

The other reason for the success of this concert and, I’m sure, the whole series, is the programming.

Not that there’s anything radical or unusual these days about delivering programmes of the complete works of a particular composer or in a particular genre, or works of a particular era.

In the light of the common perception of Russia’s current political behaviour, the chance should be welcomed to be exposed to the country’s cultural riches, revealing its centuries of close integration in European culture and civilisation generally.

And what a stroke to engage Michael Houstoun to play Russian (and a New Zealand) piano concertos throughout the series.

For all this we have to thank Music director Marc Taddei and General manager Adan Tijerina.

Appropriately enough, this first concert opened with what is regarded as the first piece of Russian orchestral music that draws on Russian folk music, Kamarinskaya. Though he had written orchestral music earlier, including the brilliant ‘Jota Aragonese’, Glinka is regarded at the father of Russian music mainly as a result of his two operas drawn from Russian history: A Life for the Tsar and Russlan and Ljudmila.

As Taddei remarked, Kamarinskaya is a slight piece, with an Adagio introduction on a wedding song, treated with spaciousness and clarity, and a lively folk dance. The short tune of the latter quickly palled through excessive repetition, in spite of the orchestra doing all it could to lend variety to its series of ‘variations’.

There was no need at all for any special efforts by the orchestra or soloist to create interest in Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto. Some might have been a little surprised at the conspicuously moderate pace and perhaps cool emotional character adopted for its first movement, evidently an approach shared by conductor and pianist.  It was as if they were carefully refraining from prematurely exhausting their ammunition the better to make striking dramatic points when those opportunities really arrived, early in the development section.

Yet it did not in the least dampen the arresting spirit of the performance; on the other hand, nothing detracted from the subtle darkness that pervades the first movement if not the whole work. The lengthy first movement cadenza gave Houstoun the chance to illuminate his modest yet dazzling pianism, alongside the secure yet adroit tempo and dynamic nuances that kept the piano, not necessarily in the forefront, but in just the right position in the integral sound.

The Adagio second movement touches me most, with its curious rhapsodic character, its brief moments of passion, even frenzy, but its overall thoughtful spirit, that more than once turns aside from a fully-fledged climax to regain calm and poise; and again, this performance captured all its complexity and beauty.

Even the Finale with its enchanting melodies often seems to have much longer passages of meditative music than I expect, and it always delights me: the horns have a lovely episode punctuated with a roll on timpani. Finally, of course, the composer gives the audience the thrills it’s been waiting for, as orchestra, and pianist in particular, execute all its demands with wonderful energy and dense cascades of virtuosity. It brought about a standing ovation.

We could have been induced to feeling, because Tchaikovsky’s first symphony is the least familiar, that it’s uninteresting and merely to be paid ritual attention. But it is simply a youthful (well, he was 26)masterpiece. The pedant, or the studiously censorious might have searched for signs of immaturity, of structural uncertainty, but given the sheer melodic inventiveness and already a fine mastery of orchestration (the final touches of revision were made, in 1872, after he’d written a couple of operas and was already at work on his second symphony).

The opening is propitious, with clarinets over tremolo strings, then joined by bassoons, violas and cellos in music that fitted their timbres beautifully; Tchaikovsky’s character, his fingerprints, are already distinctive and the whole movement belies rumours that the symphony is a somewhat unsatisfactory youthful attempt.

The day-dreams are most present in the second movement, Adagio cantabile, with its lovely string writing and oboe solo and lots of other delicious opportunities for orchestral colour, all delicately drawn. I wondered why it hadn’t acquired the sort of stand-alone fame that Tchaikovsky’s other, famous (Andante) cantabile had.

Nor is there any hint of uncertainty in the third movement, Scherzo, again furnished with melody that doesn’t pall, and which of course upset the pedants at the St Petersburg Conservatorium who were Tchaikovsky’s mentors. (Someone has acknowledged that it may have been his melodic gift that made adhering to the conventions of the classical sonata form difficult: perhaps the latter only became de rigueur because some composers lacked the genius for melody that was Tchaikovsky’s). The Waltz that takes the place of the Trio in in the earlier ‘Minuet and trio’ scheme of the classical symphony, lends the Scherzo a delectable contrast, pointing to the soon-to-be composed Swan Lake with its delicious waltz episodes.

And lastly the 12-minute Finale which opens with a sombre hymn-like introduction rich in warm, dark woodwind sounds, soon brightens, but only temporarily. It never loses interest, moving between dreamy moods and fanfare-driven pages of the Allegro Maestoso, full of confidence and optimism, using the composer’s acute sensitivity for orchestral colour like a seasoned master.

The orchestra’s playing continued flawlessly and luxuriously, tempos subtly varying, dynamics scrupulously managed, to bring the concert to a triumphant conclusion.