Brahms’ Schicksalslied gives its name to a programme of uplifting music from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
SONG OF DESTINY

VERDI – Overture Nabucco
BRAHMS – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
DVORAK – Symphony No. 8 in G Major Op.88

James Judd (conductor)
Voices New Zealand Choir
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 25th November, 2021

Welcome back! We have been starved of orchestral concerts for the last three months. It was a delight to have a full symphony orchestra on the stage, albeit with the players discreetly separated. A very special welcome back was due to James Judd, who was principal conductor of the NZSO for some eight years, and who has been closely associated with the orchestra ever since. And a great thank you was due to the management of the orchestra who organised this series of four concerts for limited audiences in the midst of the Covid epidemic, over four days, and in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The orchestra and Voices New Zealand were scheduled to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a colossal, taxing work, but under the circumstances, everyone had to settle for a programme featuring a more seldom-heard work, Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), as part of a line-up of uplifting music, starting with Verdi’s Overture Nabucco, and ending with Dvorak’s joyous Symphony No. 8.

Verdi – Overture Nabucco
Verdi’s Nabucco was his first major operatic success. Its simple, singable melodies are immediately captivating. The overture uses themes from arias and choruses from the opera, and it is hard to resist the temptation to sing along with them! Nabucco, by Temistocle Solera, which La Scala impresario  Bartolomeo Merelli gave to Verdi to read, was probably not much of a play (and historically inaccurate to boot), but the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” is memorable, and was used separately on many occasions, including at Verdi’s own funeral. James Judd and the orchestra gave the Overture an energetic yet lyrical reading, notable for the beautiful brass ensemble, and the strong rhythmic drive of the strings.

Brahms – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
Brahms’ Schicksalslied is overshadowed in the repertoire by his longer vocal works of the period, the Alto Rhapsody and the German Requiem. Schicksalslied is a shorter work, but it is of equal note. It is a setting by the poet Friedrich Hölderin, a friend and contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, It is a poem that Brahms found particularly meaningful.

The work begins with an ethereal orchestral passage, then joined by the choir, first by the sopranos, then by the rest of the voices. The music is deeply rooted in the Lutheran tradition, influenced by Bach Chorales that Brahms had studied. The music is typically Brahms, self-effacing, and with no scintillating passages. The melodies grow organically from the rich harmonic groundwork. The first part of the work reflects Hölderin’s words:  “Joyful their soul / And their heavenly vision” – but this is followed by a tempestuous section: “To us is allotted / No restful haven to find; / They falter, they perish / Poor suffering mortals….”

Brahms, however, didn’t want to end the work on a tragic and depressing note, and repeated the opening section in a different key, while still keeping its tranquil mood, It was wonderful to hear this profound and seldom-performed work sung by an outstanding choir, New Zealand Voices.

Dvorák – Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
Dvorák wanted this symphony to be “different from all the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way”. The Eighth Symphony is cheerful and lyrical, and draws its inspiration more from the Bohemian folk music that Dvorák loved – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._8_(Dvo%C5%99%C3%A1k)  It is an endearing work full of joyful melodies, and the orchestra entered into the joyous spirit of the work. There was a lot of scope for the various sections of the orchestra to shine – the flutes and clarinets in the charming Adagio, the strings in the graceful Allegretto gracioso third movement. The performance highlighted the outstanding qualities of the orchestra, whose individual members seemed to play with freedom and abandon, the conductor himself appearing to float and dance with the music.

This seemed to be a reflection of the bond between James Judd and his musicians, a bond of mutual respect – Judd complimented the orchestra,  and also the audience for being there, encouraging people to applaud between movements if they saw fit – and so they did! Though audience numbers were limited to 400, and people were scattered far and distant throughout the auditorium, those present made a lot of noise showing their appreciation.

The audience was rewarded at the end with an enthusiastic rendering of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance No.1 Op.46. The small number of people in the hall were sufficient to enhance the reverberating acoustics of the Michael Fowler Centre, which brought out the special qualities of the ensemble. In brief, a superb concert, leaving people who were there in a happy mood!

Dramatic and innovative Haydn in the Church from Camerata with soprano Carleen Ebbs

Camerata – Haydn in the Church

HANDEL – Overture Berenice
HAYDN –  Scena di Berenice (from Metastatio’s “Antigono”)*
HAYDN – Symphony No. 14 in A Hob 1:14

*Carleen Ebbs (soprano)
Camerata
Anne Loeser (leader)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St
Wellington

Friday, 5th November 2021

At the end of a busy and distracted Friday I found myself headed for St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St Church for Camerata’s latest “Haydn in the Church” concert series, which I’d been looking forward to ever since attending and enjoying the last one, though on this occasion I’d not been as assiduous in my preparation for the evening’s music as per usual – I had seen the programme on-line a couple of days previously, and was, of course expecting the accustomed delight of an early Haydn symphony to match that readily afforded by others in the series thus far, but I found myself scratching all about my memory-banks to recall what else I’d glimpsed on the  items “list”. I definitely recalled a soprano’s name, and an operatic scene to do with “Berenice”, which I had always thought was a work by Handel! – so I think at that point I gave up the conscious struggle, and consoled myself at the thought of everything being “revealed” once I’d gotten into the church.

Even then I didn’t get my hands on an actual programme, but  did talk briefly with Greg Hill, who was sitting next to me in a socially-distanced sense, and who actually had written the programme notes for the concert – at the interval he was able to confirm that there had been both a Handel and a Haydn work, each with the name Berenice, on the items list! So I had been on the right track after all.

I knew the Menuetto from Handel’s “Berenice” as my parents had owned a 78rpm disc of the work which I’d often heard when a child, and still remembered. This was, however, the whole of the Overture, a sprightly beginning, with the dotted rhythms beautifully “sprung”, leading to an Allegro whose trajectory had a joyous kind of enlivening energy, the oboe attractively colouring the string textures. The Menuetto featured the oboe-and-string sound prominently at first, before the strings repeated the material, playing the concluding lines of the second part with a beautiful and graceful legato. A lively Gigue rounded off the Overture in suitably festive fashion.

The name of the soprano Carleen Ebbs was one to conjure with, as she had made a richly favourable impression on the one occasion I’d previously seen and heard her, as the nymph Calisto in Cavalli’s eponymous opera, performed in 2015 by Days Bay Opera – on that occasion I was moved to voice the opinion that “Ebbs’ is a voice to listen out for”. She’s now returned to New Zealand after being based in London for 15 years, training at the Guildhall in London and at the Cardiff International Voice Academy, and working with a variety of prestigious coaches and at the great UK Opera Houses.

On the strength of her performance this evening of Haydn’s 1795 Scena di  Berenice, that promise, evident in the Days Bay La Calisto, has been more than fulfilled – Ebbs took us right inside the character of Berenice’s plethora of moods from the outset, capturing our sympathies from the very opening recitative Berenice che fai?, in which she first bemoans her own fear and weakness at the prospect of her lover Demetrio’s death, then expresses a longing to die alongside her beloved, through to the first impassioned aria in which the singer begs to be allowed to “cross that river” with him; and, finally, in some kind of delirium, raging against the cruelty of the gods with a fiery vocal brilliance throughout a second recitative and aria, the music storming to a passionate (and virtuosic) conclusion – tremendous stuff!

It seems from her website information that Ebbs has commitments in the UK regarding ongoing tutelage, and has already made the most of freelancing opportunities with various UK companies, activities which would have established her as a “sought-after” performer, particularly with her avowed enthusiasm for Baroque and early classical repertoire – whatever the uncertainties of the present situation world-wide regarding opportunities for performing musicians, one hopes for her continued successes, including, wherever possible, more appearances back here in New Zealand.

While all eyes (and ears) were on the singer during the drama of Haydn’s “scena”, the ensemble again became the centre of focus for the performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 14, the latest in Camerata’s exploration of the composer’s early symphonies. I note that, in a diverting on-line Classic FM post which featured a music critic asked to numerically “rank” the qualities of ALL of these  works, the hapless commentator gave this Symphony No.14 a high rating, after according some of the other “early” works what I thought were some unduly harsh verdicts regarding their “quality” – this A  Major work Hob 1:14 was actually placed 35th, ahead of many other “tried-and-true” works such as the “Military”, the “Farewell” and the “Surprise” symphonies – doubtless a case of “chacun a son goût” with the choices, as much as any other considerations!

This work’s high-spirited opening featured a repeated octave descent, followed afterwards by an even more vertiginous downward leap of a 10th (I think!), giving the music an attractively energetic character underpinned by the unrelenting bass line – I loved the horns’ ascents into high-wire material,  the oboes providing a less strenuous “echo” effect with their material, joining forces with the horns to great effect in the development, before the energetic rhythms marshalled their forces, the splendid playing driving the music to a part festive, part rustic conclusion.

The Andante moves a dignified but characterful processional along its course, the striding aspect of the melody augmented with graceful decorative notes upon repetition, the strings alone supplying the melodic interest. More fun was to be had from the Minuet (Menuetto)  with its ceremonial horns and chuckling winds, though the oboe introduced a sombre note with its minor-key melody in the trio – all very pastoral, with its hunting-horn ambiences and touches of out-of-doors melancholy!

The finale builds its material almost entirely on a descending figure (the reason for the aforementioned “critic” rating the work’s cleverness and innovation so highly), giving the whole movement a festive, bell-like atmosphere. Here the playing imparted a real sense of “schwung”, the musicians seeming to make their instruments dance to the joyous strains of the figurations, alternating delicacy with delight, and grace with energy. As is often the case with delectable pleasures, it all seemed over in a trice – so it was a good thing that Anne Loeser bade us remain for an “encore”, one which happened to continue the concert’s connection with the story from which Haydn’s scena had been taken. This was an excerpt from Gluck’s Overture to his opera seria Antigono, one which again featured the character of Berenice, the Egyptian princess in love with Demetrio, son of the King of Macedonia, to which monarch Berenice had been “promised” in marriage. Being Gluck, the music had a lyrical “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” quality, the two flutes adding to the ethereal character of the string-writing, and the sensitive accompaniments similarly transported, the whole given a resonant “music of the spheres” kind of sonority, which continued to enchant the senses long after the sounds had ceased.

 

 

 

Wellington Youth Orchestra and Andrew Joyce take on quintessential Beethoven and Dvořák

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
LEONORE – Music by Beethoven and Dvořák

BEETHOVEN – Overture No. 3 “Leonore” Op.72 No.1c
DVORAK – Symphony No. 6 in D Major Op.60

Andrew Joyce (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

St.James’ Anglican Church, Lower Hutt

Saturday 31st July 2021

Today’s concert given by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in Lower Hutt’s Anglican Church of St James seemed to me a fascinating instance of a certain event’s “atmosphere” influencing one’s reaction to musical performance. I say this in comparing today’s concert with a not-so-long-ago occasion at the same venue and involving the same players, albeit with a different conductor – though I didn’t think the latter a significant factor in the difference between the two events.

Something about the “Transatlantic” concert in May obviously drew what seemed like an excitedly burgeoning churchful of people, all of whom seemed palpably determined to enjoy what they were about to hear – one could feel the anticipation bubbling away well before the start! To be fair, it was a fantastic programme, one whose delightful prospects would literally have jumped out in front of any potential or prospective audience member with a “Well, are you coming?” aspect of enticement before one knew where one was! Just where many of those same people were today I found it puzzling to comprehend, though a relatively unfamiliar Symphony by Dvorak, however much of a treasure waiting to be more widely appreciated, perhaps wasn’t on paper going to quicken the blood of the orchestra’s regular fans in quite the same way as did the May concert’s items.

That amalgam of audience presence and expectation is one of the reasons that a good “live concert” performance of any music invariably feels more exciting, more vital and connective than does a recording of the same, however expertly played.  Today’s concert, by dint of having a smallish, and largely “spread-out” audience simply didn’t for me have at the start the previous occasion’s electric charge, that trace of “something in the air” producing preliminary crackle and cumulative excitement. All (or nearly all) the notes were played, but the excitement that produces uplifting moments was, despite the players best efforts, more of a “sometimes thing” throughout, and invariably hard-won.

Still, there were many moments to enjoy, during the course of both of the concert’s items, the first of which gave the concert its title, the Overture  Leonore No.3 being the third of four attempts by Beethoven to write a satisfactory overture to his opera “Fidelio”– a beautifully-co-ordinated “whoof-like” quality about the Beethoven work’s opening chord, for instance, the heroine’s “Leonore” theme beautifully sounded by the winds before being contrasted briefly with the darkness and stillness of the dungeon imprisoning the hero, Florestan, and the flute seizing the moment and uplifting the mood to one of hope, paving the way for the first of many heroic flourishes that depicted good striving against evil, throughout the work’s course.

Conductor Andrew Joyce drew real exuberance from his players with the allegro’s theme burgeoning into a full-throated roar of intent, one reinforced by the horns’ sudden shaft of light and hope. I thought the upper strings in particular (who faced where I was sitting, almost directly opposite)  maintained this exuberance and purpose in their playing throughout, keeping the trajectories alive and “charged”, up to the moment when Joyce unleashed the terrific surgings of tone that heralded the famous off-stage trumpet call, played here to perfection – Joyce brought out the sounds’ freshness of new expectation, getting a great response from his flutist in her solo’s ever-increasing excitability, and with the strings’ fantastic explosion of spirit goading the rest of the players into action. Though I thought the brass sometimes seemed a shade too relaxed in their rhythmic responses to the beat, they rallied at the end, triumphally carrying the music to its conclusion.

The Dvořák Symphony also began well, its engaging, off-beat rhythm gurgling away on the winds, over which the strings got to “float” the movement’s principal theme, a lovely, free-as-air idea – if the same players had to then work hard at energising the music to prepare for the melody’s return on the full orchestra, it got to make its impact – Joyce gave us the repeat which allowed us to hear the opening all over again, bringing out even more the strength of the band’s  first violin section (the two front-desk players like veritable forces of nature in their determination to “sound” their lines).

The winds, too, showed their mettle at the development’s beginning, oboes taking the lead, echoed beautifully by the flutes and clarinets, an “echt-Czech” moment readily summonsing up “Bohemia’s Woods and Fields”, and continuing the pastoral feeling throughout the interactions. I thought the brass again strangely reticent in places here, as opposed to the excitingly “up-front” feeling the same players had  conveyed throughout the previous concert (which, incidentally, I PROMISE not to mention again!) – but the music’s gradual build-up of all forces (including splendidly-sounded timpani) awakened their instincts, and they delivered sonorously at the movement’s recapitulation!

The slow movement was captivating at the outset, the winds and strings beautifully floating the sounds over a gently undulating atmosphere – inexplicably, the horn failed to take up the strings’ melody, but the music’s pulse was steadfastedly maintained, and the exchanges continued, the clarinet contributing a beautiful solo and the horn then making amends with a similar appearance – and I thought the violas “sounded “ their turn with the recurring melody so tenderly and well! The movement’s brief but telling moment of minor-key darkness came and went like clouds obscuring the sunlight, with the strings (this time gratefully answered by the horn!) giving the melody full-throated treatment, allowing the emotion its head before the soft, crepuscular ending was wrought by the winds and sensitively-sounded timpani – the composer could be forgiven for allowing one last forceful reiteration of such an appealing tune before the end!

Nowhere in this work is Dvořák more “Bohemian” than with the Scherzo, whose main body is a Furiant, an exciting, quick-moving dance-form seeming to move between two-four and three-four rhythm. Joyce kept his players on their toes throughout, varying the dynamics in an ear-catching way, and delineating the trajectories firmly, even if again I thought the brasses not as quickly-reflexed as were the rest of the players, being left slightly behind the beat at the impetuous coda’s end. The more relaxed trio was an absolute delight, the winds so AIRILY pastoral-sounding, and the accompaniments at once playful and deliciously indolent.

Uncharacteristically, the strings’ ensemble came slightly adrift during the crescendoed section of the finale’s introduction, the conductor expertly bringing them all back together once the first big ”tutti” had shaken the rhythms down and sorted out the trajectories! Joyce kept the music going through the second subject, deliciously and dancingly played by the winds, the strings playing their hearts out, sometimes roughing up their intonations, the brass coming to their rescue with a stirring call to arms that brought the recapitulation, the music swirling, the winds doing famously, the strings now sounding a bit tired, but rallying with astounding rhythmic point and energy by way of introducing the work’s outrageous presto coda – what a blast! Though the ensemble couldn’t quite match the introduction’s fire and energy, the players summonsed up all their reserves and raced their way to the music’s end – as dogged as energetic, but achieving the discharge of the music’s spirit. We couldn’t really mirror the musicians’ sounds with our applause, but we did our best to convey our appreciation of such heartfelt efforts!

 

 

 

 

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.

A girdle about the earth from Antarctica to Leningrad – the NZSO National Youth Orchestra concert

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

NYO Leningrad

IHIARA McINDOE ( NYO Composer-in-Residence) – Ephemeral Bounds
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 7 in C Major “Leningrad”

NZSO National Youth Orchestra
Gemma New (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 11th July, 2021

It was going to be something of a risk, programming a work by the NYO Composer in Residence against one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century. A risk – or an act of faith.

Ihiara McIndoe’s Ephemeral Bounds was written in response to a visit to Antarctica last year, courtesy of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. It used less than half the players required for the Shostakovich, and scattered a few of them around the stalls which added little moments of surprise. The work opened with bold gestures from conductor Gemma New turning on the lighting that illuminated them and other players positioned eccentrically on the staging (such as the double basses behind and above the brass).  Some supplementary NZSO players were also on stage.

The work itself sustained my interest for the full ten minutes. Shimmering ice was suggested by very small glissandi from the upper strings, with the flutes and piccolo creating a chilly distance.  Crystalline harp plus percussion. Muted trumpets. The distant sound of a small engine receding. Waves breaking.  And then the much larger engine of the ice; deep, grinding. Sostenuto tuba. The sound is briefly enveloping. Wind. The violas tell us something sad, something ominous. A crescendo of storm (trombones, bassoons, lower strings). Another growl of motors.  A melancholy tune from the concertmaster – but quickly falls silent. A siren-line sound from a solo cello. Woodwind chords.

The piece closed, as it began, with the tiny string glissandos, then silence.

As usual with a new work, it is hard to see past the many clever effects. I was busy throughout trying to determine which instrument created which effect before it ceased. Will this become a much-loved addition to the concert repertoire? Is it challenging to rehearse and stage? My guess is that it is fun to play, and Gemma New, who enjoys working with new and experimental works, clearly enjoyed conducting it.

At this point the NZSO took advantage of the full house to hand out some awards. This year, CEO Peter Biggs told us, every player in the NYO has been sponsored. In addition, all the string players had to re-audition for their seat at the start of the rehearsal period. The John Chisholm Concertmaster Prize was awarded to Peter Gjelsten (Violin I); the Alex Lindsay Memorial Award to Eli Holmes (Principal Bassoon); and the Norbert Hauser Viola Award to Zephyr Wills. The Bill Clayton Memorial Award winner was selected by Gemma New, who gave the award to Isabella Thomas (Principal Trumpet). The audience stamped its approval.

The pre-concert talk was a series of presentations by players on aspects of the Shostakovich. From the snatches I caught, the players were well aware of the circumstances of its composition and its historical significance. The orchestration is huge: 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, tuba, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, two harps, and at least 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses. Plus a big percussion section (5 timpani, 2-3 snares, and so on). To make up the numbers, the NYO was augmented by NZSO players as required, which meant we benefited from Robert Orr on oboe, Michael Austin on cor anglais, David Angus on contrabassoon, and Larry Reece on timpani. But the credit remains with the NYO players.

This is a monumental work, and the NYO approached it with the seriousness of purpose and steadfast application it demands. The author of the programme notes seemed to be of the view that Shostakovich wrote the symphony in response to the 1941 attack on Leningrad and its subsequent siege by the Germans. But the ‘invasion theme’ of the first movement builds to such a mirthless climax, that the hidden programme, the destruction of Leningrad and its people by Stalin in the 1930s, was clear to all who had ears. There is wreckage by the end of the movement. There are pitiable wails. There is almost no sign of life. The bassoon threnody is beautiful, but that relentless snare drum rhythm ticks away in a menacing undertone, and the trumpets are still ironic.

For those without ears, the NZSO provided ‘performance visuals’ by ‘leading creatives Nocturnal’. My heart sank when I saw this on the programme, but they were moody and unobtrusive (or as unobtrusive as a projection on a huge screen can be), and not too literal. I expect there were people in the audience who appreciated them, but to my mind Shostakovich’s music needs no visual interpretation, though some iceberg pictures may have usefully added to the atmospherics of the McIndoe work.

The second and third movements are freighted in sorrow. The brass choir that opened the third movement announced loss and doom. There were superb performances by Sam Zhu (tuba), Benedict van Leuven (clarinet), Harrison Chau (harp) and terrifying energy from the lower brass and strings. The percussion was splendid and inexorable. But it’s unfair to single anyone out: everyone played their hearts out, and if some of the best playing came from NZSO players, it hardly matters.

The C major climax in the fourth movement was preceded by elegiac themes in the strings, tenderness turning to tragedy, resilience haunted by loss. The climax itself presented a kind of triumph: grand, certainly, but for how long? Not long, the snare drum says. Not long at all.

I found this performance very moving. At some point in the fourth movement I had tears in my eyes, though I was not aware of them until it was over. All I wanted to do afterwards was to retreat to some quiet corner, alone and silent. The mirthless trumpets, the cynical snare drum came with me.

 

 

 

The NZSO’s “The Rite of Spring” replete with anniversaries and commemorations

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Listener present:
THE RITE OF SPRING

*CHOPIN –  Original piano works orchestrated for the ballet “Les Sylphides” – 1909
◊STRAVINSKY – Ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) – 1913

*Michael Houstoun (piano)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
◊Performance Visuals – Delainy Kennedy (Nocturnal)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 10th July, 2021

Quite a day on a number of counts, and especially in Wellington! – it all gathered momentum and excitement as the evening approached, with the prospect of Matariki fireworks over the harbour, and immediately afterwards, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s “The Rite of Spring” concert. For people of my generation, anybody typing or repeating out loud the date may have suddenly been revisited in the memory by a resonating radio jingle from the years 1966/67 – “the 10th of July – next/this year!”, referring to the arrival of decimal currency, entertainer Noel Coward’s famous quip regarding “the potency of cheap music” coming true for me all over again on this day!

As well as commemorating two anniversaries pertaining to Igor Stravinsky – sixty years since the composer came to Wellington to conduct the NZSO in parts of his “Firebird” Suite, and fifty years since his death – this NZSO concert was innovative in representing something of the character of that fateful evening of May 29th 1913 on which the composer’s ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) was given its premiere at the then newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Stravinsky work was preceded on the programme by “Les Sylphides”, a suite of orchestrated piano works by Frédéric Chopin. Stravinsky was actually one of the composers commissioned in 1909 by Serge Diaghilev to produce the suite for the Ballets Russes Company. Here, we had pianist Michael Houstoun playing those same works in their original versions (and, incidentally, celebrating a personal anniversary, it being fifty years since he first performed with the NZSO).

Presumably this, the opening work on the programme that evening in Paris would have scarcely caused an eyebrow to rise. However, the riot that broke out in the auditorium from almost the beginning of the Stravinsky work has earned the evening (and the music) a notoriety which lasted for much of the twentieth century. It has all been well-documented, and, of course, in many instances contradictorily – a number of accounts claimed that the spectators’ bewilderment and subsequent derision of “Le Sacre” was due to the choreography (devised by the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky), rather than the music. Stravinsky himself referred to Nijinsky’s choreography in later years in contradictory ways – in a letter to a student friend he described Nijinsky’s work as “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I (Stravinsky) wanted it”, while, much later to his amanuensis, Robert Craft, he scornfully described Nijinsky’s dancing maidens in the work as “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”.

The work’s first conductor, Pierre Monteux (who went on to record “Le Sacre” four times over his lengthy career) once confessed to never liking the music. Speaking of the infamous premiere in an interview almost fifty years afterwards, he observed, “I did not like “Le Sacre” then. I have conducted it fifty times since. I do not like it now.” I’m sure that statements like that of Monteux’s would have actually enhanced the music’s mystique and popularity – it’s irrefutable that most of the world’s eminent conductors, whatever their feelings concerning the work, seem to have either presented it in concert or recorded it. Stravinsky himself also made four recordings as conductor of the work, the earliest (coincidentally, during the same year as Monteux’s) in 1929! Since then, the music has become as much a concert-hall as a stage-ballet classic, and one of the most oft-recorded of all twentieth-century pieces of music.

It was a nice idea getting Michael Houstoun to play the original Chopin pieces from which the ballet “Les Sylphides” was made – of course the orchestrated pieces could have instead been performed to great effect, though I thought the actual visual scenario of the piano being played, as here, in front of numerous empty orchestral chairs and music-stands perfectly evoked the idea of a “ballet-company répétiteur” running through the pieces for the next rehearsal, in preparation for the actual ballet with an orchestra.

The pieces themselves as a group made an extremely effective programme – I’ll probably be thought of as snobbish or elitist by saying that I wish the audience had been asked to save its applause for the end, but I still would have preferred the music to have flowed from dance to dance, continuing uninterrupted until the obvious applause-inducing  fireworks at the end of the concluding “Grande Valse Brilliante”! – I joined in heartily enough at THAT point! Houstoun played them all very much as “dance” pieces, eschewing extremes of interpretative expression, but still managing to bring out the poetic intensities of both the Op.32 No.2 A-flat Nocturne, and the totally adorable A Major Prelude. He caught the essential orchestral swagger of the well-known “Polonaise Militaire”, especially in its Trio section, resonating the stern trills with flair and purpose.

I thought it interesting comparing the characters of the individual pieces, especially the “valses”, having two (Op.70 No. 1, and Op 64 No. 2) composed much later than the Op.18 “Grande Valse Brilliante”, and sounding rather more emotionally “laden” than the earlier work. The Mazurkas are singular beasties, perhaps the closest Chopin got to his native land’s “folk” expression, Houstoun readily conjuring up the stamping of feet and swirling of skirts in Op.33 No. 2, complete with the ending’s impish upward gesture! – and catching the contrasting wistfulness of Op.67 No.3.  As for the Polish composer’s Nocturnes, often very un-Nocturne-like in places, here in Op.32 No. 2 the music’s intensities during the minor-key section were seamlessly integrated by the pianist into the flow, as was the return of the opening theme, with its somewhat vertiginously-decorated variation, followed by the beautifully-contrived echoing of the work’s opening at the end.

Extended applause brought Houstoun back to give us an encore, one which, to my shame, I didn’t recognise, but (thanks to help from Houstoun himself) have at last identified– the second of Chopin’s Trois nouvelles études, in A-flat Major a pretty, very chordal piece with melodies as sub-plots in the bass – Houstoun made the reprise of the opening a magical happening, voicing the cross-rhythms with prayer-like beauty.

Seated before us on our return after the interval for the Stravinsky work was what appeared an enormous group of players, many of whom were obscured almost completely from sight from where I was sitting, mid-auditorium, though the impression of a “large assemblage” still remained. I’ve always thought it a pity that the orchestra’s platform in the MFC isn’t “tiered” right throughout (as was the case for the players when in the Town Hall) so that those players sounding the “middle voices” in orchestral textures (mostly the winds) can be seen as well as heard. There’s no visibility problem for audiences in the galleries above, but in the stalls the physical orchestral aspect often resembles the prow of a ship bearing down upon the observers from “below” so that only the figurehead(s) and the front of the bow are visible, with the “decks” and all who sail on them obscured by the frontispieces!

I was, I confess, anticipating the prospect of the “Nocturnal” performance visuals with little joy, my previous experience of such things being along the lines of thinking them at best irrelevant, and at worst, distracting. Still, an “open mind” was obviously called for, as I reminded myself while waiting for the arrival of the conductor, Gemma New.

Warmly greeted by the audience, New acknowledged the applause, took up her station, and stood before what seemed like a firmament of dimly-lit stillness, before enabling the opening notes from the bassoon to materialise in a sonic sense as if sounded in a dream, slowly and timelessly, a hypnotic beginning, the instrument enabled to almost “speak” in primitive but expressive tones, the sounds unfolding and transfixing us with their direct, spontaneous-sounding lines, mirroring New’s balletic movements of direction and encouragement. We were drawn into the sounds’ gestation, held by the extraordinary panoply of interacting textures creating a tapestry of burgeoning interest.  A sudden silence and the bassoon returned, its melody this time answered rhythmically by plucked strings, softly at first, and then vehemently, with biting, asymmetrical accents, the “Augurs of Spring” dance – I did remember occasionally to look at the screen backdrop, whose images weren’t as intrusive as I’d feared at this stage, dancing detached lines relating to the music’s trajectories.

New kept the rhythms steady, the detailing forthright and precise, picking things up again after the brief brass-and-timpani irruption, the strands regrouping, with the “ringing” percussion adding their various voices to the growing excitement, the trajectories augmented with increasing exhilaration and agitation, rhythmic accents pounding on and off the beat. A moment of disruptive chaos sounded by a “warning” chord and huge percussive beats, brought the “Ritual of Abduction”, with its frenzied, asymmetrical chaotic-like interchanges, the instrumental groupings wondrously detailed, the strands “keeping their heads” amid the uproar, New’s rhythmic control enabling some magnificent playing, the figurations from all parts of the ensemble forward-thrusting and dovetailing their varied impulses with real flair!

Trilling flutes emerged from the remains of the uproar, as clarinets intoned a brief hymn-like chorale, leading to the famous “Spring Rounds”, massive step-wise chords, launched by the lower strings and patterned by the upper strings, with winds and horns advancing the hugely weighty theme as it strode forward, here massively and tumultuously taken up by the heavy percussion, as the brasses roared their savage exultations. Though the music wasn’t giving me much opportunity to register what was appearing on the screen, I did notice a dancing figure seemingly made of water from a cascading fountain, one whicb I thought cleverly and expressively reflected the in-flux nature of the music throughout this section of the work, if predominantly liquid and balletic rather than monumental and primitive!

The trilling flutes and ritualistic clarinets returned, introducing the “Games of the Rival Tribes”, New marshalling her forces brilliantly as brass and percussion seemed to vie for supremacy, with strings and winds advancing the music’s thematic presence amid the agitations – a great trilling, almost maniacal in its energy, seemed to “herd” the music into a giant vortex, with moaning string ostinato and baleful brass calls riding percussive irruptions bubbling up alarmingly from below – virtuoso orchestra stuff was happening here, I thought, as more and more anarchic voices joined the fray, New as kinetic in her movements as ever, as she gave the mayhem its due before suddenly bringing things to silence.

Here was the “Sage’s Sacred Kiss of the Earth”, a breath-catching moment coloured by eerie winds, timpani and strings, then overwhelmed by orchestral tumult (the MFC’s relative lack of resonant tone here reducing the impact of the orchestra’s splendid playing at this point), with New bringing in layer upon layer of frenzied figurations over an ever-burgeoning bass ostinato that rose like a whale out of the sea and crushed the surface activities with a remorseless flick of its tail. Heart-stopping stuff!

As with the first part of the work “The Adoration of the Earth”, the second part “The Sacrifice” also featured a restrained, atmospheric introduction, more eerie and muted than that preceding the first – New and the players evoked a wonderfully claustrophobic sound-scape, here, the atmosphere momentarily spoilt when somebody on stage dropped something with a clatter! The softly-played but hugely suggestive chords conjured up unfathomable depths over which the scarcely-moving ambiences floated (I remember how telling was the Disney animation in the famous “Fantasia” film at this point in the music’s sequence, the sense of unease igniting and  “growing” as inexorably as did the sounds, with wind and brass sounding terse, uncomfortable scraps of feral intent) – what control, here, from conductor and orchestra, as all was suddenly let “off the leash” with yelps of excitement-cum-fear from brass and strings as the percussion suddenly crashed in, announcing “The Glorification of the Chosen One”. Again I felt the hall’s ambience “taming” the impact of the resonances here, acceptable in a theatre’s orchestral pit with action on the stage to take in, but a shade too dry to my ears for purely orchestral realisation!

There was no let-up, with “The Evocation of the Ancestors” bringing forth stenorian orchestral shouts capped off by drum rolls – later with cor anglais and bass flute phrases “colouring” the increasingly fatalistic scenario, culminating in a kind of “nightmare” processional, there followed what sounded to me like the work’s most uncompromising sequence, the “Sacrificial Dance” of the Chosen One. Interrupted by the Ancestors requiring some more “Ritual Action”, the victim then continued her sacrificial dance even more frantically and desperately, , a fantastical dovetailing of different orchestral impulses locked in an ever-tightening grip. We were mesmerised by it all, and held our breath as the dance suddenly gave way to a moment of release from the winds sudden ascent through a brief silence, and a sudden collapse of the music via a final orchestral chord.

I confess to all but forgetting about the screen backdrop images during these latter sequences – they must have been sufficiently “of a piece” with the music , even if the musicians’ stunning realisation of these sounds had obviously captivated me at that stage to the extent where my reaction to any query about them would have been “What images?” The shade of Stravinsky himself would, I’m sure, have purred with pleasure at the thought of the orchestra that was “his” for a few magical moments in the Wellington Town Hall sixty years ago (see the video link below) tackling his music here with such elan, confidence and splendour.

https://teara.govt.nz/en/video/44804/the-composer-conducts

 

 

Spacious, enraptured, beautiful – Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Baroque Voices and Nota Bene

MARIA GRENFELL – River, Mountain, Sky
ELGAR – Variations on an original theme – “Enigma”
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Five Mystical Songs / Serenade to Music

Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Baroque Voices and Nota Bene
Will King (baritone)
Ewan Clark (conductor)

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

Sunday 4th July 2021

For as long as I can remember, Wellington Chamber Orchestra has been a player-run orchestra which engages conductors by the concert.  This, I suppose, has some advantages. It gives the orchestra maximum freedom and minimum financial commitments. But it also tries to provide solo opportunities for young musicians, and given the inevitable coming and going of people from one concert to the next, the result must be a certain unevenness.

After today’s concert, I have a suggestion to make to WCO’s player managers. Hire Ewan Clark, and extract a two-year programme from him – and you will be going places, I guarantee it. Continuity, artistic vision, and stability have a lot to recommend them.

Ewan Clark is a composer and conductor as well as a trombonist. He has been conducting since he was a music student at Victoria University, nearly 20 years ago. Since then he has studied composition for screen at the Royal College of Music (MMus) and he also has a PhD from Victoria University. For years he worked mostly as a film composer, and his most recent score, for The Turn of the Screw (2020), has already won two awards at international film festivals.

This concert demonstrated what WCO is capable of under a talented conductor, with the support of excellent friends (in this case singers from Baroque Voices and Nota Bene, together with the phenomenal young baritone Will King).

The programme, as first glance, was not exceptionally interesting. Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs and Serenade to Music – all agreeable old war-horses – plus a short work by Australian/New Zealand composer Maria Grenfell to open the concert. Apart from the Grenfell work, it wasn’t interesting at all, in the sense of ‘I wonder what will happen next’, but it was very pleasurable. And there were surprises.

Maria Grenfell now lives in Tasmania, but she studied composition in Christchurch before going to Eastman in the US for her Masters, and UCLA for her doctorate. She tells us that she works from ‘poetic, literary, and visual sources’ as well as ‘non-Western music and literature’.  I discerned none of this in River, Mountain, Sky, which was commissioned for Tasmania’s bicentenary in 2004, but it was a delightful work nonetheless, with a clear programme and much to interest the ear. The first section features birdsong sounds from flutes and other woodwind, with first the timpani, then the horns suggesting spaciousness.  Sustained chords painted in a landscape of mountains and plains; recalling first Sibelius in the writing for the horns, then a dissolve into Vaughan Williams. The mountains section built in slow waves of sound, accented by unmuted trumpets and the harp (Anne-Gaelle Ausseil). I was sitting upstairs, and the harp was often overwhelmed by the timpani – perhaps an effect of the gallery? There was some lovely clarinet playing on the way to the sunset crescendo, and then the night sounds – oboe, the sussurations of the higher strings, muted trumpets, another lovely harp passage, and then an undertone of horns with flute, trumpet, and harp to suggest the starry night. A lovely work, I thought.

Next, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It demands a large orchestra, and bristles with solos, made even harder because everyone in the audience can sing or whistle the tunes. And the playing was patchy.  The upper strings were considerably weaker than the lower strings, with uneasy tuning and a general air of tentativeness that marred the opening of Variation I. But the back of the orchestra rose to the many challenges that Elgar gave them, and the winds played beautifully, with some superb oboe solos and secure flutes and clarinets. I have to say, though, that the horns were terrific. They and the trombones get a lot of work; whilst the trombones were always enthusiastic but not necessarily delicate, the horns were tender as well as bold. By the time they got to the crescendo in Variation IV, the orchestra was making a big, exciting sound. The lower brass were great in Variation VII, and there was terrific wind playing in VIII after the lovely oboe solo, with sensitive piccolo and flute. Nimrod crept out of VIII as intended but although the lower strings played as one, the upper strings sounded uncomfortable and out of tune. Never mind! Here come the horns, winds, and finally the trumpets. Variation X was a curate’s egg, but one with a nice bassoon solo. Variation XI showed off the brass to good effect. By the time we reached Variation XIV the orchestra sensed the end was in sight. They built well to a splendid Elgarian crescendo, with a few rough edges.

The choir came on stage for the second half of the concert, which began with Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs. The soloist was Will King, who was an Emerging Artist with NZ Opera in 2019, and is supported by the Malvina Major Foundation. He has already sung Orfeo (Monteverdi) and Count Almaviva (Marriage of Figaro), along with Sam in Gareth Farr’s opera The Bone Feeder for NZ Opera. He has performed Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and Brahms’s Vier Ernste Gesänge. Later this year, he will understudy Orpheus in the NZ Opera production of Orfeo et Euridice.  When he won the Wellington Aria in 2018, Richard Greagor described him as ‘a baritone clearly with the potential to make a fine career’.

Not surprisingly, Will King made a splendid job of the Five Mystical Songs. He has a big, beautiful voice and excellent musicianship. From his first entry, he demonstrated the vigorous, rapturous sound that these songs demand. His diction is superb – I could have taken dictation from him. At one point during ‘Love bade me welcome’ I wondered whether he understood the poetry – George Herbert was a religious mystic, after all. But it was impossible to tell, because he thoroughly understood the music, and gave a superb performance. ‘The Call’ featured a gorgeous oboe solo, and Will King was lyrical perfection.

The choir acts mostly as backing group for the first four songs, until let off the leash in number five, ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’. I first sang this in the Auckland University Choir under Peter Godfrey, back in the late Cretaceous, and recall it as a bit of a shout. Not in the hands of Ewan Clark and Baroque Voices/Nota Bene. It was big and glad and joyful, with WCO’s wind and brass romping all over it.

The final work in the programme was Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. This was written at about the time RVW was giving Douglas Lilburn a bad mark for the Drysdale Overture in his composition class at the Royal College of Music. The choir sang well, with various small solos being charmingly taken by one or two voices. Once or twice in quiet passages the orchestra overwhelmed the choir, but mostly the balance was good, with the choir’s sound delightfully imitating the instruments.  (I’m not sure whether to thank Ewan Clark or RVW, but it was lovely nonetheless.) The audience was enraptured, and applauded long enough to be rewarded with an encore, a reprise of ‘Let all the world’, which never sacrificed style for volume.

The Capital Band’s “Strange Meetings” a resounding musical success

The Capital Band presents:
STRANGE MEETINGS
Music by Hindemith, Haydn and Vaughan Williams
Poems by Wilfred Owen

The Capital Band
Musical Director: Doug Harvey
Concertmaster: Nick Majic
Poetry Reciter: Doug Harvey

HINDEMITH – Trauermusik
HAYDN – Symphony No.45 in F-sharp Minor “Farewell”
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor (arranged for string orchestra by TCB)

Vogelmorn Hall, Vennell St,.Brooklyn

Saturday 19th June, 2021

In contrast to the evening’s dark, clammy, out-of-doors ambiences generated by the drizzing rain, the warmth and vibrancy of Brooklyn’s Vogelmorn Hall’s son et lumiere  and pre-concert bustle was a positive pick-me-up for this audience member, generating a palpable sense of something special about to happen far removed from the privations of the weather!

As with some of its previous concerts, the Band on this occasion offered an enticing mixture of standard, regularly-presented repertoire and an intriguing transcription for orchestra of a chamber work, in this case a seldom-performed string quartet by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I’d head the first of the string quartets via a recording, but hadn’t “graduated” to the second – and the Band’s heartfelt musical presentation of the work underlined my wonderment at its relative neglect (but more of that later).

Though the other two works were better-known, neither could be said to be regularly-programmed items at orchestral concerts, in particular the Haydn Symphony, which tends to be a work more talked about than played, even if I have from memory seen at least one other performance, and one which, as here, added the “theatricality” of the players departing one-by-one during the last movement – which is the whole “point” of the piece, of course!

First to be performed was the Hindemith work, the Trauermusik (in English, “Funeral Music” or “Mourning Music”), a piece for viola and string orchestra, written at short notice by the composer in a single day (21st January 1936) as a tribute to King George V of England, who had died the previous evening. Hindemith, who was himself a violist, was in England for the purpose of performing the English premiere of his Viola Concerto, Der Schwanendreher, but when the concert was cancelled because of the King’s death, was asked if he would in its place write a short commemorative piece instead.  Hindemith completed the work in just six hours that day, and with the string players from the same orchestra and conductor (the BBC Symphony and Adrian Boult) was the soloist in a live broadcast of Trauermusik that same evening – a premiere of a different kind!

The presentation throughout the whole concert was nothing if not theatrical, as if “leading on” from the worlds-within-worlds contrast between the rawness of the elements without and the warmth and geniality within the venue at the start; with atmospheric lighting at the performance’s beginning, adding focus to the welcome in Te Reo given us by one of the players, and indicating something of the solemnity of the music’s occasion. Conductor Doug Harvey got a warm, rich sound from his players at the music’s outset, one which brought out a homogeneity of solemn feeling while keeping the individual lines clear. I thought the lower and deeper of the viola soloist’s lines were delivered more warmly and securely, his intonation showing some strain here and there as his line rose, though the accompanying figures gave him plenty of unfailing support. This music always surprises me by its brevity, its sense of “not a note wasted” seeming to defy normal time in a trance-like manner, and awaken us from the spell at the end most unexpectedly – here, the ensemble’s playing readily took us to those realms, and evoked a moment in time, a quiet frisson of valediction.

We are a bit “spoiled” for the “first fifty” Haydn Symphonies in Wellington at present in relative terms, most recently with this performance of No. 45, and the ensemble Camerata gradually working through the earliest essays by the composer in this form, hopefully about to take on No.14 at an as yet undisclosed date! I was sure I’d seen a performance of the “Farewell” elsewhere here in Wellington over the last dozen or so years, but the Middle C search engine (since 2008) has come up empty-handed! Whatever the case this performance made up in spadefuls for the omission with both interpretative focus and performance commitment from the Band, the occasional roughness around the music’s edges mattering not a whit amid the excitement, humour and gracefulness of the playing overall.

At the beginning the vigorous driving rhythms sharply underlined the music’s dynamic contrasts, with horns and winds colouring the textures most evocatively, setting the initial urgency against the grace and good humour of the second subject group. Throughout, the musicians did their best to “fill out” the hall’s somewhat dry ambiences and impart some bloom to the sounds. The second movement tempo adroitly caught the music’s grace and gentle humour, the winds’ entries particularly “pointed” following the gently “covered” tones of the strings. I enjoyed the floated string lines over the deftly “etched-in” accompaniments at the beginning of the music’s middle section, as well as the horns’ beautifully-voiced call in thirds at another point, the enchantment of it all coming from the musicians seeming to really “care” about making their notes speak to us.

The rapid tempo for the minuet took me by surprise, but conductor Harvey and his players made it work, uproariously sounding the tutti sections in contrast to the “Jack, be nimble” feetwork of the surrounding sequences. By the time the horns had gotten to introduce the Trio, I was grooving along with the music most happily, and chortling, albeit unobtrusively, at the music’s “throwaway” ending!

The fourth movement’s allegro wasn’t rushed off its feet, here, but allowed some girth, while still able to scintillate in the quick-moving passages, the dynamics strongly-focused with terrific ensemble-playing. At the opening’s reprise,  the horns and winds sounded out splendidly, holding their lines amid the growing agitations, leading up to the dramatic luftpause. The adagio which followed featured the gradual exit of all the players (and the conductor), and a “thinning-out” of the orchestral textures, finally leaving but two of the first chair violinists, who, sweetly and demurely, finished the work.

Haydn diplomatically devised this composition “scheme” in response to his musicians’ pleas for the composer to intercede with their employer, Prince Esterhazy, to grant them a “break” after a protracted stay at the Prince’s summer palace in the country, a day’s journey away from their families in another town. Apparently the message was understood by the Prince, as the entire court returned to the town the day after the symphony’s performance! It was all beautifully done, with  straight faces from the players and wry amusement amongst the audience!

However, the theatricality of all of this was nothing compared with what awaited us throughout the concert’s second half. Vaughan Williams wrote two string quartets, the second of which dates from the years 1942-44, over thirty years after the earlier work was completed. Consequently the two quartets are literally worlds apart, the Second containing elements relating to both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which were composed at around the same period. The first three movements owe more to the post-war Sixth Symphony (though the slow movement touches on the earlier Symphony in places), whereas the finale appears to revisit the relative peace and serenity of the earlier(wartime) Fifth Symphony. It’s a work whose neglect in the chamber music repertoire is difficult to understand – and the Capital Band’s transcription of the work for string orchestra splendidly conveys the music’s character in all of its aspects

A feature of the work is the prominent writing for the viola, fruit of the composer’s friendship with a young violist, Jean Stewart, whose quartet, the Menges Quartet, gave the premiere performance of the work in 1944. The first movement sounds very VW, with terrific tension and conflict between upper and lower voices,  the figurations in each register obsessively “at odds” with each other, culminating in a ferocious tremolando outburst which exhausts the combatative instincts of the voices, and imposes a semblance of order upon their interaction, presided over by the viola, again, more reliable in the instrument’s lower register.

Solo strings began the slow movement, a lovely, intimate effect which continued up to the wider-spanned choral-like writing, when the whole ensemble joined in, the contrasting passages between solo strings and larger ensemble recalling similar moments in the composer’s “Thomas Tallis Fantasia”. I found a further extended passage for the quartet alone very moving, the violins especially lovely, the viola and ‘cello properly supportive.

The Scherzo returned us to the eerie, more nightmare-like quality of the Sixth Symphony’s Scherzo. The “haunted flight” of the rapid figurations was readily conveyed by the string body, although again, the viola soloist struggled with his intonation in places. And then, as if by magic, the music “found” a different voice for the work’s finale, the ensemble conjuring up wave upon wave of positive emotion and banishing the darkness – I thought the playing of the more “restrained” lines incredibly moving, here, readily conveying to us the sense of a journey undertaken from darkness into light.

Readers of this review who were at the concert may be wondering why I’ve not until now mentioned the conductor Doug Harvey’s “dramatized” readings of several poems by Wilfred Owen, interspersed between the quartet’s movements. Conscious as I am of the amount of sheer hard work that must have gone into memorising the words and sentiments of these poems and their “enactment”, I simply didn’t feel justice was done to them by Harvey choosing to overtly “dramatize” the narratives with extended movements and marked changes of voice-level for dramatic effect which resulted in a lot of the words losing their clarity and coherence. Someone I didn’t know who was sitting beside me confirmed afterwards that she too had struggled to make out many of the words for exactly the same reasons. Spoken words need clarity and focus in performance as strongly as music does; and I thought the clarity and focus of enunciation and meaning that was lacking in Harvey’s somewhat over-wrought verbal deliveries and depictions, were qualities that he and his musicians readily brought to the music throughout the concert, resulting in that side of things being a resounding success!

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!