Towards a new Romantic language

Orchestra Wellington: Leviathan

Wagner Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1
Psathas Leviathan Concerto for percussion
Schumann Symphony No 2

Alexej Gerassimez (percussion)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday. 17th September, 2022

The whole concert took the title ‘Leviathan’, which was, frankly, misleading. Much more than half the concert came from the soundworld of nineteenth-century German romanticism. But still, ‘Leviathan’ was a better marketing pitch. And the concert was traditional in format: an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. But this being Marc Taddei’s programming, the effect was anything but traditional.

This concert, like all Orchestra Wellington concerts, began with an introduction to the works by conductor Marc Taddei. The OW audience obviously enjoys these little chats.  The opening words concerned the 2023 season. It was, Taddei informed us with a dramatic flourish, to be called ‘Inner Visions’ (like the Van Morrison song?) and summed up by this quote from the painter Kandinsky: ‘That is beautiful which is produced by the inner vision, which springs from the soul.’ He went on to flatter the audience: ‘You complete this process of music-making. You are the interpreter of what you hear. We try to manifest the composers’ ideas, but you make it come alive.’

Onward to this evening’s concert. Music, Taddei helpfully explained, has two strands. One, which had its roots in the Enlightenment, saw music as Apollonian, idealized. But the other, since medieval times, gave rise to romanticism. And tonight’s concert was in the romantic tradition. ‘It consists of three unassailable masterpieces … with a work by our very own genius, John Psathas.’

The ‘overture’ consisted of the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, a most un-overture-like piece of music. When Wagner told his friends, including Schumann, that he planned to write an opera based on the Arthurian legend of one of the Grail knights, Schumann announced he had been thinking of writing an opera on the same theme. (For Arthurians, Lohengrin is the son of Parzifal in the medieval poem Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach.) Naturally Wagner got there first. The introduction begins with the faintest shimmering of the high strings and gently builds, entry by entry, to a big portentous crescendo that culminates in an orgasmic crash on the clash cymbals, and a decrescendo back down to shimmering lyricism. The playing was beautiful, whether it was the strings’ endless delicacy or the tender solos from the winds (a gorgeous cor anglais solo, for instance, from Louise Cox). The work was written in 1848, but already it is possible to hear elements of Wagner’s mature leitmotif style.

John Psathas’s monumental percussion concerto was commissioned by the Tonhalle Dusseldorf and the soloist, a young German percussion virtuoso called Alexej Gerassimez. The artist’s appearance was supported by the German Embassy.  The work is in four movements, and requires two large batteries de percussion, one at the back of the orchestra and the other at the front of the stage, as well as 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a tuba.

Alexej Gerassimez is a tall, lithe young man, very light on his feet – because at times he was required to run from one side of the stage to the other – and at one point two extra percussionists came downstage to play instruments on the left while he dealt with several simultaneously on the right-hand side.

The writing is characterized by Psathas’s fast, exciting rhythms and his cumulative, layered climaxes. Sometimes the orchestral writing was rather static, with all the momentum provided by the percussion instruments. The second movement referred to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, with Psathas bringing the ‘background melody’, played ‘with love and compassion and warmth’ by the cellos and basses, into the foreground.

The enormous third movement was titled ‘Soon We’ll All Walk on Water’ and featured an amplified plastic bottle, played by scratching, shaking, and beating. The movement culminates with Gerassimez playing a bowl of water with his hands, and finally using a colander to pour water back into the bowl. Then followed another bottle solo with the strings playing mournful grey chords in the manner of Goretsky’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs against the quite jolly bottle rhythm.

Likewise a Wagnerian passage on wind and brass formed a wash of colour behind a solo on what sounded like small stones being struck. Another crescendo is followed by a quiet, thoughtful clarinet solo (Nick Walshe).

The last movement, ‘A Falcon, a Storm, or a Great Song?’ (quoting Rilke) contained some of the loveliest marimba playing I have ever heard, along with steel drums, what sounded like a slit drum, woodblocks, a whip, tubular bells, bass drum, and timpani, all building to a final crescendo complete with snarling trumpets and a final single triangle note.

Leviathan is a most interesting work. It must have been challenging to bring off. Leaving the soloist to one side, there was still a vast amount of percussion being played by Jeremy Fitzsimons, Brent Stewart, Naoto Segawa, and Yoshiko Tsuruta, with Sam Rich on timpani, and a gazillion notes for the big brass section. The tempo changes must have been challenging. And that’s before the soloist is added, bringing a world of complexity and fast changes.

The audience loved it. There was rapturous applause, with Gerassimez shaking the hand of Concertmaster Amalia Hall and conductor, the composer arriving on stage to hug everyone, and several curtain calls.

After the interval, the symphony. Marc Taddei embarked on an introduction to the work that lasted about 20 minutes. Schumann’s Second Symphony was in fact the third one he wrote. It is ‘personal and deeply felt,’ said Taddei: ‘It is the most personal symphony written in the nineteenth century or indeed in any century.’ I’m not quite sure what this means, or whether it is even true, though I became quite distracted trying to think of candidates for more personal works. (Shostakovich, certainly. Tchaikovsky, definitely. Mahler!!)

Taddei rehearsed the sad facts of Schumann’s mental ill health before telling us about Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Bach and the great Bach revival that Schumann and Mendelssohn embarked upon around this time. The second symphony, it turned out, was flavoured with Bach whilst containing many references to Schumann’s friends and his beloved wife Clara.

And then the musical examples – every movement was analysed, with the key themes played and musical references unravelled and displayed. It was interesting, and I am certain the audience thought it marvellous, but most of it is so intrinsically part of Schumann’s musical language that in the event it is mostly subliminal.

Finally, the symphony itself. Taddei was right. This is a masterpiece and it deserves to be performed often. If you are thinking of programming a Schubert symphony over the next year, please programme this instead. It was mostly very well played, though without the meticulous attention to detail and clarity that Gemma New would have provided. Taddei conducted without a score, and at one point in the second movement he stopped conducting altogether and turned to grin at the audience. Another favourite trick; the audience grinned back.

Although the Scherzo is fun, and the Allegro vivace creates a big pile-up of overlapping themes with ‘B-A-C-H’ ringing out at the end, the Adagio espressivo that follows is a glorious thing. It takes its theme from Bach’s Musical Offering ‘and turns it into a romantic song without words’. There were beautiful solos by Merran Cook (oboe) and Jamie Dodd (bassoon) and a horn duet (Shadley van Wyk and David Codd). The fourth movement is a bouncing delight, fast end energetic.

It was notable that there was applause after every movement – a spontaneous response to beautiful music. I would love to hear the work again. Indeed, if the concert had started and ended with it, omitting the Wagner, I would have been happy. But Taddei’s point was about the invention of the musical language of romanticism. Schumann wrote the symphony only two years before Lohengrin. And Psathas quoted liberally from that language whilst putting it to wholly novel purposes.

All in all, a very satisfying and absorbing concert. I am intrigued to see what Inner Visions Orchestra Wellington may bring us in 2023.

Ravel and Bartók make companionable and stimulating piano-and-percussion bedfellows in stunning NZSM Adam Concert Room performances

Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music presents:
RAVEL – Rapsodie Espagnole (arr. 2 pianos and percussion)
BARTÓK – Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion SZ110

Gabriela Glapska and Jian Liu (pianos)
Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa (percussion)

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 23rd July 2021

While waiting in the foyer for the Adam Concert Room to be opened for the NZSM concert, and pricking up my ears to flute snippets from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and trumpet phrases from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade being practised by students in an adjoining studio, I couldn’t help but reflect on the charm and delight of experiencing such a “music-in-the-air” ambience about where I was and what was about to happen – a free concert of great music given by some of New Zealand’s finest musicians, at this particular time balm for the soul in the midst of a sea of troubles.

With its various series of lunchtime concerts, and a more-or-less constant flow of music and theatre presentations on all sides, Wellington still remains a wellspring of artistic endeavour, and particularly in music, despite the privations of ongoing earthquake strengthening operations at much-loved and -missed venues such as the Town Hall, St.James’ Theatre and the Sacred Heart Basilica in Hill St.

For various reasons the Adam Concert Room has been a godsend over the years, enabling Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music to showcase the talents of both its students and their tutors, the latter highly-esteemed performers in their own right, and apparently inexhaustible in their efforts to advance music’s cause in diverse contexts around the capital.

This latest concert provided a mouth-watering opportunity to hear “live” one of the most renowned of twentieth-century chamber music classics, Bartók’s Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion, together with another earlier “classic”, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, here served up in a relatively unfamiliar guise via an arrangement presumably made by German percussionist Peter Sadlo.  The four “star performers” on this occasion were pianists Gabriela Glapska and Jian Liu, with percussionists Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa.

As it turned out, I enjoyed the Ravel at least as much as I did the Bartok, partly, I think, because I was prepared for something of a disappointment with the former – I’d read a lukewarm review of a performance of the Rapsodie in this form given by fairly illustrious names, with the implication being that the results didn’t justify the efforts made by the artists due to the material. I was, however, instantly held in thrall with the intensities generated by the two pianists in their delineations of the opening Prélude à la Nuit’s “heavily-scented pianissimi”, its occasional surges exquisitely coloured by percussion, the players giving the music all the space and sensousness it required – a totally absorbing “sleeping before the awakening” beginning!

Malagueña, too, captivated with its combination of rhythmic verve and sultriness, the pianos dancers and the percussionists guitarists, moving and playing with edge and physicality, leading the music fluently between substance and suggestiveness towards one of Ravel’s enigmatic endings. Even more beguiling was the Habanera which followed (and which particularly captured Manuel de Falla’s admiration for its “Spanish character”), the piece’s languid melancholy here superbly wrought by the musicians, bringing utmost delicacy cheek-by jowl with deep-seated resonance, the gentle tolling of accompanying figures bringing to mind another evocative Ravelian soundscape, that of “Le Gibet” from Gaspard de la Nuit. It all somehow awoke in this listener a nostalgia for the sounds of a distant (and unknown) land where melodies and rhythms mingled with splashes and slivers of evocation along with deeper, darker imaginings.

Though I thought the “piping” opening theme of the concluding Feria (Fiesta) could have been more incisively delivered by whichever pianist (they both had their backs to me!), it was my only quibble regarding a tour-de force of positively orchestral realisation by the players! We got energetic, detailed, and incisive playing punctuated with great upward flourishes, the dovetailed piano figurations pulsating with energy and the percussion ringing and roaring with uninhibited exhilaration before the music seemed midstream to spectacularly collapse in a smouldering heap!

Amidst the sonic wreckage stirred a plaintive, languorous theme, here played by Liu, and a “sighing” rejoiner, delivered by Glapska, both exuding that characteristic brooding Iberian torpor, holding us in a spell underpinned by the return of the melancholy ostinato figure from the opening of the work, the whole further charged by atmospheric “night noises” from the percussion. Soon, the festive sounds  reawakened the slumbering rhythms, with first the timpani and then side-drum rapping out its insistent figures, and castanets unashamedly joining in with the dance! Such tremendous exuberance from everybody over the last few pages, with even the brief hiatus before the end halting only momentarily the surges of released energy emanating from all sides – a triumph!

So, here was a how-de-do! – would the players be able to “recapture that first fine careless rapture” for the Bartók work after such an energy-sapping display? As it proved all those present were obviously “fired up” for what was about to happen – both Glapska and Liu talked a little with us about the oncoming work , Liu in particular stressing that performing it was for him an exhilarating, if also “frightening” experience!

Bartók’s work was written in 1937, and first performed early the following year by the composer and his second wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, at an  International Society for Contemporary Music anniversary concert in Basel, Switzerland. Besides two pianos and pianists, the work employs two percussionists who play seven instruments between them – timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare-drum, tam-tam and xylophone. Bartók as well gave the percussionists numerous detailed playing instructions, besides stipulating the layout of the instruments.

The longest of the three movements began the work, with dark, portentous timpani rolls introducing low, overlapping piano notes from both instruments,  the sombre scenario suddenly set alight by the first of two violent irruptions, each generating a sense of something waiting in the ambient darkness to strike. Gradually the players led the way out of the gloom with a firm grip, judging the acceleration to a nicety, the percussion forward and “present”, each strand properly telling, and playing its part in the delineation of each section’s character.

Trilling piano lines and scampering figurations led from a dotted-rhythm toccata-like sequence to a rollicking, angular section, each player contributing to a kind of juggernaut of sound, tumultuous in effect with energetic piano dovetailings between the players driving a series of great crescendi that burst out brilliantly in fanfare-like figures. What was notable from this performance were the sharply-etched contrasts the musicians brought out from the different episodes, the music falling back from the enormous climax into almost folksongish figurations, underpinned by bell-like percussion sonorities, the piano exchanges wandering for a while in what seemed like ambient wastelands. A side drum roll then led into the Bartókian equivalent of “a devil of a fugue”, hair-raising in its effect, with the heavy percussion excitingly prominent! I thought the forceful angularities of the exchanges at the movement’s end could have been rammed home even more lustfully and with an even greater rhetorical sense of finality, here – (but the “sensationalist within” often gets me over-excited at tumultuous times such as these, so I cautioned him to keep his composure and not over-project)!

Bartók’s “night music” movements are proverbial, and this one was no exception – the players breathtakingly caught both the stillness and the depths of the music’s world. The various rhythmic  impulses that punctuated the soundscape became almost a “processional” of their own, accompanied by chord clusters that morphed into swirling chromatic figures before becoming eerie glissandi, uncovering an element of unease and disquiet at the feral nature of forces in play, before the impulses dissolved into three hushed, beautifully-poised chords at the end.

The attacca which brought the last movement into play burst the sounds about our senses like a firecracker, the xylophone playing especially incisive and almost festive in impact! – I thought the initial theme almost Shostakovich-like in its folkish appeal. The pianists varied their trajectories in places, here  direct and almost business-like, and there, droll and loping, the whole time turbo-charged by the percussive  elements, most satisfyingly “present!” I loved the pianists’ “cake-walk” treatment of the theme, almost a parody, as in the folksy treatment of the music in  the “Concerto for Orchestra” finale,  a sequence which alternated tongue-in-cheek insouciance with rumbustiousness, before exploding into a final, exciting accelerando! That done, Bartok’s little waltz-tune at the end brought smiles of pleasure, as did the unexpected courtliness of the final piano chords and the muttered percussion codicil ending the work!

What a piece, and what a performance! Come to think of it, what a concert! Very great credit and honour to those concerned – Gabriela Glapska, Jian Liu, Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa!






Adventurous, quirky, energetic – a musical-life experience for the 2017 NZSONYO

NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2017 presents:

CELESTE ORAM (NYO Composer-in-Residence 2016)
Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra (World Premiere)
JAMES McMILLAN – Veni, Veni Emmanuel*
REUBEN JELLEYMAN (NYO Composer-in-Residence 2017)
Vespro (World Premiere)
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell Op.34
(The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra)

*Colin Currie (percussion)
James McMillan (conductor)
NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2017

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, 14th July 2017

Thank goodness for Benjamin Britten’s variously-named The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra / Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell Op.34! At the recent pair of NZNYO concerts in Wellington and Auckland it was music which, unlike the works making up the rest of the programme, was reasonably familiar to the audience. As such, the piece provided a benchmark of sorts with which the youthful orchestra’s playing could be more-or-less assessed in terms of overall tonal quality, precision of ensemble and individual fluency and brilliance. These were qualities more difficult to ascertain when listening to the players tackle the idiosyncrasies, complexities and unfamiliarities of the other three programmed pieces.

I’m certain that the NYO players relish the opportunity every time to give a first performance of any piece written especially for them, even one as unconventionally wrought as was Celeste Oram’s piece The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra, which opened the programme. In this instance, however, there were TWO new works by two different composers, awaiting a first performance, presumably due to last year’s concert being wholly taken up with a collaboration by the orchestra with the NZSO to perform Olivier Messiaen’s Eclairs sur l’au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond) – obviously, a thoroughly exhilarating experience for all concerned, youthful and seasoned players alike.
So as well as the 2016 composer-in-residence’s work having yet to be performed, there was also a work by this year’s composer-in-residence, Reuben Jelleyman, waiting for its turn. In the event, putting all the possibilities together made for an interesting programme of symmetries and contrasts – a percussion concerto and a work inspired by an older classic, with each of these in turn regaled by a separate “guide” to the orchestra, the two latter having interesting “corrective” capacities in relation to one another!

To be honest, there was a considerable amount of speculation expressed by people I talked with at the interval as to whether the first item on the programme could be classed as “music”! Celeste Oram’s piece The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra, far from being an updated version of Britten’s celebrated instructional work, took a kind of “field” approach to experiencing music instead, refracting a history of many New Zealanders’ initial contact with orchestral music as conveyed by radio (as the composer points out, the first permanent orchestra in this country was initially known as “The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra” – actually it was “the National Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service”, with the word “Corporation” first appearing as part of the orchestra’s name in 1962). This phenomenon was depicted through transistorised recordings from what sounded like a number of largely out-of-phase broadcasts of an announcer’s voice from smartphone-like devices sported by the orchestra players, sitting onstage waiting for their “actual” conductor to arrive.

I hope the reader will forgive this relatively literal (though not exhaustive!) account of these happenings, linked as they seemed to the composer’s intentions! Still conductorless, the orchestra players then took up their instruments and launched into the first few bars of Britten’s work, an undertaking lost in the cacaphony of distortion emanating once more from the radio-like devices. As “Haydn Symphony No.25” was announced, the conductor, Sir James McMillan, arrived, waited courteously enough for the announcer to finish, and then directed a somewhat Hoffnung-esque opening of the Britten which then morphed into all kinds of wayward musical illusions in different quarters, fragments that were constantly being broken into by the announcer’s voice introducing other various classical pieces, a somewhat “catholic” section including the Maori song “Hine e Hine”, Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”, and so on.

After Beethoven’s “Tenth” Symphony (“the Unwritten”) had made a static-ridden appearance, the announcer stated portentously, “Having taken the orchestra to pieces, the composer will now put it all back together again”, then promptly tuned us into the National Programme 5 o’clock news beeps and prominent newsreader Katriona McLeod’s voice. Some orchestra players at this point appeared to get fed up, and go for walkabouts down from the platform and into and through the auditorium, ignoring the efforts of their conductor to keep the music going. Soon, all the players were standing in the aisles of the auditorium, even the concertmaster, who was the last to go, leaving her conductor waving his arms around conducting a very loud, and out-of-phase-sounding recording of the Britten work. At the music’s end, we in the audience applauded him, a bit uncertainly, then watched him sit down and pull out a newspaper and read it, while the players standing in the aisles began to paraphrase parts of the music, and the radio continued to blare, the voices largely unintelligible – some sort of impasse was reached at which point it was unclear what would happen next, if anything!

From this sound-vortex Concert announcer Clarissa Dunn’s voice sounded clearly, with the words, “….and you have NOT been listening to Radio New Zealand Concert!…..”, and that, folks, was it! – a rather lame conclusion, I thought, but perhaps that was the point! It seemed to me that the piece lost its way over the last five minutes – but perhaps THAT also was the point! Celeste Oram explained the ending to her “piece” using a quote attributed to Gaetano Donizetti, who wrote in an 1828 letter that he wanted “to shake off the yoke of finales”. The determinedly “non-ending” ending of Oram’s work did seem to put the concept of the “symphonic finale” to rout!

Thoughtful, innovative, provocative, incomprehensible…..whatever characterisation one liked to give Celeste Oram’s work first and foremost, I felt it should be in tandem with descriptions like “entertaining”, “absorbing”, “spectacular”, “engrossing”. It seemed to me that the composer had achieved, by dint of her explanation printed in the programme, what she had set out to do – and what better a way to attain satisfaction by means of what one “does” as an occupation?

After this, Sir James McMillan’s own work, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel would have seemed like a kind of relief-drenched reclamation of normality to some, and something of a “safe” and even predictable example of what Celeste Oram was criticising with her work, to others. Percussion concertos have become extremely popular of late, thanks partly to the skills and flamboyant performing personalities of musicians such as Evelyn Glennie and Colin Currie, who’ve had many works written for them. For some concertgoers they’re thrilling visual and aural experiences, while for others (myself included) they seem as much flash as substance, in that they seem to me to rely overmuch on visual display to sustain audience interest to the point of distraction from the actual musical material.

Perhaps I’m overstating the case, but after watching Colin Currie indefatigably move from instrument group to instrument group, activating these collections with their distinctive timbres, my sensibilities grew somewhat irritated after a while – one admired the artistry of the player, but wearied of the almost circus-like aspect of the gestures. I began to empathise as never before with Anton Bruckner, who, it is said, attended a performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth, his eyes closed the whole time so as to avoid being distracted by the stage action from the music!

I wrote lots of notes regarding this performance, which certainly made an effect,in places spectacularly so – the opening a searing sound-experience, with shouting brass and screaming winds, and the soloist moving quickly between instrument groups for what the compser calls an “overture”, presenting all the different sounds. My gallery seat meant that the player occasionally disappeared from view! – rather like “noises off”, a sound-glimpse of a separate reality or disembodied state! In places the music became like a huge machine in full swing, which appealed to my “railway engine” vein of fantasy, while at other times the sounds seemed to drift spacewards, the winds playing like pinpricks of light, and the soloist at once warming and further distancing the textures with haunting marimba sounds. I enjoyed these more gentle, benediction-like moments most of all, the gently dancing marimba over a sea of wind and brass sostenuto tones – extremely beautiful.

At one point I wrote “All played with great skill, but everything impossibly busy!” At the work’s conclusion the soloist climbed up to the enormous bells at the back of the orchestra, beginning a carillion which built up in resonance and excitement, aided by individual orchestral players activiting their own triangles. A long, and slowly resonating fade – and the work came to a profound and deeply-wrought close. While I wouldn’t deny the effectiveness of certain passages in the work I found myself responding as to one of those nineteenth-century virtuoso violin concertos the musical forest obscured by trees laden with notes – and notes – and notes……..thankfully, my feelings seemed not to be shared by the audience whose response to Colin Currie’s undoubted artistry was overwhelmingly warm-hearted.

So, after an interval during which time I was engaged in discussions concerning the nature of music (in the light of Celeste Oram’s piece) in between wrestling with feelings that I perhaps ought to give up music criticism as a profession through dint of my inadequacy of appreciation (the result of my response to James McMillan’s piece), I settled down somewhat uneasily for the concert’s second half, which began with a work by Reuben Jelleyman, who’s the Youth Orchestra’s 2017 composer-in-residence, a piece with the title Vespro, deriving its inspiration from Monteverdi’s famous 1610 Vespers.

Describing his work as akin to a restoration of an old building “where old stone buttresses mesh with glass and steel”, Reuben Jelleyman’s piece at its beginning reminded me of a basement or backroom ambience of structure and function, where solid blocks and beams were interspersed with lines and passageways, the whole bristling with functional sounds, much of it aeolian-like, (whispering strings and “breathed” winds and brass) but with an ever-increasing vociferousness of non-pitched sounds.

Great tuba notes broke the spell, underscored by the bass drum, like a call to attention, one igniting glowing points in the structure, with each orchestral section allowed its own “breath of radiance”. A repeated-note figure grew from among the strings, spreading through the different orchestral sections, the violinists playing on the wood of the bows as fragments of the Monteverdi Vespers tumbled out of the mouths of the winds and brass – such ear-catching sonorities! As befitted the original, these reminiscences contributed to ambiences whose delicacy and sensitivity unlocked our imaginations and allowed play and interaction – a “fled is that music? – do I wake or sleep?” sense of amalgamation of present with past, the new music, centuries old, continuing to live…..I liked it very much.

To conclude the evening’s proceedings, James McMillan got his chance to show what he could REALLY do as a conductor with Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, a performance which brought forth from the youthful players sounds of such splendour and brilliance that I was quite dumbfounded. Each section of the orchestra covered itself in glory during its own introductory “moment” at the work’s beginning, the four sections (winds, brasses, strings, percussion) framed by a tutti whose amplitude seemed, in the classic phrase, “greater than the sum of its parts”, which was all to the good.

Singling out any one section of the ensemble for special praise would be an irrelevant, not to say fatuous exercise under these circumstances. McMillan’s conducting of the piece and interaction with the players seemed to bring out plenty of flair and brilliance, with individual players doing things with their respective solos that made one smile with pleasure at their ease and fluency. I noted, for instance, the bassoon’s solo being pushed along quickly at first, but then the player relaxing into an almost languorous cantabile that brought out the instrument’s lyrical qualities most beguilingly. The musicians seemed to have plenty of space in which to phrase things and bring out particular timbres and textures, such as we heard from the clarinets, whose manner was particularly juicy and gurgly!

A feature of the performance was that the “accompaniments” were much more than that – they were true “partners” with their own particular qualities acting as a foil for the sections particularly on show – in particular, the violins danced with energy and purpose to feisty brass support, while the double basses’ agilities drew forth admiring squawks from the winds. The brasses covered themselves in glory, from the horns’ rich and secure callings, to the tuba’s big and blowsy statement of fact – trumpets vied with the side-drum for excitement, while the trombones arrested everybody’s attentions with their announcements, the message soon forgotten, but the sounds resounding most nobly. Finally, the percussion had such a lot of fun with the strings, it was almost with regret that one heard the piccolo begin the fugue which eventually involved all the instruments, and was rounded off by a chorale from the brass choir featuring the theme in all its glory.

I’ve not heard a more exciting, nor skilful and involving performance of this music – an NZSO player whom I met on the stairs after the concert agreed with me that, on the evidence of playing like we had just heard, the future of music performance in this country is in good hands. Very great credit to the players and to their mentor and conductor Sir James McMillan, very much an inspirational force throughout the whole of the enterprise. Not, therefore, a conventional concert – adventurous, quirky, energetic and idiosyncratic – but in itself an experience of which the young players would be proud to feel they had made the best of and done well!

Magnificent NZSO concert, with percussionist Colin Currie, under James MacMillan

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James MacMillan with Colin Currie (percussion)

Thomas Adès: Polaris
James MacMillan: Percussion Concerto No 2
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 4

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 8 July, 7:30 pm

I had rather expected that, even if the pieces by Adès and MacMillan had not exactly created a stampede for tickets, that the remarkable, let’s even say ‘great’ symphony by Vaughan Williams would have done the trick.

But no, it didn’t. However, if it was something of a statement about the timidity of Wellington audiences, it was not a disgrace.

Thomas Adès
For another thing, I’d have thought the name Adès might have chimed with a few hundred on account of the operatic notoriety Adès achieved in the 1990s. For some time after the 1995 premiere of his Powder Her Face, it looked as if a new era of box-office success might result from opening the stage to rather explicit sexual flagrancy, in our new age of public pornography.

But opera news, even highly spiced, doesn’t penetrate much into mainstream media.

Based on the flamboyant life and eventual humiliation of the Duchess of Argyll, Powder Her Face was commissioned from the Almeida Theatre for the Cheltenham Festival in 1995, made headlines at once and over the following decade was produced widely across Europe and North America.

Polaris (formerly known as the Polar Star, till it was renamed after a submarine) clearly, is not in quite the same class as Powder Her Face. It’s an astronomical tone poem based formally on rather arcane musico/mathematical, acoustic, even metaphysical notions (and Adès writes of magnetic relationships between notes), none of which is probably of help to the uninitiated; and is a rather more apparent and visually affective evocation of the Arctic (I suppose) sky, with aurora borealis thrown in.

It was a quarter-hour long, fairly spectacular, orchestral extravaganza, employing six percussionists plus timpanist, as well as piano, two harps, glockenspiel and celeste. If first impression was of a show-piece demonstrating Adès’s command of musical erudition and extreme orchestrational skill, a combination of close attention plus a suspension of intellectual effort, revealed an evocation of infinite space, that might have been beyond rational comprehension and any easy definition but created an undeniable impact.

A kind of rotating, machine-inspired theme underlay the music, which rose to a climaxes followed by tonality changes, perhaps three times. The range of sounds and their effect was kaleidoscopic (did someone say ‘prismatic’?); sometimes, faced with the employment of very large and disparate orchestral forces with a seeming lack of much basic musical inspiration, one is sometimes tempted to hear it all as no more than composer exhibitionism. This music was emphatically not of that sort, and its eventual impact made such scepticism hard to sustain. Yet: is it music that warms the heart and compels rehearing?

MacMillan’s 2nd percussion concerto
One suspected that Polaris was chosen in part to support the stage-full of percussion instruments that had been prepared for McMillan’s second percussion concerto (the first, named Veni, veni, Emmanuel was played by the NZSO under Alexander Shelley in 2010, a fact that I’d have expected the programme to have mentioned).

MacMillan had spoken a little about the percussion, particularly the aluphone, a long row of small, tuned, bell-shaped aluminium gongs across the right side of the stage. The other soloist’s percussion at the front of the stage, not individually listed in the programme, but to be found in Wikipedia, included: crotales, cencerros, vibraphone, marimba, steel drum, four wood blocks, two gliss gongs, eight “assorted pieces of metal”, floor tom-toms, high tom-toms, and a pedal bass drum.

In addition, there was a fairly formidable range of percussion behind the orchestra: glockenspiel, two marimbas, tuned gong, siren, bass drum, suspended sizzle cymbal, tam-tams, tubular bells, tomtom drums, snare drums, two suspended cymbals, two triangles, thunder sheet; plus harp, and piano.

The ability of the normal audience member, including the non-specialist critic, to distinguish all these individual sounds, and to accord them some kind of purpose, is probably extremely limited and one really has to accept it in a spirit of quite profound bemusement. Generally, because of course there was only one player of all the front-of-stage hardware, only one implement (instrument?) played at a time which ensured a degree of sonic clarity. However the complementary array of machinery behind the orchestra often compensated for much prolonged quietness.

Currie is among the most versatile and virtuosic percussion practitioners in the business, multi-tasking to beat even the most gifted female achiever in that sphere. In addition to which he appeared to be handling his multifarious equipment from memory.

The novel item, the aluphone, opened the soloist’s performance, soon joined by the marimba, immediately behind it; and from then on one tried to be alert to significant and repeated motifs in order to gain a sense of its narrative, its emotional journey. Even though such attempts largely failed, the evolving dynamic patterns, which at times drifted to near silence, with gentle harp and murmuring trombones, succeeded in holding attention, suggesting that at a second or third hearing a path through the maze would take root in the memory. In the midst of the near frenzy emerged a near lyrical string episode in an adagio section, as Currie caressed reverberant cow bells, with flutes and double basses among the few contributors.

It was not only a showcase for the extraordinary soloist, but presented the orchestra and the composer/conductor with a formidable challenge which was met with impressive success, evidenced by unusually heart-felt, mutual applause from all parties involved.

Vaughan Williams’s fourth may be his most sunless, atypical symphony; and it might be compared with Sibelius’s fourth in mood, though it’s more fiery and varied. It does evoke something other than the landscapes, townscapes, seascapes and the avian world; the emotional opposite to the sunny fifth which he wrote in the middle of World War II. The fourth was written avowedly with no programme in mind, but it’s hard not to believe that a politically aware composer was not depressed at state incompetence in dealing with the human tragedy of the Great Depression of the early 30s, not mention the advent of Hitler.

The composer’s wife, Ursula, recorded this comment about the symphony: “The towering furies of which he was capable, his fire, pride, and strength are all revealed and so are his imagination and lyricism.”

Here, if MacMillan had not proven his powers already, was an electrifying performance of huge intensity, displaying anger and ferocity right from the start. What attack and energy he drew from his players! What powerful momentum and compelling rhythms! Though it is almost always tempered, for example, by string-led more meditative moments, finely judged.

The second movement, slower in tempo and more calmly sombre and even beautiful, but no less biting even if there are no clues as to their emotional origin. The third movement is the traditional Scherzo, a symphonic movement that I used to enjoy in my youth, but often less these days. But this scored high with me; a most energetic and colourful performance, evoking in very quick triplets, a spirit of chaos with dark, muted brass, before the sudden mysterious subsiding just before the close, leading with no pause to the Finale, Allegro molto. It too is full of starkly contrasting episodes, often pulsing, trombone-led, to be followed by beguiling, muted strings: an extraordinarily arresting passage, that continues for some time before the return to the pulsing passages that with MacMillan became hypnotic, even nightmarish.

This great performance confirmed how much I love this symphony, with the fifth, my favourites. I place it very high among Vaughan Williams’s works; it was a privilege to hear it played by such an orchestra under a conductor so much attuned to the composer’s spirit.

Chamber Music New Zealand hosts exciting concert by pianos and percussion

Chamber Music New Zealand: “Rhythm and Resonance”

Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos, K 448; Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (arr. Guldborg); Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (arr. Ptaszynska)

Diedre Irons and Michael Endres – pianos; Thomas Guldborg and Lenny Sakovsky – percussion

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 26 August, 7:30 pm

This step outside the usual range of string-dominant chamber music attracted a big house in the Michael Fowler Centre; the welcome by CEO Euan Murdoch also suggested that a larger number of younger people had been drawn by this programme, with its less familiar instrumental context, yet of major works.

And he drew attention to the use of an overhead camera that projected a bird’s eye view of the array of instruments – mainly the percussion – on the stage.

But the concert began with the only sonata that Mozart wrote for two pianos (the only other piece for two pianos is a Fugue in C minor, K 426). It’s a magnificent richly melodic masterpiece that responded whole-heartedly to treatment by four hands on two Steinways – the thought of any possible advantage from fortepianos never entered my head. The performance exploited the sonic possibilities of two instruments without producing sounds that were too dense or cluttered.

The two instruments were lined up side by side rather than facing each other with their bodies curling intimately together; so the primo player (in this case Diedre Irons) was visually dominant. The two have not dissimilar approaches to performance, devoted to playing of clarity and vigour as well as a scrupulous treatment of the varying dynamics. Even more impressive was their subtle rhythmic elasticity which, from the very percussive nature of the piano, poses a considerable challenge for two players: mere ensemble is hard enough.

In brief, this was music of genius played by two pianists who were virtually flawless in ensemble and musical spirit, and their performance entranced me from start to finish. There are so many beguiling phases, among the most charming the exquisite trill-opened motifs near the beginning of the Andante which were crystal clear yet imbued with magic.

The performance of Ravel’s Tombeau might have surprised an audience unprepared for the arrangement of the stage, pianos removed, leaving it dominated by three marimbas to be played by the two NZSO percussionists. From the start I found myself quite accepting of the altered quality of the music: much as I love the piano original, I am particularly partial to the marimba. Yet I wondered whether there might have been some monotony in the sound after a while. But that was at least partly avoided as Sakofsky moved, at the beginning of the Forlane, from the marimba at right angles to the audience, to one facing the audience, that produced a somewhat brighter, keen-edged tone. The spirit of Ravel survived excellently, since the eight mallets flourished by the players seemed to encompass all the notes in the piano score.

After the interval there were further re-arrangements: marimbas moved to the rear and xylophones, along with tam tam, side and bass drums, timpani and cymbals filled the stage. Oddly, this was one of the first truly ‘modern’ pieces of classical music I came to know through the small but curious collection that my girl-friend (later my wife) brought to our joint LP collection when we were about 21. It’s one of those works that seems to sound just as shocking and barbaric now as it did then (and that performance, an Argo recording paired with Contrasts for piano, violin and clarinet, still surprises me by its violent sounds and extreme dynamic contrasts).

What we heard on Tuesday was rather more well-mannered and less fierce. In addition, the big acoustic of the MFC subdues the harshness and acerbity of extreme sounds, and it was no doubt the more civilised sound that the four players produced that allowed the audience to enjoy this classic of modernity as they evidently did, judging from the applause. I think it loses little with less hard-edged sound and brutalism and that was the way it came off the stage; though it would have been too much to ask that such music be flawless in togetherness and finesse.

Incidentally, instead of being on the medium level stage as earlier chamber music concerts, including the Houstoun Beethoven concerts, had been, these performances which involved more instruments were at the usual high level of the stage which makes visibility difficult for the front dozen rows – hence the usefulness of the view from above, projected on the screen.

The last item had not been on the advertised programme or otherwise conspicuously announced: Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It is shorter than other famous treatments of this piece (Paganini’s 24th violin Caprice), though there are about twelve variations (the programme note did not disclose and that was my slightly uncertain count).  Lutoslawski wrote it in the early years of the war in German-occupied Warsaw, when he and Panufnik lived by playing piano duets in cabarets (for a revelatory account of that, read Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself). It was about the only one of Lutoslawski’s pieces to survive the horrendous German onslaught on Warsaw to put down the famous Warsaw uprising, as the Soviet army sat on the other side of the Vistula and did nothing to support the Polish resistance.

What we heard was an arrangement of the two-piano original commissioned by the Danish Safri Duo, made not by the composer, but by Polish Chicago composer Marta Ptaszynska. Compared with that original, I have to confess to finding the percussion additions a little superfluous. The original, which contains echoes of the Rachmaninov version, is sufficiently percussive and the addition of percussion instruments seemed to reduce the unique impact of the two pianos which, in good hands has all the brilliance, excitement and visceral scariness that is needed to bring a concert like this to a thrilling, hire-wire climax.

To hear and see what I mean, look at You Tube for a recent performance by Anastasia and Liubov Gromoglasova in Moscow. However, that is a small matter alongside the otherwise brilliant exhibition of skill and musicality that these four splendid musicians demonstrated in all four works. I had the very clear impression of a delighted audience leaving the MFC at the end.



Distinguish Strike and Psathas from the hoi poloi of noise makers of the gig world

New Zealand Festival

Between Zero and One: Ensemble: Strike Percussion

Composer: John Psathas ; Visual effects: Tim Gruchy

St. James Theatre

Monday 10 March, 7:30 pm

Strike is regarded as the country’s premier percussion ensemble and the performance was promoted in the Festival programme as “Inspired by ancient and modern rhythms – from tribal beats to dubstep – Between Zero and One was written for Strike by internationally renowned New Zealand composer John Psathas…….. Intimate moments will draw you in – the epic finale will blow your mind.” The programme comprised a series of items for varied instrumental combinations, with all six players involved in each.

The opening number was an unbridled display of highly complex drumming rhythms, with each player using a different kit in individual locations on a vertical scaffold. It was a highly impressive start that showcased the extraordinary skills of the group, but after a while the repetitious bass drum beat and excessive volume became a relentless assault.

It was a relief to move to a piece built round the gentle tones of gamelan-like gongs and marimbas, but again the writing was highly repetitive to the point of becoming hypnotic, almost soporific. However this trend was dramatically reversed by an exciting and very clever number where the audience was deliberately drawn in to provide percussive rhythms and sound effects with clapping, stamping, shuffling, hissing and explosive voice interjections. It was very successful both as a highly creative composition, and in the way it bound the ensemble to the listeners.

In succeeding numbers the players moved to a wider range of instruments, such as African drums, and even expanded the group to nine or ten performers by using interactive projections of guest musicians from around the world, who played simultaneously with the stage group. Tim Gruchy’s colourful visual projections, both as backdrops and translucent front screen “curtains”, were featured throughout the concert to enhance the compositions.

It was an ambitious project that propelled the Strike group fairly and squarely into the gig world, which can only benefit from its extraordinary technical mastery and grounding in the classical percussion tradition. But on this occasion, Strike did itself a real disservice by adopting the excessive volumes of pop, and its reliance on thumping heavy bass lines. Despite using earplugs, I could not subject my ears to “the epic finale” which was reportedly incredibly loud.

Finesse and musicianship is what will distinguish this ensemble from the hoi polloi of noise makers out there in the gig world, and they should never lose sight of that.


Stroma, with percussionist Claire Edwardes

STROMA presents Event Horizon

Stroma, conducted by Hamish McKeich, with Claire Edwardes (percussion)

Alison Isadora: Cornish Pasty / Gyorgy Ligeti: Continuum
Jeroen Speak: Musik fur witwen, jungfrauen und unschuldige
Gerard Brophy: Coil / Steven Mackey: Micro-concerto

Ilott Concert Chamber

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Stroma’s recent concert featured works by two expatriate New Zealand composers, Jeroen Speak and Alison Isadora, both past graduates of Victoria University.

Speak, based in England, is currently in the country with his partner, Dorothy Ker, who holds the 2013-14 Lilburn House residency (Ker’s own […and…11] is scheduled for performance by Stroma at its next concert on 1 September). This August concert, Event Horizon, was named after Speak’s mini-concerto for piano and three percussionists, which in its turn was inspired by the stark paintings of Wang pan Yuan, Taiwan’s “prince of loneliness”.  As it happened, due to an insufficiency of percussionists, the eponymous work disappeared over a different event horizon – like that surrounding a black hole. In its stead, we had another composition by Speak, Musik fur witwen, jungfrauen und unschuldige (“Music for widows, virgins and innocents”, 2005) which had previously been premiered by Stroma. This proved to be a music of quietly intense, fleeting gestures (punctuated by side-drum strokes played by harpist Ingrid Bauer and violist Peter Barber), that gradually developed a sense of direction as repeated phrases hinted at an emerging underlying pulse.

Speak’s enigmatic title was drawn from that of an earlier composition, developed from a chant by Abbess Hildegard. The name of Netherlands-based Alison Isadora’s Cornish Pasty (2010) was similarly opaque (the programme note described the food, but not the music). The piece began with a starburst of sound, with tremolandos from Emma Sayers’ piano, Nick Granville’s electric guitar, and Steve Bremner’s vibraphone, creating a moving sound-object, through which melodies emerged from Rueben Chin’s and Hayden Sinclair’s soprano and tenor saxophones. Almost unrelentingly dense (in marked contrast to the sparseness of Musik fur witwen…), this composition, too, had a sense of direction and satisfying shape, gradually slowing down and thinning out after some interjections from Dave Bremner’s trombone, evolving from a texture-based piece to a predominantly rhythm-based piece.

I thought I detected some similarities here with Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (whose Zilver was performed in 2010 by SMP Ensemble under visiting conductor Lucas Vis), and also with some elements of minimalism. Continuum (1968) might have been Gyorgy Ligeti’s study in minimalism. This pulsating texture of trills and tremolandos has been played in Wellington, in its original harpsichord version, by Donald Nicolson.  Stroma’s “stereo” arrangement for marimba and vibraphone (impeccably realised by Claire Edwardes and Thomas Gulborg) had the odd (and enchanting) effect, for me, of  being “music in the head” (like the South American difference-tone flutes, demonstrated by Alejandro Iglesias-Rossi). Also affecting – and surprising – were the sustained, singing tones that were elicited from these percussive instruments.

Featured star, Claire Edwardes, performed solo in fellow Australian Gerard Brophy’s 1996 Coil, its dynamic contrasts and short, lively phrases demanding virtuoso control of the vibraphone’s pedal for both sustain and staccato effects.

American Steve Mackey’s Micro-concerto (1999) saw Edwardes take up small, hand-held instruments (such as claves, guiro, and whistle) along with the more conventional drums and vibes, for a five movement concert piece with small ensemble. The fourth movement, a warm-toned duo for Edwardes’ marimba and Rowan Prior’s cello, was especially enjoyable. The more vernacular-friendly style of both Mackey and Brophy made for a satisfying balance with the adventurous works in the first half.

Stroma’s next concert (Sunday, 1 September, 4pm, VUW Hunter Council Chamber) will feature (along with the Dorothy Ker, and former NZ resident Gao Ping), the versatile bass-baritone (and actor) Nicholas Isherwood. Last here in 2009, he performed then Stockhausen’s Havona (with electronics), and Sciarrino’s Quaderno di Strada (with Stroma). Both compositions had the uncompromising severity of late works: one was, the other not (thankfully, Signor Sciarrino is still with us). On 1 September, in “Goddess and Storyteller”, Isherwood will be performing in two dramatic vocal works by Iannis Xenakis.

Magnificent Nordic programme from NZSO, Vänskä and Currie

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä with Colin Currie (percussion soloist)

Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (Pärt)
Percussion Concerto ‘Sieidi’ (Kalevi Aho)
Symphony No 5, Op 50 (Nielsen)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 5 July, 6.30pm

Osmo Vänskä’s name first came to my notice as conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in a series of Sibelius symphonies that returned to the composer’s original versions. Even though the consensus was generally that Sibelius’s further thoughts were best, there were interesting revelations; in any case, the performances were acknowledged as powerful and highly motivated.

Though in his conversation with Eva Radich on Radio New Zealand Concert’s Upbeat, Vänskä hinted at the way he has been rather confined to the Nordic repertoire, it was no bad thing for us to experience this splendid programme; just a shame that Wellington audiences seem to be overlooking the meaning of the increasingly empty boast of being the Cultural Capital: there were far too many empty seats.

Wellington heard the first of the four performances of this wonderful concert (the orchestra goes on to Christchurch, Hamilton and Auckland), and it proved to be a landmark, both for the astonishing percussion concerto by Kalevi Aho and the electrifying performance of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. Many of us consider Nielsen to be a symphonist in almost the same class as Sibelius, and this Finnish conductor clearly believed in the music’s stature and importance.

While Nielsen avoided referring to a ‘programme’ behind this symphony, it is generally felt that the horrors of the First World War – it was written between 1920 and 1922 – are the unspoken sub-text. Robert Layton, for example, remarks of the end of the first movement that the conflict eventually subsides leaving “a desolate clarinet mourning the terrible cost of the triumph [surely a most unfortunate word to apply to any aspect of the war, especially the Versailles treaty, pregnant with the seeds of another war]”; and an “evocation of the terrible conflict from which Europe had just emerged”.

Violence is audible in many parts, particularly in the role of the insistent automatic-weapon-like rattle of the snare drum in the first movement.

Though it is cast in two movements, each divided into several sections, a strong unity of musical subject matter binds the whole so that the audience is gripped for its entire 35 minutes or so. The symphony emerges as a very distinctive and memorable work in almost any hands, but there was a powerful, arresting atmosphere here, from the very start, with the music seeming to emerge from nowhere as violas rock across a minor third; it announced Vänskä’s intimate understanding and command.

Familiarity with the work creates a tense feeling of anticipation, awaiting the entry of the terrifying snare drum, played by Lenny Sakofsky.  Even though the drum was placed in the middle of the orchestra (where I couldn’t see it) rather than in a soloist’s position at the front, its arrival and its growing, almost overwhelming, force came as something of a shock which mere familiarity with recorded versions cannot quite prepare you for. That staccato attack is not confined to the drum however, and the driving staccato characterizes all other sections of the orchestra.

And it’s not till the last few pages that a sunny rising motif arrives to lead to the beautiful, perhaps more characteristic sound of the lyrical Nielsen with which the second part, Adagio non troppo, begins. If the tempo marking might suggest less of the drama and dynamism of the first movement, that was not the way it happened; though the conflict of the first movement was resolved, there was no loss of momentum or intensity and it proved an entirely convincing sequel.

We’d been prepared for the character of Vänskä’s performance by the two works in the first half: scrupulous, detailed attention to dynamics and to the balance between individual instruments and orchestral sections, but above all, enormous energy and rhythmic impulse.

The concert opened with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. It’s a piece that I have long promoted to family and friends who might need persuading of the existence of classical music that is irresistible: simple, spiritual and profoundly moving.  However, while I am usually most reluctant to parade comparative remarks about performances, I was unable to ignore the sounds of the recording by the Bergen Philharmonic under Neemi Järvi that is engraved in my head. This playing rather lacked the same clarity and deep spirituality. But its place as a prelude to the massive works to follow was intelligent and should awaken those hearing it for the first time to music other than Fratres and Spiegel im Spiegel by this singular Estonian composer.

The percussion concerto, Sieidi, by Kalevi Aho was jointly commissioned by the London Philharmonic and Gothenburg Symphony orchestras and the Luostoclassic Festival which, the programme notes did not tell you, is in Finnish Lapland (An amazing place; look at:‎).

It might be tempting to denigrate Kalevi Aho’s work as largely a virtuosic showcase for Currie, and to wonder about its musical substance; would it prove to be slight if the huge score were to be reduced to a solo piano version? But that is the equivalent of analyzing the artistic value of a painting by turning it into naked black and white.

While there were moments early on when such thoughts cropped up, admiration and persuasion soon supervened. As well as being mesmerized by Currie’s astonishing prowess, the orchestral episodes that offered the equivalent of the Promenade in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, allowing Currie to move comfortably from one instrument or set to the next, were opportunities for lyrical, reflective and often simply beautiful music. Even as the soloist was in full flight, the orchestral composer was very conspicuous, in complementary developments that were exquisitely attuned to the character of the particular solo percussion passages.

The music evolved, metamorphosed, maintaining the listener’s attention through its varying moods and along its diverting paths. There is of course, no problem with the concerto’s form, formal anarchy has reigned in all styles of music for at least a century. It’s not divided into the traditional three or four movements, and the musical ideas are not handled in traditional ways: sonata form, rondo, or the theme and variations form, though that could be a way of considering it, where motifs are treated successively by each of the percussion instruments or groups of instruments, as well as the orchestra itself.

There were novelties among Currie’s battery of instruments: African hand-drums, and a five-octave marimba, which I had not seen before, and vibraphone. Three other orchestral percussionists participate, their positions prescribed by the composer – in the middle of the orchestra and on either side. The orchestral percussion makes its impact from the very start, as the hand-hit djembe is accompanied by quite stunning timpani and bass drum.

The deliberate visual effect is intended to reflect the shape of the music as attention on soloist Colin Currie moves from right to left and, after reaching the giant tam-tam on the left, begins a return in the other direction with the music generally exploring sounds that sounded distinct from those heard on the up-journey.

It is an extended work and makes huge demands of the entire orchestra, particularly the percussionists. I would be surprised if this performance could be heard as inferior to the premiere performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vänskä. In fact, his agreeing to come to conduct the NZSO in the piece speaks volumes about the orchestra’s international reputation. Obviously, Vänskä would have agreed to conduct this massive programme only in the confident knowledge of the NZSO’s capacities.

While it might be tempting to offer a reserved view about its musical value, I did not share some opinions that it was a bit too long; in spite of the burden of being heard as a virtuosic exercise, there is real music here, of colour, spectacle, huge variety and sustained power; and I was in no hurry for it to end. All of this could hardly have been more vividly, brilliantly brought to life than from the hands of Currie, Vänskä and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.


Percussionist Currie dazzles in brilliant NZSO concert

Appalachian Spring Suite (Copland), Percussion Concerto (Jennifer Higdon), I paesaggi dell’anima (Lyell Cresswell), Symphony No 6 ‘Pastoral’ (Beethoven)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley with Colin Currie (percussion)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 3 September, 6.30pm

Are Wellington audiences losing their taste for adventure? What was it that led to so many empty seats at Friday’s concert, which turned out to be one of the (if not THE) most exciting concerts of the year so far. I too had wondered about the programme, but that would certainly not have stopped me going. My main thoughts were, how would the Copland ballet score (well, most of it) stand up in the concert hall, and would I find that I had heard the Pastoral Symphony once too often?

I was at a slight disadvantage, not having heard the 2008 concert that Alexander Shelley had conducted in Wellington, and was thus not as certain about the sort of performance he would deliver.

In 2008 Shelley conducted one of the orchestra’s regional tours, and a special Wellington concert with cellist Maria Kliegel that included performances of Messiaen’s Les Offrandes Oubliées and both the suites from Daphnis et Chloé. He had made an impression then. Two years later his achievements are highly impressive, and his presence on the podium spoke of confidence but also of a concern to communicate, not to mention the energy, delicacy and vividness of the orchestra’s response to his leadership that made an immediate impact.

Appalachian Spring is enchanting ballet music, probably most people’s favourite Copland piece. But I was not expecting to be so enchanted by its exquisiteness as a concert piece (the Suite contains 80 percent of the music). That was brought about to a large extent by the performance, starting with by series of gorgeous, lyrical solos; first by clarinet, then flute, followed by shimmering cellos, evoking the day’s dawning. And a little later there were more beautiful solos from oboe, bassoon and horn, not to overlook the brilliant little xylophone episodes.

The entire orchestra was vitalized to play with a special sense of delight. It was at only classical strength for most of the programme, with double winds and string strength at 12, 10, 8, 6, 5; fewer than 60 players, but let’s confess: most orchestral music can be played wonderfully with that sized orchestra. Only the percussion concerto required a larger orchestra, with triple winds and tuba.

Copland’s music is not just endlessly varied; any competent composer can do that, but few can create the endless surprise and delight through beguiling melody, at every turn, even when one knows it all. The players found its magic with the help of a conductor whose movements, and physical grace inspired such vivid aural images, through its momentum and an awareness of its architecture.

I can’t remember my last live hearing of the Pastoral; but I should have been prepared to be surprised at the excitement and wonder that a really fine Beethoven performance can produce. The classical size of the orchestra was absolutely right; some might say it would have sounded even better in the Town Hall, but from my seat, this was pretty vivid, with particularly opulent cellos and basses, that have such an important role filling Beethoven’s aural spectrum.

Shelley is given to brisk tempos and there could be argument about the ‘ma non troppo’ of Beethoven’s first movement, but the momentum quickly came to feel perfectly right as a depiction of the ‘awakening of joyous feelings on arrival in the country’. The tempo was very consistent too: the human pulse was present more in the undulating dynamics and an imperceptible rubato.

Here again, solo woodwinds, particularly Philip Green’s clarinet, offered elegant yet earthy beauty in the Andante con moto, and the dance-like third movement was particularly enriched by cellos, bassoons and double basses giving it a roguish, peasant quality.

There is a repetitiousness in this music that exposes a lesser conductor. On Friday evening every one of the five or seven or nine repeats of a phrase sounded fresh; I never waited for a movement to finish, as I confess to feeling occasionally in the past.

The party piece was Jennifer Higdon’s percussion concerto.

I confess to not being especially attracted to percussion en masse, apart from the tuned instruments, and often feel that their over-use can too easily disguise the absence of real musical creativity. The same goes for any music that relies greatly on heavy, complex scoring and massive orchestral variety. The marimba, in fact, took a leading role in the huge battery of percussion spread from one side of the stage to the other, starting with four sticks in a scarcely audible tremolo.

Higdon, one of the United States leading young composers, knows how to woo her players; Colin Currie may have been the star, but unusually, the orchestral players of these instruments were accorded comparable tasks that taxed their skills to the extreme as well as permitting the real musical quality of many of the percussion instruments to emerge. There, at the back of the orchestra, unfortunately invisible to scores of people in the front rows of the stalls, were Leonard Sakofsky, Bruce McKinnon, Thomas Guldborg and timpanist Laurence Reese, echoing or playing along with Currie.  (The orchestral layout bosses need to pay more attention to this weakness of the MFC).

It was a worthy tribute to the strength of the orchestra’s percussion section. But in a piece of this kind, much of the entertainment value, and let’s not be pretentious about that, rests with the sight of the percussionists, both soloist and those at the back.

Though at first hearing I took some time to identify threads of music, the last ten minutes persuaded me that the music would survive and gain appeal with further hearings. Showpiece for sure, there was also a lot of real music in there, being magnificently played.

Lyell Cresswell’s 2008 piece for string orchestra, I paesaggi dell’anima (Landscapes of the Soul), after I had set aside thoughts about the pretentious title, proved a work of extreme fastidiousness as well as robust structure. I have not always warmed to Cresswell’s cerebral scores that can seem overburdened by intellectual concepts and elaborate musical textures, but Shelley’s success in drawing an extremely refined performance from the strings was the kind of advocacy that any composer would dream of.

It was indeed a complex piece, each string section often subdivided to obtain a richly luminous, if sometimes a rather too detailed and dense harmonic fabric, but the musical ideas were often lyrical, somewhat enigmatic, even droll, enlivened by Messiaen-like twitterings, tremolos, staccato passages, all of which coalesced to create an impression that was ultimately both satisfying and intriguing.

So four very different pieces, two of them very new and one 70 years old, all flourished in most persuasive and distinguished performances.  Those ill-advised enough to have stayed away missed a great concert.