ORCHESTRA WELLINGTON presents “PHARAOH”
GEMMA PEACOCKE – Manta
(with Arohanui Strings)
ANTON WEBERN – Passacaglia Op.1
JOHN PSATHAS – Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra “Pharaoh”
(with Tomoni Nozaki – timpani)
BRIAR PRASTINI (vocalist) – White, Red, Black
WOLFGANG MOZART – Incidental Music to “Thamos , King of Egypt”
(with the Orpheus Choir of Wellington – Brent Stewart, Director)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday, 7th October, 2023
Programme-holding audience members at Orchestra Wellington’s Saturday evening concert “Pharaoh” at the Michael Fowler Centre might have been a little confused upon turning to the opening page of a publication to find the heading “Prophecy” at the top of the page containing the evening’s listed items – hang on! – wasn’t “Prophecy” the title of the previous concert? There was also some disagreement in print regarding John Psathas’s scheduled Timpani Concerto – was it called “Planet Damnation” as on that introductory page with the programme listing? Or was the work’s name actually “Pharaoh”, which stood at the top of the section in the booklet devoted to each individual item, and which gave “Planet Damnation” as the name of the concerto’s third movement?
These things were, of course, minor hiccups which distracted little from the concert’s overall impact, which was considerable, and, thanks to Music Director Marc Taddei’s extraordinary empathy with young musicians demonstrated a heart-warming variety of delights throughout the presentation’s opening segment of music-making. Wellington’s long-established youth programme for aspiring string players, Arohanui Strings, were there in force, from tiny tots to teens, and obviously bursting to play their part in the concert’s opening item, Kiwi composer Gemma Peacocke’s beautiful, multi-stranded instrumental response to the subaqueous world of manta rays who populate the waters of the Outer Hauraki Gulf Tikapa Moana, as characterised in a story by Wiremu Grace, called Whaitere, the Enchanted Stingray.
Peacocke’s piece seemed wrought from sounds at once pulsating with movement and endlessly regenerating, beginning with attention-grabbing soaring and descending lines, a seascape with something of the quality of Sibelius in “The Oceanides”. The supporting winds and brasses sounded repeated figures and long-held pedal notes, with the youthful string-players steadfastedly holding their own lines as the creatures of the deep in the music reaffirmed possession of their world. A solo violin characterised for a moment something of a single creature’s adventure and undertaking, as the oceanic frisson with which the piece began rose and fell impressively once more before the waters resumed their preordained rituals of ceaseless movement.
Marc Taddei then took the opportunity to allow the youngsters their moment of glory, encouraging them to join in with a simplified version of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. After starting them all off, the conductor stood motionless, leaving them to it, exclaiming to us “Don’t they all sound better when I stop conducting them?” to great amusement all round! Then it was the “Tiny Tots” turn to impress (with even more than their obvious cuteness!), coming on stage with their tiny instruments and playing a folk-tune, then playing it again much faster, to breathless effect! After a lullaby restored composure, Taddei proceeded to give all of us a hint regarding one of the pieces of music scheduled for the as yet unannounced 2024 programme for Orchestra Wellington, telling us the Arohanui Strings will play a tune that “will give the show away!: – which it certainly did! And with that the youthful players took their leave……
What then was wondrous was how such heartwarming vignettes of youthful musicians playing what might in some cases have been their first-ever concert notes then “morphed” into the spectacle of the full Orchestra Wellington on the platform with their conductor tackling a score which truly represented a kind of acme of orchestral execution and epoch-making-and-breaking composition – this was the 1908 Op. 1 Passacaglia of Anton Webern, the composer’s simultaneous tribute and farewell to Romanticism in music, his only composition to be performed in public that was written under the tutelage of his teacher at that time, Arnold Schoenberg.
The 20-plus variations of this work (a Passacaglia traditionally consists of a short theme in the bass which becomes a foundation for a set of variations on that theme) use a brilliantly-worked array of sounds, often lush in the manner of Mahler but at times hushed and sparse, with brilliantly inventive combinations of instruments – Webern organises his variations into an almost symphony-like plan of movements, with a central slow section and contrasting scherzo-like textures, all concluding with a ghostly epilogue. Listening to the players negotiating this tightly-worked scheme with what seemed like absolute confidence and conviction, I found myself simply taking off my mythical hat to both conductor and players – I knew the work reasonably well, but couldn’t remember hearing on record or seeing on film a more exciting and involving performance!
I must confess to finding John Psathas’s Timpani Concerto which followed a bit perplexing in contrast to what I’d just heard – and unfortunately my seat was in a place where my view of the timpanist was obscured by the conductor, so I missed some of the visual excitement of the soloist’s obviously virtuosic command of the instruments. As it wasn’t a work I’d heard before I figured earlier I might find a You-Tube performance with which to familiarise myself regarding the piece – and I found a clip which bore the title “Planet Damnation”, featuring a most exciting performance by Larry Reese, the NZSO timpanist. I didn’t know I was hearing and getting to know only the final movement at that stage, so the onset of the first movement nonplussed me for a while, as did what seemed like an over-insistence of the percussionist playing the woodblocks! The slow movement, when it came, was something of a blessed relief.
Though it was just as unfamiliar, I really enjoyed the slow movement, as it gave the timpanist, Tomoni Nozaki, a beautiful young Japanese woman, a chance to demonstrate the skill and variety of her touch and her ear for all kinds of sonority, instead of her being often drowned out by the rest of the orchestra (I found the woodblock part for one far too insistent!). Then came the movement I’d already heard, and I was able to better relate to the plethora of percussive irruption that the first movement had seemed to unfetter upon our sensibilities. I don’t think it’s a work I shall ever love, but the skills on display by the soloist were sufficiently interesting to make the piece work throughout those two latter movements.
We had a different running-order to that of the printed programme, so we got Briar Prastiti’s “White, Red, Black” after the interval. I liked this work a lot, admiring the composer’s orchestrations of her material, the wind-blown ambiences of the opening carrying my sensibilities along with the music’s trajectories, sharpening my interest more with bird-song-like figurations suggesting in places things coming into focus. What I found slightly disappointing was not being able to hear a single word of the vocalist’s line (despite a microphone being used) from where I was sitting (and my companion similarly reported that he could not hear the singer, and nor could somebody else I spoke to afterwards)….the accompaniment was invariably beautiful, but whenever the song’s intensities sharpened or grew in body, so did the accompaniments! For this reason, the most telling vocal moments for me were towards the end, when the voice became as an orchestral instrument, the wordless vocalising as haunting as any other of the sounds we were hearing.
Before the final item of the evening, Marc Taddei announced certain salient details of the Orchestra’s 2024 programme, certainly whetting our appetites with some of the detailings – it seems to be a kind of survey of masterpieces representing different eras of artistic creativity, beginning (if I remember correctly) with the Baroque era, and finishing with a contemporary work (I didn’t write all the “clues” down, but Taddei assured us that full details would be released at the Orchestra[‘s final programme for the year, “Red Moon”, on November 11th.
And so to the evening’s final item, which, though splendidly performed and presented, with resplendent singing from Brent Stewart’s Orpheus Choir, and, by turns, stirring and meltingly beautiful orchestral playing, either in support or leading the way, I thought it all essentially lacked the last modicum of focus and interest to be truly engaging. Perhaps if we had had the words, the extra focus would have enlivened the undoubtedly “Game of Thrones” like scenario for which Mozart produced this music. Or, perhaps we needed a narrator with a suitably theatrical “presence” to knit the scenario together more readily – In reality, everybody – choir and orchestra – did their best with the material, but for me it never really caught fire! I found myself wishing at times that the orchestra was instead giving us the G Minor Symphony K.183, which was what the music occasionally sounded a bit like. And, as I walked to my car after the concert, the thing I found myself wanting to do the most was to get home and play that sensational Webern work again! It was , for me, the evening’s indisputable highlight, and I remain grateful to Marc Taddei and his players for THAT most of all – a truly remarkable experience!