Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
LILBURN AND VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
LILBURN – A Song of Islands / Symphony No.1 (1949)
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Concerto for Tuba in F Minor / Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1
Naomi Christensen (tuba)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra
St Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 20th September, 2015
A significant, important and moving concert. Significant? – with two works by Douglas Lilburn included, the orchestra splendidly commemorated the composer’s 100th birthday year. Important? – the concert included in the programme Lilburn’s First Symphony, one that ought to be in our main-centre orchestras’ regular concert repertoire, but is hardly ever played – see “Stop Press” below, however. Moving? – the concert was dedicated by the orchestra to the memory of one of its members who had recently died, the well-known luthier and ‘cellist, Ian Lyons.
Besides the actual concert, two of Ian Lyons’ close friends, Chris and Anna Van Der Zee, together with the NZSO’s Alan Molina and former principal ‘cellist of the same orchestra, David Chickering, played, at the beginning of the second half, the slow movement from Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major Op.20 No.4. – a beautiful and appropriate gesture.
Conducting the orchestra for the concert proper was Ian Ridgewell, English-born with a background in tuba-playing, composition (he studied with with Sir Malcolm Arnold) and conducting, both of brass bands and symphony orchestras, currently living and working in the Wellington region as a teacher of music. And, to add to the concert’s interest, one of the items was none other than a Tuba Concerto by Vaughan Williams, played by Naomi Christensen, who was awarded “Brass Player of the Year” for 2014 at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music here in Wellington. We were told, in a brief biographical note in the program, that her “journey with the Tuba” began at aged ten, “from atop a pile of ‘phone books (allowing her to reach the mouthpiece)” – presumably not just the telephone’s, judging by the skill and ease with which she handled her instrument.
For the orchestra it seemed no easy task to tackle not merely one, but TWO challenging pieces by Lilburn. Though the Symphony is the later work, it seemed to me that the “Song” was in some ways just as difficult a nut to crack, both technically (it contained some extremely difficult string-writing) and interpretatively (needing a strong and secure “overview”, without which the music would have simply wandered and become shapeless and confused). To both the players’ and the conductor’s credit these things were well-attended to, the playing focused and detailed, the overall view purposeful and clearly laid out as the piece progressed.
The music opened strongly and emphatically, given enough space to allow the rolling phrases plenty of room and the brass plenty of time to expand. I enjoyed the prominence given to the finely-crafted appearances of those warm, golden harmonies which seemed to impart a glow over the vast oceanic spaces and the ruggedness of the terrain. Importantly the conductor maintained tight rhythmic control, designed to keep the music’s underlying pulses alive, while capturing detailings like the oceanic swells and the contours of the freshly-discovered landscapes.
Throughout the strings and winds had a somewhat volatile interaction, each having a turn at being either thematic or rhythmic – in some places the debt by Lilburn to Sibelius was palpably demonstrated, but invariably with a South Seas accent. These exchanges were punctuated by moments of great splendour on the brasses, sounding the composer’s “song” while the rest of the orchestral textures kaleidoscopically energized and interacted with great volatility. The ecstasy of fulfillment at the end as strings and then brass “humanized” the orchestral textures brought out some great playing from all concerned.
Something completely different was the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto, a work which has provoked divided responses among listeners and critics ever since its composition in 1954, but which has steadily increased its following and popularity, having since been recorded over a dozen times. It’s a fine, jovial work, rumbustious in the outer movements and surprisingly expressive in the central Romanza movement. What a performance here from this young musician! With on-the-spot support from conductor and orchestra, Naomi Christensen and her alter ego of an instrument brought out all of the music’s character, to begin with bluff good humour, and then plenty of swagger and wry rhythmic agility both in the second subject section, and throughout the jaw-dropping cadenza.
That legendary tuba-playing raconteur Gerard Hoffnung would have , I’m sure, enjoyed her playing immensely, both here, and in the nostalgia-tinted central movement, where the soloist “partnered” the string melodies at the outset, later adding occasional piquant touches, rather like what an observer would do while walking through the midst of a glorious landscape. As for the last movement, the solo instrument was hardly silent, leading the bucolic romp with great élan, the orchestra allowed only a tiny moment of self-contained glory just before the final cadenza – again, masterly playing from the soloist, wryly-expressed rhetorical gestures with wonderful trills, and a cataclysmic “all fall down” finish. Glorious and memorable!
And what a lovely contrast the same composer’s Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 made in the concerto’s wake – At first the single lines of the opening (oboe and strings) sounded a little raw, but with the clarinet’s entry and the string harmonies warming the textures, the sound sweetened and began to glow – the principal viola, Stephanie van Dyk, deservedly singled out afterwards for a beautiful bit of solo playing, with the clarinet closely in support. I thought the ambient vistas were captured most effectively by the winds, both solos and concerted work with the strings, the oboe especially coming into its own here and delivering some lovely lines. An almost Delian sweep was achieved, the tutti delivering the rhapsodic aspect of the music splendidly and richly.
The maritime-like tunes which launched the allegro section came together after a slightly ragged start, establishing a characteristic gait and building, with brass and percussion, to a stirring climax, before the sounds began taking their leave of us, gradually returning to the solitary ambiences of the opening, winds giving us a valedictory version of the opening melody and the brasses softly chiming in with a slower haunting reminiscence of the central dance. At the end the oboe and strings, now thoroughly acclimatised, gently and sensitively sounded those opening strains as if it had all been a dream.
After the interval it was to the business of the Lilburn Symphony that we all turned. It began most promisingly, a bright, breezy trumpet call activated the echoes and ambiences, allowing a lovely Copland-esque feeling (I had, I confess, the previous evening, heard the NZSO play the Four Rodeo Dance Episodes!), with the dancing rhythms kept steadily on the rails. There’s such great brass writing in this work and the players here did so well, even if the St.Andrew’s ambience made them sound too uncomfortably close in places. The movement abounded in tricky dovetailings which conductor Ian Ridgewell and his players brought off so well, some sticky moments apart. The brass and winds were mostly right “on”, the wind lines in particular very tangy and earthy, while the strings strove mightily, recreating those characteristic tightly-knit tensions that make up the Lilburn sound.
So I was disappointed that, after maintaining such strong and secure trajectories for his players throughout and up to this point, the conductor then, I thought, pushed the slow movement along too quickly – the players seemed unable to settle, to properly hook into that obsessive rhythmic pattern, with the slight lack of synchronization producing a somewhat raucous result in places. Fortunately, once the brass were given their heads the rhythm seemed to steady – the horns were particularly steadfast, here, and things seemed to come together – how bleak at its centre some of this music is! And why don’t our orchestras play it more often?
The finale excitingly and abruptly unfurled, like a vast curtain being thrown suddenly open! – dark, almost Tapiola-like statements from the strings created a brooding, expectant atmosphere, the winds and brass soundinging particular “northern”, with moments of sunlight breaking through the clouds and just as quickly disappearing. When the rhythmic explosion suddenly drove detail into a frenzy, with warning shouts from the wind and brass, I was afraid that, again, the tempi would be too quick for these players – and indeed, some of the articulation was a blur at this speed – but mixed with the scrambling aspect was a certain edge-of-seat excitement, which saw the music through. Everything was excitingly capped by the brass and timpani, even if I felt the strings in particular were put under a lot of pressure in places.
The music’s sudden plunge back into the void of the movement’s opening was splendidly done – strings were angsting and winds were skirling in fine style – and those great building-blocks of sound which grew out of the built-up energies were here most satisfyingly sounded by the brass and timpani, a mighty and well-deserved sense of arrival, one which we in the audience truly relished. So, in all, warmest congratulations to conductor Ian Ridgewelll and his band of sterling musicians!
STOP PRESS: I’ve beaten my breast a couple of times in this review as to the relative neglect of this music over the years, but am equally excited to report that the Te Tōkī NZSM Orchestra’s planned Lilburn concert on Thursday October 1st at the Basilica in Hill Street, ALSO features this same First Symphony (as well, incidentally, as – you’ve guessed it! – Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody No.1!) So, as a change from famine conditions, it’s good to be able to enjoy, in the case of this remarkable symphony, a feast!