Aotearoa Plus

Aotearoa Plus

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Friday 6 May 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Stephen De Pledge, piano

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Time Tracks, Suite from the opera The Inventor – Bramwell Tovey (b. 1953)
– World Premiere
Piano Concerto No.2 Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958)
Symphony – Voices – Christopher Blake (b. 1949)
– World Premiere

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For me, this concert was a visceral experience. Despite the programme notes the three contemporary works – two world premieres and a concerto just four years old – were challenging aurally and perceptively. I’m sure that re-listening to pieces would be more rewarding intellectually – the genre shifts, complex rhythms and harmonies, fragmented melodies, the surprising timbral and dynamic juxtapositions were a little overwhelming  – nonetheless it was an spectacular concert. Again, the NZSO excelled themselves as a cohesive consummate ensemble.

Bramwell Tovey – the conductor for the evening and the composer for the first work – addressed the audience. He is clearly a comfortable communicator, setting the scene for the first works with a joke or two, but articulate and succinct in his descriptions.

Tovey’s  Time Tracks, a suite from his 2011 opera The Inventor, had four percussionists and their instruments in the back row of the orchestra. They were fully employed: marimba, tubular bells, whip, xylophone, wood blocks, congas, tam tam, bass drum, side drum, handbells [yes, really – three players and six of them] and, of course, the tympani. The conductor relinquished his role for a seat on a honky-tonk piano, a colour palette not usually found in the orchestra but appropriate. It was more de-tuned for my liking. A new section featured a brass jazz riff. The woodwind and strings followed suit but not so closely – deliberately, their ‘riff’ was more square. After a climatic passage from the whole ensemble a sustained, apocalyptic chord closed the piece.

The concerto form has evolved over the years. Usually the soloist and the orchestral sections balance each other in a kind of musical dialogue. In Lindberg’s case, his Piano Concerto No.2 is more organic – it grows out of itself. The piano part, and all of the orchestral sections, and the players themselves are integrated into a massive multi-voiced instrument – a hive! Fragments of motives and themes were scattered over the orchestra and the piano – with rumbling and thundering from the piano’s bass notes echoing with the cellos and double basses; from flutes morsel to trumpets portion to violins answer. There were no breaks in the three-movement work. Stephen De Pledge was a maestro. He unified the texture seamlessly, encountering the cascade of notes and chords with full-bodied, concentrated attention. The second movement was the first time we heard the piano on its own.  Broad, expansive chords lead to the third movement where horns and muted brass had rapid fanfares. The strings had – almost – a romantic mood accompanying a charming bassoon solo, but the piano bursts forth with a cadenza. The cascade became a torrent. Stephen covered the keyboard with extraordinary skill – I swear that, like the Hindu-god Kali, he used more than two arms and hands. The orchestra swelled to a final, and surprising, cadence.

Christopher Blake’s Voices is a five movement work based on his response to TS Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Each movement corresponds to a section in  the poem: The Hyacinth Girl; Albert and Lil; Tiresia; Phlebas; The Third Who Walks Beside You.

The Hyacinth Girl  began with a pedal note from the french horns. Each player played the same note so the tone was consistent and uninterrupted while the rest of the orchestra crept in. A descending fanfare from the brass choir lead to shrill piccolo and flutes. A sustained crescendo from the whole ensemble led to a climactic fortissimo chord but a tubular bell chimed the hour.

Albert and Lil was a blues. The timbral texture was coloured in by an alto saxophone, introduced by a plucked double bass riff. The movement had a swagger – it was ‘swung’ in the jazz sense of the word with triplets replacing common time. But it was deliberately adrift – the rhythms were not synchronised, a drunken, inebriated melody. The woodblock continued with its own, precise tempo – the ticking of the clock.

The third movement, Tiresia, got down to business. Plucked strings with rapid, staccato, complex rhythms were copied by the brass double and triple tonguing, and the percussion with tom toms, congas and timpani. It led to a frantic motion across the whole orchestra. The bassoons had a significant solo with violas accompanying, and the violins employing harmonics. A chorale from the brass section led to sustained staccato (an oxymoron!) chords in the whole orchestra with the percussion accentuating the insistent rhythm with timbales, tom toms, bass drums and timpani – a crashing cadence.

After the third movement, Phlebas was soothing, but mournful. Bell-like tones were intermingled successionally: tubular bells, vibraphone, gongs, harp, strings – sul tasto and tremolo. It resembled a ragged fugue. The woodwind and brass were added, then reduced again with the close of the movement mirroring the beginning.

Ominous, crashing chords introduces the fifth movement: The Third Who Walks Beside You. Then the whole string section was in a frenzy – it was like every instrument was playing a cadenza in unison. Then, abruptly it stopped. The first desk of violins one and two continued to play furiously while the rest of their sections plucked. The texture was quite remarkable. A romantic section ensued with a charming oboe solo, but again the orchestra embarked on a sustained crescendo featuring the trumpets and trombones. Unexpectedly the climax was not followed by a crashing chord, but a joyous, innocent, child-like theme. The melodies were fragmented, diffusing over the ensemble, with strong statements by each instrument towards a final, final cadence.

The standing ovation was justified – for the composer, the conductor and the orchestra.

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Usually, in May Music Month we have a New Zealand programme. I’m not faulting the programme – and we have had NZ works on the programme (already Lilburn, Harris, Blake and Farr next week)  – but three very, very contemporary pieces was a bit intense. Previously, the New Zealand programmes have a ‘spread of time’ – something from the 1930 or 1940s (Hill, early Lilburn or Fuchs), something from 1970-1990, something that is more accessible, and a premiere. This programme was dense, sinewy, extreme – intense.  But remarkable.

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