Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Thursday 2 June 2016, Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral, Wellington
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Kenneth Young, conductor
Rafaella Garlick-Grice, piano
Overture to La forza del destino – Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901);
Piano Concerto No. 2 Op.56 in c minor – Franz Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924)
The Banks of Green Willows – George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Symphony No. 8 in b minor (‘Unfinished’), D.759 – Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Once again, the NZSM Orchestra committed with a very interesting and wide ranging programme. Conductor Kenneth Young mentioned that the title for the programme was variations of the theme of ‘unfinished business’: by death, obscurity, warfare, or ennui. American baritone Leonard Warren died when performing Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Met Opera in 1960 – unfinished business indeed; Scharwenka’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is a mostly unknown piece from the concerto repertoire; George Butterworth’s compositional career was cut short by a sniper bullet at the Somme in World War I; and Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony has only two movements – most unusual in the Classical/early Romantic period. It certainly made for a eclectic performance.
The first and last piece on the programme were ‘unfinished’ in another musical sense. They have incomplete phrases or themes – some of them are truncated and other of them evaporate. The Verdi, for example, has a potpourri of themes tumbling over each other. They are all from the opera – a precursor of the musical theatre idea of ‘overture’. The Schubert, on the other hand, has phrases that promise much, but they dissipate, disappear – like a person with aphasia or dementia telling a story that peters out …
The piano concerto was a major surprise. I am sure that no-one in the audience and the orchestra had heard of this Prussian-born composer before – the piano soloist excepted! According to the programme notes supplied, Scharwenka was a virtuoso concert pianist and certainly the piece demanded extraordinary facility and flexibility from the soloist. Rafaella was equal to the task, but unfortunately the piano was not. Her ascending scales were muted and the acoustic in the church reduced Rafaella’s astounding cascade of notes in the first movement indistinguishable from the orchestra accompaniment. The second Adagio movement was much more successful. The strings shone with slow moving, heartfelt chords and Rafaella matched them with a melody of astonishing beauty. The third Rondo movement was saved by staccato chords, appoggiaturas, trills and dance rhythms. Certainly Rafaella was a fiery, committed, intense and passionate pianist – I would like to hear her with a Steinway ‘D’ and a concert hall next time.
The Butterworth was a delight. It began with a simple, optimistic melody – a bucolic English rural setting like a Constable painting. It changed midway through and it ended with a pensive, melancholy air. The strings were superb throughout, especially the beautiful playing the second half concert leader, Claudia Tarrant-Matthews.
The NZSM Orchestra was excellent, as always, with enthusiasm and energy to spare but there were some lapses – only a few – with tuning, phrasing or balance. The strings and harps were excellent but the cellos were a bit underpowered – only five or six instruments. I missed them especially with the famous theme in the Schubert. The woodwind were variable – sometimes their intonation and phrasing were excellent, sometimes they let them down – but the percussion and brass were outstanding. The concert programme demanded only timpani, but Sam Rich struck, rolled and thwacked with a great deal of aplomb and finesse. The Brass section was magnificent in the Verdi and the Schubert – forceful but subtle, powerful but sophisticated [not an oxymoron.]