NZSO: Mozart & Beethoven

Adams, Mozart & Beethoven

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Friday 7 April 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Edo de Waart, conductor
Martin Fröst, clarinet

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Shaker Loops – John Adams (b. 1947)
Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K 622 – W A Mozart (1756–1791)
Symphony No. 6 in F Major (Pastorale), Op.68 – Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

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The short story:
A concert of virtuoso performances. The capacity audience rewarded the orchestra, soloists and conductor with rapturous applause and, in the case of the Mozart concerto, a standing ovation from many of the patrons.

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The long story:

Shaker Loops – John Adams (b. 1947)
Originally a piece for violin trio called Wavemaker, John Adams evolved the composition for a string quartet, and eventually to a septet of strings: Violin1, 2, 3, Viola, Cello1, Cello2 and Double bass. Rather than a chamber music version, this arrangement for string orchestra almost quadrupled the septet: 4xVln1, 4xVln2, 4xVln3, 4xVla, 3xCello1, 3xCello2 and 4xDb.

Shaker Loops is a descriptive and punning title. ‘Shake’ in string musical terms can be in both hands – the right hand with tremolo bow strokes, and the left hand with trills. But the ‘Shaker’ can refer to the Puritan Quaker [the Religious Society of Friends] shaking in their prayer rituals. The ‘loops’ is a term belonging to electronic music where a tape loop is played over and over again and blended into the musical soundscape.

Shaker Loops is minimalist in style, with many iterations of repeated fragments with only subtle changes of melody, rhythm and harmony.  The work is in four movements but, with a brief hiatus, the movements ran into each other. It didn’t follow the Classical and Romantic model of the movement structure: no fast, slow, fast movements, or contrasting moods or keys for each section. Rather, the four movements were almost like variations of each other – another way of relating the same story from another point of view. It unified the piece.

In the first movement, Shaking and Trembling, there was a slow crescendo, adding notes and changing harmonies.  It was a shock when the double basses enter with a slightly ominous tone. I heard some example of hocketting – a medieval technique where the overlapping fragments from different section of the ensemble complete the overall melody. Hymning Slews employed glissando  lifting up or setting down the main harmony notes and in Loops and Verses the astonishing simplicity of the two cello solo lines built to a climax with the violins and violas catching up in a relentless fashion – accelerando. The final movement, A Final Shaking, was a return to the first movement but more abundant in its rhythmic, melodic and harmonic language.

It was mesmeric and enchanting – but Worksafe should be worried about OOS! [Not really – the players were professional and relaxed.]

 

 

Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K 622 – W A Mozart (1756–1791)
The clarinet soloist, Martin Fröst, was engaged in the totality of the music – the rhythms and the dynamic were expressed in his mannerism and face before he uttered [played] a note. It have mentioned before that Edo de Waart is economical in his actions and gestures. That was a very good thing in this instance, because the soloist was an antithesis. Thankfully Martin had no music or stand and a lot of space because he danced and gambolled overtly in an undisguised enthusiasm. In the first effervescent movement it was a tango, in the slow aria movement it was an adagio pas de deux; and in the third humorous movement it was a mazurka-like dance.

Some would think it was to distracting, but it didn’t take away from the absolute mastery of his superb playing. Martin’s dynamic range was remarkable, his breath control (including circular breathing) was stunning and his musicianship was exquisite. The orchestra accommodated the soloist marvellously –  expressive but always in a Classical style.

The audience was energetic in its applause and, at last, the soloist was persuaded to provide an encore. The Mozart was sublime, and thankfully Martin didn’t make the mistake of a related piece – in fact, he improvised a cadenza-like number which turns into a jazzy Klezmer song with string orchestra accompaniment. His dancing was like musical theatre – in fact, if his shoes has ‘taps’ he would be ‘Fred Astaire’ with a clarinet! Bends, glissandos, fluency, velocity, breath control ….  amazing! A large section of the audience gave him a standing ovation.

 

Symphony No. 6 in F Major (Pastorale), Op.68 – Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
The second half of the concert was devoted to Pastorale symphony from Ludwig van Beethoven, the master of melodic fragmentation.

I attended the pre-concert talk from Samantha Owens from NZSM Victoria University and she reiterated the quote that Frances Moore included in her programme notes: that Beethoven was concerned that the Symphony was not programmatic in its entirety. “The whole will be understood even without description, as it is more feeling than tone-painting,” Beethoven wrote. “Each act of tone-painting, as soon as it is pushed too far in instrumental music, loses its force.” Well, I suppose – but the rippling stream and the bird calls at the close of the second movement; and the whole fourth movement with its shattering rain, crashing thunder and lightning strikes was pretty programmatic to me!

Because the pre-concert talk, I was alerted to the technique of ‘looping’ – the tape loop in electronic music, or ‘looping’ of melodic or rhythmic phrases in minimalist music.
So, Beethoven was a minimalist – particularly in the first movement when he breaks the melody and rhythm into the small fragments and repeats over and over again.  Magnificent!

The fifth movement presaged the Ode of Joy from the 9th Symphony – a glorious Theme and Variations.

I feel that the orchestra and the conductor enjoyed this work immensely and the lead players – particularly from the woodwind section, horns and cellos – were superb, mostly. In a handful of cases some of the notes were a little sour, or sharp, or curtailed roughly. But that is the nature of the live-music, and I would not like any other way!

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