NZSO: Pathétique

Taylor, Dvořák & Tchaikovsky

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 20 May 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Darrel Ang, conductor
Narek Hakhnazryan, cello


Embiosis – David Grahame Taylor (b. 1990)
Cello Concerto in b minor  – Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 6 in b minor, Pathétique – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)


The short story (tldr):
A top notch composition by a young composer, David Grahame Taylor, was my highlight. It was too brief, but I entered into his soundworld completely.  An audible soap bubble!

The rest of the programme, two war-horses of the Dvořák Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky 6th, were not enterprising, not even adventurous – but the audience, apparently, enjoyed it. The leadership from the conductor was suspect and, maybe my position was not good, but I couldn’t hear the soloist clearly.

But the orchestra, uncomfortably, acquitted themselves were glory – the horn, clarinet, oboe, flute, bassoon, tympani, the brass choir, and the strings were superb – again!


The long story:

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has a 2017 marketing campaign personalising the essence of the organisation – the players: the posters, the pre-concert sound bite introducing one player, encouraging photos (between the pieces!), tweets, facebook posts, email… In this day of brassy and obvious political tweets it could be degradation of their eminent position – but I think it is savvy and apt because the players, themselves, are sincere and want to communicate better to their audience. I applaud (not irony intended) that.

So, this pre-concert talk was not an academic address but rather a discussion of three players who were about to step on the stage: Brigid O’Meeghan (cello), Kirsten Eade (flute) and Vicky Crowell (bassoon).  The hall was full and interested to hear the players perspective:  the trouble with intonation with temperature or humidity with a variety of instruments – one section will be flat the other section sharp;  the problem of particular notes ‘speaking’; the problem with soft playing and the end of phrases; the problem of concertos with wind and brass instruments so far back and the soloist projecting his music for the audience; and the role of the conductor. It was fascinating, illuminating and humanising.

David Grahame Taylor is a young New Zealand composer and this piece, Embiosis, won the NZSO Todd Corporation Young Composer Orchestra Choice Award in 2013. I couldn’t comprehend his ‘artists notes’ in the programme but, after the last NZSO concert and the John Adams piece, I was not perturbed – my ‘naïve’ response. The four leaders of the string section began the piece with slow glissando chords, joined by the double basses. The trombones quickly entered, again with glissando chords. The ensemble entered – long, layered chords, tremolos and flutter tonguing. I was reminded of John Psathas’ Luminous. As Vicky said (in the pre-concert talk) the piece was “mystical, almost sacred or religious”.

It was a top notch composition by a young composer – but it was TOO BRIEF! I was engaged in the sound world David created – and then it was gone. An audible soap bubble! I hope this composer will revise AND extend this piece – it should be two or three times longer. And I hope the NZSO will programme other significant pieces from him.  David’s music was ‘a world of crushed but resilient tonality’ said the best reviewer in the country, William Dart.

The rest of the programme was familiar to me – as a cello and orchestral player. And maybe that was a problem – I have listened to these pieces many times.  Maybe the conductor, Darrel Ang, wanted to make his mark, but his tempos were two or three notches too extreme – very slow or very fast – and the rubato, particularly in the Dvořák, was excessive. It was more like Puccini than Dvořák and it didn’t suit. A lot of the time the end of the phrases were quite truncated – they needed more nourishment. Darrel was a master of prestidigitation: his gestures were brusque and abrupt with fluttering, jerky or splayed fingers. He wrung every shred of emotion from these two works – and left them like a discarded wet tea towel on the floor.

And maybe it was the acoustic in the Michael Fowler Centre – I was in the gallery just below the violins – but I couldn’t hear the cello clearly in the Dvořák. As the pre-concert talk reminded me, surely it was the responsibility of the conductor? The strings were understated but the elements of the woodwind were quite prominent and I struggled to hear the soloist. Narek Hakhnazryan was clearly competent, even brilliant. His intonation, when I detected it, was perfect and his tone across his instrument was even. When he ascended the fingerboard with a chromatic scale of double stops – amazing. The second movement was the best. Narek captured the melancholic melodies perfectly and the orchestra responded with an accompaniment and solos that were ideal. But then the last movement was like the first – for me, unbalanced and uncontrolled. It was not right that I only heard Narek clearly when he played his Armenian Folk Tune as his encore – solo. 

Despite myself I have to love Tchaikovsky.

His melodies, harmonies and textures are so glorious that find myself wrapped (wrapt?) in his compositions. But, when I reflect on it, for me his music is too gushy or unconstrained. It like a triple-chocolate gateaux – you eat anyway and suffer the consequences afterwards. I think Tchaikovsky is the chick-flic of music.

As I said, despite myself I loved the performance, even with my reservations of the leadership. The bassoon solo and the violas and double basses had some magnificent moments in the opening – the cellos and the violins only entered three or four minutes later. The second subject were played superbly by the strings punctuated with horns and the woodwind. The clarinet and bass clarinet solos were extraordinary – pppp – and the strings violent interruption was thrilling. I have to mention the tympani solo from Laurence Reese: four or five minutes of continuous rolls with complete dynamic control. The second movement was a ‘wonky waltz’ – description courtesy from Vicky Cowell from the pre-concert talk! – a unsettling 5/4 rhythm beautifully played. The third movement, Allegro molto vivace, was at a breakneck speed – frenetic,  scampering, almost scrabbling. By the coda it was under control and is was riveting – the last syncopated chords were spellbinding. The last movement, hurried on from the third, was magical. The descending harmonies from the strings, answered with the horns and woodwind, were full of anguish, torment. The two bassoons solos, the choir of trombone and tubas, the frenzied string section and the eventual decay to the end…
I was reminded of Shakespeare and MacBeth:

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying  …  nothing.

With this concert, the orchestra uncomfortably acquitted themselves were glory. The horn, clarinet, oboe, flute, bassoon, tympani, the brass choir, and the strings were superb – again! I am not sure about the programme – two war-horses of the Dvořák Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky 6th were not enterprising, not even adventurous – but the audience, apparently, enjoyed it. For me, give me a David Grahame Taylor work any day.


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