Land of Hope and Glory
British Festival 1
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Friday 30 June 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Hamish McKeich, conductor
Helen Medlyn, presenter and mezzo-soprano
Brendon Eade, bagpiper
Vesa-Matti Leppänen, violin
Cockaigne (In London Town), Op 40 – Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Three Pieces for Orchestra: II. Irish Landscape – Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016)
Overture: Aotearoa – Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001)
The Lark Ascending – Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Folk Song Medley – Traditional: arranged by Hazell
Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1 – Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
The short story (tldr):
A potpourri of classical music – almost like a ‘Proms’ without the flags. Helen Medlyn did a sterling job – a gracious hostess, bright, breezy and animated. The orchestra was on form with sparkling renditions of the two Elgar’s work and an amusing Orkney Wedding by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. NZSO Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen was impeccable in The Lark Ascending, but for me the highlight of the concert was Lilburn’s Overture: Aotearoa – fresh, vibrant and compelling.
The long story:
A potpourri of music in this concert – almost like a ‘Proms’ without the flags. Mostly the music had the flavour of the British Isles: despite the name and the subject matter, Lilburn’s Overture: Aotearoa was composed in England. In fact, the only ‘foreign’ (non-British Isles) piece was Pokarekare Ana!
It was the eve of the rugby test between the All Blacks and the British Lions, and Helen Medlyn did a sterling job of entertaining the ‘troops’, greeting Lions fans and those with British heritage. Rather than a ‘presenter’, she was a gracious hostess – bright, breezy and animated. And in her manner, her ‘sub-text’, was fitting: enough Māori to establish her origins; just enough humorous repartee; dressed in an evening dress of scarlet in the first half and a stunning gown of silver in the second half introducing the NZ (Lilburn) piece. The NZSO Programming ‘sub-text’ was equally well done. In the first half we had England, Irish and Scotland subjects with three different styles: post-romantic, British impressionism and colloquially (an amusing) modern. The Welsh part of the ‘Lions’ programme was relegated to the hymn Ar Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) in the folk-song medley.
Elgar’s Cockaigne evoked a remarkable account of London in 1900 and its myriad moods. It started with a hearty, jocular and rambunctious melody from the whole orchestra. In a literary sense, it was more like Toby Belch not Othello! A lyrical theme from the strings followed and half-way through the brass were quite magnificent. It set up a sparkling and spectacular coda. I wonder what Elgar would think about London these days. In Cockaigne (In London Town), London is more metropolitan and very ‘English’. In 2000 this city is more cosmopolitan.
The second movement of Three Pieces for Orchestra by Arnold Bax, Irish Landscape, was a lovely example of British impressionism. It was for string orchestra and the viola section had a lovely and significant solo melody underpinned by the cellos and double basses. I felt that some of the rhythmic changes were quite indecisive and messy. Hamish McKeich didn’t use a baton and, like the Adagio for Strings in the last concert, his gestures were not interpreted by everyone equally.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Orkney Wedding was a humorous piece: Scotch snaps – the rhythmic device of having a short note, almost like a grace note, followed by a much longer note up or down in pitch – were in abundance. The audience responded to piece well and the orchestra had much fun, particularly when the programme suggested that the ‘guests’ (the four string leaders) had too ‘much whisky’. Julia Joyce, lead violist (and the ‘face’ of this concert poster), often has a smile on her face when she performs, but this time she grinned much more than usual when she played her inebriated glissandos. The first violins cemented the high-jinx with a shared bottle – presumably not scotch? At the end of the piece, the sunrise was marked by a solo bagpiper. Usually a bagpiper signals the ‘death’ of classical instruments – one time, my string quartet was obliterated by a bagpiper at a wedding processional – but Davies’ made the bagpiper part of the orchestra. The strings provided the drones, and the woodwind gradually supported and then subsumed the bagpiper’s motifs. It was amusing and masterly done.
The second half began with Lilburn’s Overture: Aotearoa. I have heard it many times and every time I hear it, it remains fresh, vibrant and compelling. The NZSO gave a masterful performance – as they should – and, given my pedigree, it was the highlight of the concert.
For most classical music aficionados The Lark Ascending by Vaughn Williams is a favourite. The composition has been a consistent favourite in Radio New Zealand Concert‘s annual New Year’s Day countdown programme, Settling the Score – it has ranked number one every year from 2007 to 2012 and 2016 and placed highly in other years. This concert it was impeccably performed by NZSO Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen. Supporting his soaring trills, the strings provided a most accomplished accompaniment. When the woodwind entered they were a touch too loud for my liking, but it was a fine performance.
The folk-song song medley was composed/arranged by ‘Hazell’. Unfortunately the poster, the programme notes and the presenter didn’t enlighten us about the identity this person. Given he/she arranged Pokarekare Ana I imagine that he/she was a New Zealander?
The first tune was Danny Boy, and I thought it was over-orchestrated and a touch too fast, but the rest of the arrangements were superb. I particularly like the ‘ghostly’ verse in Molly Malone and the wind effects in My Bonnie. Scarborough Fair was a delight with every phrase going from triple time for the sung words to duple time for the connecting orchestra chords.
The Elgar Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 is an axiomatic ‘Prom’ feature. I suspect that many of the audience would prefer to have flags to wave around in the appropriate moments but we had to make do with a Lions flag, unfurled by the first horn British Isles émigré Samuel Jacobs. If you like the proms, I guess it was a ‘given’, but it didn’t tickle my fancy.
I know this was the first of three concerts in a British Festival and it coincided with the weekend’s British Lions Rugby Test against the All Blacks, but given we had Overture: Aotearoa and Pokarekare Ana surely we could have another New Zealand piece? After all, New Zealand (despite is Netherlander name) is a consequence of British colonialism? This piece could be a wero – a challenge? A classical haka! Maybe a section of Gareth Farr’s Ruaumoko, or Concerto Percussion and Orchestra ? For the visitors, an education. For the locals, something to be proud of.