NZSO: Bold Worlds

Bold Worlds

British Festival 2

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 8 July 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Sir James MacMillan, conductor
Colin Currie, percussion


Polaris – Thomas Adès (b. 1971)
Percussion Concerto No. 2  – Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959)
Symphony No. 4 in f minor – Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)


The short story (tldr):
Certainly, the concert was a ‘Bold World’ with contemporary, percussive, impassioned music from three British composers. It stretched the limits in range, dynamics, timbre, dissonance, emotion… It was not ‘pretty’ but impressive. It was not ‘pleasant’ but artistically significant. The soloist, the conductor and the orchestra were servants of the music. Well done!


The long story:

The annual Bold World concert presents a contemporary concerto performed by the soloist for whom it was written. We had a bonus in this performance – the conductor was also the composer of the concerto.

If I described this concert as ‘sensational’, ‘apocalyptic’, ‘cacophonic’, I think you would not appreciate that I loved this performance and the pieces. Idiomatically it was ‘in your face’, and some things were ‘over the top’ – an air-raid siren! – but the compositional artistry was palpable. The orchestra, the soloist and the conductor served the music very well.

The pre-concert talk from Elizabeth Kerr was invaluable as were the programme notes mostly by Frances Moore. Elizabeth’s lecture was enlightening and her terminology was so apt I can help myself to borrow them for this review. Frances noted down some notes about Thomas Adès’s compositional techniques: he dispensed the tonal/atonal polarity in favour of  ‘magnetic forces within the notes’ – an attraction or repulsion. Without much study, I relate to the idea.

[A digression: remember the John Adams piece Naïve and Sentimental Music from the NZSO concert of 5 May? That a ‘naïve’ response for a work of art is inevitably destroyed by an ‘Artist’s Statement’ defining the influences or intentions behind the work. This concert is a case in point.  The description of pieces (from the talk and the programme notes) meant that I had an expectations and a framework to ‘hang’ the music on – I couldn’t listen as a pure ‘music experience’. Hmm.]


Polaris, composed by Thomas Adès, had a three-section structure. Each had a simple nomadic quaver theme from the piano, followed with two harps and plucked strings. The brass followed – static chords with semibreves. Each section built up significantly with the range, timbre and dynamics of the instruments contrasting: tuba, contrabassoon and double bass opposed to two piccolos and violin way up on the E-string – a glorious cacophony of tonal tensions.  After the third varied iteration the orchestral ensemble – weighty and dense with purpose – slowed down with repeated crashing chords. It was monumental – a completely different sound scape, otherworldy, elementary ethereal.


It was a pleasure to hear and see Sir James MacMillan conduct his own work with the dedicatee as soloist. The orchestra was shuffled back behind the vast array of percussion instruments: from the audience’s view, untuned on the left of the podium and tuned on the right. I noted that Colin Currie had scores for the untuned instruments but no score for the tuned percussion – I thought that could be the other way around! I guess, the marimba and the aluphone – both BIG instruments – precluded any glimpse of the music.


The concerto was also in three sections – fast, slow, fast – with no breaks between. From the first moment, the soloist led the orchestra with a dazzling rhythmic vivacity, often with contrasting metric patterns. For example, in the slow section, Colin utilised a mellow steel drum while a solo viola (I think, a visiting auditionee, Sam Burstin) barked gruff interruptions, two flutter-tonguing flutes as a descant and piano, harp, cello and double bass accompanying. They seemed to be inconsistent. This was not a denigration –rather, their conversations were at cross-purposes – not arguing, but a different language. As the movement went on, they seemed to be ‘on the same page’ – translated if you like – coherent.

I noted that many of the instruments were played in a percussive style: the piano of course, but the strings too – pizzicato, col legno (with the wood of the bow) or martele accents with vicious down bows. Apart from the tympanist, there were two percussionist in the orchestra: gongs, bass drum, cymbals, siren (!) and a thunder sheet suspended from the roof like a guillotine without a scaffold. The composer utilised the full tonal range of the orchestra – even a contabassoon solo (basso blurto as Victor Borge used to say.) The aluphone was an interesting instrument – not a pretty sound, like a cheap knock-off of a tubular bell. For the finale, a brass chorale accompanied the frantic percussion soloist with increasing in speed – scurrying strings and woodwind – a modernised Mussorgsky’s Gate Gate of Kiev in the Ravel transcription. Impressive!


Most of us know Vaughn Williams’s work as ‘English pastoral’ or ‘bucolic’ music. He was a collector of English folk-songs after all. But his 4th Symphony was manifestly unlike that.

Furious chords start the piece – no preamble. A relatively lyrical theme follows with the strings in octaves – woodwind and brass punctuating. Out of nowhere a trumpet fanfare arrives, reminiscent of a Tchaikovsky symphony. The last few phrases modulating to the major – not hopeful, not a resolution but resolved in despair. The second movement was the highlight for me – the double bass pizzicato riff accompanying the wandering melody from the violin 1; solo  oboe, clarinet, bassoon, flute; angry outbursts. It sounded like a funeral march. It subsided into a desolate, mournful aria – solo oboe, solo horn underpinned by cellos and double bass. The solo flute in its low register, wonderfully played by Bridget Douglas, ends the movement – al niente, nothingness.

The third movement Scherzo was characterised by uneven meters and syncopated rhythms, and scattered  and fragmented melodies. ‘Scherzo’ means ‘jokingly’ but it was not the least lighthearted – more sardonic, cynical, even ironic. [I wonder if Vaughn Williams had heard of any Shostakovich compositions?] I confess that I didn’t hear the fourth movement arrive but by this time I was completely overwhelmed by the impassioned, angry, enraged music. Most commentators point to the situation in Europe before the Second World War – the ‘troubled Spirit of the Age’, the Age in Anxiety. And Elizabeth Kerr mentioned that Williams’s was coping with the death of his great friend, Gustav Holst, and certainly elements of Holst’s The Planets were in my mind – Mars, Mercury and Jupiter. But Ralph emphatically denied a ‘programme’ in the symphony, and in a rehearsal he remarked: “I don’t know whether I like it, but this is what I meant.” [That answers my digression above!]


The personnel?

The soloist, Colin Currie, was outstanding. At times, particularly with the untuned percussion, he look like a demented jazz drummer or a Twister player – stretching with his foot to the pedal of bass drum and the playing, at speed, the toms toms on the other side.  He was committed, dexterous, agile, athletic. Thank goodness he dispensed with a jacket. I almost expected him to wear trainers and sweat pants – black, of course. The element of rhythm is paramount for a percussion player and he was adept. but equally his delicacy of touch, the dynamics and the stick and mallet work was masterful.

As a conductor James MacMillan was also outstanding. His gestures were economical but decisive and clear. When the music was passionate or fraught – especially at the frenetic end of the symphony – he indicated what he wanted directly but totally in service of the music. He was NOT a poseur, an exhibitionist.

The orchestra: I noted many alternative players in all sections or positions. If you read my reviews you could be sick of me saying that the NZSO players were distinguished, exceptional, magnificent… but…
The whole orchestral ensemble was brilliant but, particularly, the Brass section, the oboe played by Peter Dykes, the flutes and piccolos from Bridget Douglas, Kirsten Eade and Hannah Darroch were consummate. [A surprise for me – piccolo is my least favourite orchestral instrument, but Kirsten and Hannah played wonderfully well. Now I have a new least favourite instrument – the air raid siren!]





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