NZSO: Alexander Shelley Returns

Alexander Shelley Returns

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 29 July 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Alexander Shelley, conductor
Pablo Sáinz Villegas, guitar


Frond, from Three Landscapes for Orchestra Leonie Holmes (b. 1962)
Concierto de Aranjuez  – Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999)
Concerto for Orchestra Béla Bartók (1881-1945)


The short story (tldr):

What an outstanding concert!

Frond by Leonie Holmes was a dreamy, atmospheric work. In the Rodrigo Guitar Concerto Pablo Sáinz Villegas commanded the stage with a dextrous, virtuosic display. The solo from cor anglais player Michael Austin at the beginning and end of the second movement was beautifully performed.

Conductor Alexander Shelley was superb: he was reserved and ingenious understated – he didn’t need the spotlight and the orchestra clearly respected him. The Bartók Concerto for Orchestra was the best playing I have ever seen from the NZSO – committed, inspired, transcendent.


The long story:

What an outstanding concert!

The usual concert format for a orchestra is: a ‘overture’ – a short piece as a taster, often contemporary; a ‘concerto’ – a significant work with a soloist; and a ‘symphony’  – an extended piece featuring the orchestra. Obviously, the ‘concerto’ has a soloist, but what was significant in this programme was the opportunity of NZSO instruments to be soloistic – even in the concerto!


Frond by Leonie Holmes was a dreamy, atmospheric work inspired by half-forgotten memory of a bush walk when she was a child. A single stroke from the tubular bells ushered in a magical aural environment and solos from the concertmaster and the first cello were chant-like, a karakia introducing a natural context. Most of the orchestra were rhythmically suspended – long shifting chords, but several were melodically glistening  – cembalo, harp, vibraphone trickling notes like a meandering stream, and ‘bird calls’ from several woodwinds, and plucking strings.

In her programme notes Leonie mentioned: “I half believed that there were bush-dwelling creatures that did live and sleep there, watching me from the shadows…” and certainly the mood of the piece became more active, and somehow threatening. We don’t have snakes, scorpions and carnivorous creatures in Aotearoa/New Zealand but maybe Leonie doesn’t mean that. In Māori tradition patupaiarehe were fairy-like creatures of the forests and mountain tops. Although they had some human attributes, patupaiarehe were regarded not as people but as supernatural beings. Maybe these were watching in the shadows?


Musically, the balance was marvellous – the technique of having longer chords underneath a more rhythmically active line ensured the soloists were hear above the orchestra.  I see that ‘Frond‘ is one of the movements of Three Landscapes for Orchestra. I would like to hear [live] the rest of the work sometime …


Rodrigo’s guitar concerto, Concierto de Aranjuez, is understandable favourite concert piece with the flavour and the taste of Spain. Given the soft nature of classical guitar, the orchestra was reduced down. As Rodrigo understood, balance can be a problem, but his scoring – alternating the soloist with the orchestra – solved that. But, it depends on the soloist…

And, what an amazing soloist we had! Pablo Sáinz Villegas commanded the stage with a dextrous, virtuosic display: strumming, picking, plucking, hammer-ons, tremolo, arpeggiation, harmonics, rasgueado (flamenco-style strumming), ponticello, sul tasto, …. (I am no expert of [the names of] classical guitar technique!).  He made the two or three contrapuntal voices clear and precise and his dynamic control and phrasing were consummate. Pablo received a standing ovation – deservedly so – and graced the audience with a encore, a piece demonstrating all of the techniques he was a master of – even imitating a snare drum!  For myself, his orchestral collaboration and partnership in the concerto was more convincing and compelling.

As for the orchestra, they clearly enjoyed the mastery of the soloist and they were keen, subtly, to contribute their part. I particularly enjoyed the ricochet bowing from strings and the woodwind ethereal touches. For me, the highlight was the magnificent solo from Michael Austin on the cor anglais at the beginning and end of the second movement – soulful, heart-wrenching, beautifully played.


Anthony Ritchie presented the pre-concert talk. It gave me more background about the piece, as did the programme notes: that the Concerto for Orchestra was one of the last pieces Bartók wrote and it was a showcase for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Rather than a symphony, the ‘concerto’ in the title denoted that many of the instruments were treated like soloists – akin to the Concerto Grosso from the Baroque era. Several of his contemporaries had the same notion: Kodaly and Hindemith for example. It had five movements and it had a ‘shape’ like a ‘U’ – basically ABCBA: the ‘A’ are longer and more dramatic, the ‘B’ are shorter and lighthearted, and ‘C’ is a slow, melancholic movement.

Forgive me. I have lots of fragmentary notes about the Concerto for Orchestra: the passionate outburst from the strings and the heroic fanfare from the brass the first movement; the dancing, homophonic pairing of woodwind and brass in the second movement; the anguished writing and amazing scoring in the third movement– piccolo against percussion in a slow movement!; the programmatic Hungarian/Mahler/Shostakovich parodies in the fourth movement; and the exciting, energetic, furious cadenza for the whole orchestra in the last movement …. but I was mesmerised. This could haunt me, but I think this performance was the best playing I have ever seen from the NZSO – committed, inspired, transcendent.


The conductor was superb. Alexander Shelley’s  baton was an extension of his arm and a flick of his wrist was enough for the orchestra to respond. His right hand gave a clear, calm, precise beat  and his left hand was more associated with dynamic and phrasing. His was reserved – the only ardent moment was in the last movement of the Bartók – and ingenious understated. He didn’t need the spotlight and the orchestra clearly respected him. In the programme notes I see he had been a guest conductor three times in the last few years – I welcome another return.



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