The Three Altos
A Viola Spectacular with the NZSO
presented by the 44th International Viola Congress
with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Monday 4 September 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Hamish McKeich, conductor
Roger Myers, viola
Anna Serova, viola
Roger Benedict, viola
Märchenbilder – Robert Schumann (1810-1856) – orchestral arrangement by Michael McLean
Lady Walton’s Garden – Roberto Molinelli (b. 1963)
Poem of Dawn – Boris Pigovat (b. 1953)
Viola Concerto – Sir William Walton (1902-1983)
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
The short story (tldr):
‘The Three Altos‘ was the orchestral concert featured in the programme of the 44th International Viola Congress. The three viola virtuosi had very different playing styles, stage presence and tonal qualities: Roger Myers had a sweet sound and his bow hand was agile, but he was restrained; Anna Serova‘s tone was rich and commanding with lovely melodic lines and her intonation, bowing and dynamic control was faultless; Roger Benedict‘s tone was bold, precise and forthright and his commitment to the piece was absolute. Their performance was matched by the outstanding NZSO and Hamish McKeich.
A remarkable event that resulted in a remarkable concert achieved by the remarkable Professor Donald Maurice and his team.
The long story:
‘The Three Altos‘ (or in the traditional parlance, ‘Violas‘) was the orchestral concert featured in the programme of the 44th International Viola Congress. The performance was made possible by a host of supporters: the NZSO, Te Kōkī NZSM, Victoria University Wellington, the Sydney Conservatorium, Wellington City Council, Creative New Zealand, the Australian High Commission ….. etc… etc… In short, it was a remarkable event with remarkable assistance that resulted in a remarkable concert achieved by the remarkable Professor Donald Maurice and his team.
The four pieces included a World Premiere, and World Premier of an arrangement, a New Zealand Premiere and a Masterwork – not bad for a Monday! All the pieces in the concert emphasised the viola and featured three international soloists: Roger Myers, an Australian resident in the USA; Anna Serova, a Russian resident in Italy; and Roger Benedict, an Englishman resident in Australia. The three viola virtuosi had very different playing styles, stage presence and tonal qualities.
Märchenbilder by Robert Schumann was originally for viola and piano, but this was the first performance of an arrangement for orchestra by Michael McLean. The orchestra was reduced: a Classical string section but only one flute, clarinet, bassoon and two horns – no oboe, brass or percussion. The four movements had an arch structure: from dreamy to active, energetic and back to a calm lullaby. It mirrored Roger Myers‘s performance as he warmed up as the piece moved on. The first movement, Nicht Schell, he was abstracted, almost drowsy, like a bear woken from hibernation. Movement 2, Lebhaft (lively) and 3, Rasch (quick), demanded more boldness and activity – lots of double stops, syncopated rhythms and rapid bowing. The fourth movement, Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck (slowly, with melancholic expression) was a thoughtful lullaby. In third and fourth movements, the viola soloist accompanied to the orchestra – broken chords and countermelodies – and the woodwind featured: flute and bassoon in the third and clarinet, bassoon and horns in the fourth. Roger had a sweet sound and his bow hand was agile, but he was restrained. I’m sure that the audio recording was fine, but as a live performance, he didn’t seem to have a stage presence – anchored, immobile.
Anna Serova was all about ‘stage presence’. She swayed, moved and danced with the breezes and zephyrs of the orchestral sounds wafting around her – and in the final section of the third movement, literally. Her sound was rich and commanding with lovely melodic lines and a singing tone. Her intonation, bowing and dynamic control was faultless.
The comprehensive programme notes informed me about the genesis of the piece: the relationship of William Walton and his ‘love-at-first-sight’ wife, Susana Valeria Rosa Maria Gil Passo; her Argentine background; their garden at La Mortella in Forio di Ischia, an island of the coast of Naples, Italy; and her dedication and commitment to her husband’s memory with a foundation that supports young musicians and concerts.
It was the first public performance of Lady Walton’s Garden by Roberto Molinelli. The three movement work focuses on an impressionistic view of some plants in the garden: Ginko Biloba (the ginkgo tree or the maidenhair tree), Victoria Amazonica (a water lily well known for its huge circular leaves), and Palo borracho (silk floss tree, native to the tropical and subtropical forests of South America). It was a potpourri of styles – Classical, Romantic, popular, rock and jazz – a cinematic, film score. It was immediately accessible – maybe too much so.
The first movement was bold – horns, trumpets and trombones – but it settled down to a more calm theme – celeste and harp were prominent. Anna explored the whole range of her instrument with a virtuosic display. Molinelli‘s composition was skilful in its instrumentation and balance and the viola was never out of focus. In the middle of the second movement, a change of pace introduced a jazzy-rock riff led by a drum-kit. Anna responded with glissandi and trills. For an extended time the orchestra was a jazz rhythm section with a 8-bar repeating pattern while Anna ‘improvised’ over the ground bass. Following that, a slow tempo launched the viola into an impassioned melody accompanied by solo cello, oboe and flute. It sounded like a popular song form – something like Sting or Paul McCartney. The solo viola built counter-melodies around the cor anglais solo. The third movement acknowledged Lady Walton’s Argentine heritage with a dramatic tango. It reached a climax with rapturous section that was, frankly, ‘over-the-top’ – a Spaghetti Western film score. It settled down to the tango section again, and a man stalked across the front of the stage and gestured to Anna. She dispensed with her viola (cradling the 1615 Amati instrument on two padded chairs!) and proceeded to dance a sedate tango with him.
Roberto Molinelli has a facile ability with orchestration, melody, and range of genres. The colours and the impressionistic floral tributes were indisputable, but I wondered if the piece will fade – an annual rather than a perennial, insubstantial rather than significant. Anna was a perfect for this score as a viola virtuoso and a tango-dancer. It was certainly a crowd-pleaser. Time will tell.
Boris Pigovat knows how to write for the viola – the Holocaust Requiem attested to that. [It has been heard here twice before with the Orchestra Wellington and the NZSM Orchestra.] Poem of Dawn, a New Zealand Premiere, had a larger orchestra than the first half, including five percussion players. The texture was thicker, but Anna Serova‘s viola sang through – a mark of a good composer and an accomplished performer. The solo viola fully explored the range of her instrument. It had a definite programme – a mythological Greek sunrise. Again, it was impressionistic with shades of Ravel and Debussy wandering through. At times the glockenspiel and two vibraphones were chasing each other. It was a glorious and majestic with sweeping melody lines and trills and harmonics and brilliantly played by the orchestra and the soloist. But again, it was cinematic and – when the sun actually rose – a bit clichéd. It was a more substantial piece from Lady Walton’s Garden, very accessible, but it was not the Holocaust Requiem. I thought it was unprogressive.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Walton Viola Concerto was a masterful, substantial and significant piece and brilliantly played by Roger Benedict, matched by the outstanding NZSO and Hamish McKeich. The piece was more a complete work – not so ‘question and answer’ and more ‘modern’, despite the 80-year gap between the composition of this work (1929) and the previous two pieces (2016 and 2013).
Roger’s tone was bold, precise and forthright and his commitment to the piece was absolute. The first movement, Andante comodo, began with a despairing viola melody in the upper register of the sombre instrument. The second theme was a more restless, up-tempo affair and the orchestra took over, but then returned to the first theme – the viola soloist wandering around the melody expressed by the oboe, flute and violins . The movement ends a niente – fading away to nothingness. The second movement, Vivo, was a breathless, energetic scherzo with off-beat syncopation and accents and metric time signatures changes – and a surprising, truncated ending. The Allegro moderto third – and the longest – movement began with a bassoon solo taking over by the viola soloist – a brisk march. It transformed to a slow amble with a romantic melody intermixed with the viola and the orchestra. The themes alternated, with and without the soloist, harking to the first movement themes. Some ominous chords from the orchestra and the bass clarinet introduces the viola soloist again with a desolate, anguished cry – again, with hushed tones – a niente ….
In my opinion, the musical highlight of the concert.
An encore was demanded and the Three Altos invited a fourth alto to join them – Julia Joyce, the NZSO’s principal violist. Tangos were still in the air, so they performed an arrangement of Astor Piazzolla‘s Libertango – with a little bit of themes from Mozart and J S Bach mixed in. It didn’t need a viola player to recognise the verve and the enthusiastic enjoyment of the four soloists, and the audience and the orchestra responded accordingly. Scintillating stuff.