Classical Hits: NZSO

Classical Hits

presented by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 15 September 2018, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Franz Schubert (1797-1828):Symphony No. 8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’ D.759, (1822) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (1876-77) Gillian Whitehead Turanga-nui (World Premiere) Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891-94) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (1870-80) New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Hamish McKeich: conductor Andrew Joyce: cello A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ tldr: the short story Gillian Whitehead’s new work, Turanga-nui, was a treasure trove of timbral and musical effects. It was a masterclass of pithy, concentrated, meaningful composition. The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme by Andrew Joyce was magnificent. His tone was luxurious: luscious in the lyrical phrases, sweet in the tender passages, intense in the dramatic moments. The Debussy was perfect, and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was a shameful pleasure.  

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The long story: Ah! The Marketing Department! The moniker ‘Classical Hits‘ brings to mind Casey Kasem with the American Top 40 pop songs on the radio, or a $3 sale-price, double disc CD from The Warehouse. I have to overcome this notion and concentrate on the works. Certainly, four-fifths of the programme were popular, well-known – and documented – pieces, so my review will not be based on the works, but the performance of them.

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The one-fifth work was a new piece by Gillian WhiteheadTuranga-nui – another of the NZSO ‘Landfall’ commissions commemorating the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook arrival in New Zealand. And it was outstanding! A mark tree announced the piece with a magical, ethereal aura. Strings emerged with slow, underlying chords, rising with a diminuendo like a vision of distant landscape. Brass and lower strings sounded an ominous atmosphere. Violins imitated crying seagulls and the woodwind emulated the woodland birds. Horns seemed to herald a consequential future. A strong rhythmic section from the strings inspired a tension-filled and aggressive passage for the whole orchestra. Solos from the bassoon, bass trombone, and cello seemed to give a mournful, reflective look at what has transpired. Keening seagulls from the violin, and strings chords ushered in the ethereal mark tree again – al niente…. Gillian mentioned in her programme notes that: ‘Turanga-nui is part-abstract, part programmatic … and I leave it to listeners to interpret it in their own way.’ The piece had an arch structure and I got the impression that it was an hierarchy of states of being: the mark tree is the concept of Aotearoa; the underlying chords – Papatūānuku; Tāne Mahuta is present in the birds calls; the human conflict in the centre. There is a sorrowful introspection, but when man is gone Tāne Mahuta, Papatūānuku and at last Aotearoa are still enduring. Gillian’s piece was a treasure trove of timbral and musical effects – but too brief! I heard them and then they were gone! I wanted more time to explore them. She used all sort of timbral tricks to create a enchanting sound world: an echoing lontano horn; the percussionists playing tumutumu – tapping rocks; Carolyn Mills armblocking her harp for a tonal cluster; widely spaced octaves on the oboes, tiered sets of suspended cymbals… The programme notes suggested that the piece was eight minutes long but I think she could double the length of the piece. What she achieved in this eight minutes was quite astounding.  It was a masterclass of pithy, concentrated, meaningful composition.

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The other notable performance was the stunning, magnificent playing from Andrew Joyce, NZSO’s cello section principal. The piece itself, Variations on a Rococo Theme, is quite lightweight, but the solo cello part is demanding and brilliant.  Andrew performed this with consummate skill and verve. His tone was luxurious: luscious in the lyrical phrases, sweet in the tender passages, intense in the dramatic moments. His bowing was articulate; his string crossing was faultless; his intonation and thumb position was immaculate. He delicately placed his harmonics and the trilly ornamentation with [apparent] ease. The calm self-assurance and composure he demonstrated was a testament of his authority. Despite the amazing fireworks of Variation V, the Andante of Variation VI was made for the cello: melancholic and intensely beautiful – and beautifully played. The applause was ecstatic – five ‘curtain calls’ [if there were a curtain!] and Andrew rewarded us with a brief encore – Tom Bowling from a Fantasy of a British Sea Songs by Sir Henry Wood. He mentioned that he was dedicating this encore for his Mum, who birthday was this day!

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About the orchestra…. It was an early-romantic instrumentation so the size of the orchestra was reduced – mostly double winds, five or six cellists [Andrew joined the cellist in the second half] and three or four double basses. And there were many personnel changes: Vicky Crowell promoted to first bassoon; Michael Austin to first oboe; David Chickering reprising his role as first cello;  a new clarinet section…..  but, like the All Blacks, it was heartening to see the depth of talent of our musicians on the reserve bench! The most impressive about the orchestra performance was the dynamics – particularly from the woodwind. Andrew Thompson – as an introduction the concert – and Samuel Jacobs – in the second half – impressively addressed the audience in fluent Te Reo Māori. In an informal gesture, Hamish McKeich spoke to the audience too, as an aural performance note. The three of them spoke eloquently and with humour. Hamish conducted the programme without a baton, so his indications and body language were consequently very expressive. It focussed the orchestra – but, with the size of the ensemble, I thought sometimes the rhythms were marginally astray. In the Schubert, he explored the romantic nature of the symphony to the extreme – the rubato, the dynamics – and I thought the second movement was a tad slow. If I was rude or boorish, I could say he was ‘milking it’ – but I am not! [Rude or boorish, I mean.]

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The Debussy was perfect: the flute solos was superbly played by Bridget Douglas, matched by Sam Jacobs on horn, Michael Austin on oboe, the string section, and ultimately concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen. The impressionistic nature of the piece, the colour wash and the diaphanous textures, were elegantly beguiling.  At the close, finger cymbals rang out above the orchestra. I didn’t recall them in other performances and I didn’t see where they were from. Eventually I saw the culprit – Leonard Sakofsky was hidden away beside the double basses!

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Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was a shameful pleasure. In my opinion, Tchaikovsky’s music is too much – too emotional, too mawkish, too gushy. I listen to it and, when I my attention wanders, my emotional side gets the upper hand. It is like a soap opera. Or Dr Phil! The NZSO played it brilliantly: the love theme from Rachel Curkpatrick cor anglais  and the viola section was heartrending, matched by the whole string sections in octaves; the visual spectacle of stereophonic crash cymbals from Thomas Guldborg on one side of the stage and Leonard Sakofsky on the other; and Laurence Reese timpani heartbeat rhythms in the funeral march and the powerful, extended roll that finished the symphonic poem off with low chords from orchestra. Dramatic! And a shameful pleasure.
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