NZSO: Winter Daydreams

Winter Daydreams

presented by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Thursday 20 June 2019, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Christopher Blake: Angel at Ahipara (1999)
Igor Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D major (1931)
Pieter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 Winter Daydreams (1866)

Fawzi Haimor: conductor
Carolin Widmann: violin

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
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tldr: the short story

The Tchaikovsky was full of romantic melodies; the Stravinsky was chock-full of scattered musical gestures; and the Blake was a contained pool of subtle and interweaving sound ideas.
Fawzi Haimor hands had a balletic gracefulness, and the violin soloist, Carolin Widmann, was accomplished, courageous and talented.
My pick of the ‘bunch’: Angel at Ahipara by Christopher Blake. Mysterious, ethereal, hovering between worlds.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The long story:

It was a time-travel concert. The pieces played were premiered, respectively, in 1999, 1931 and 1866, but as Kate Mead said in her excellent pre-concert talk (despite the failure of technology), the inventiveness and innovation was quite the reverse. The Blake used the ‘known’ to expand the listeners ear to the ‘unknown’; the Stravinsky used Classical and Baroque techniques to achieve his unaccustomed violin concerto; but Tchaikovsky was psychotically creating a whole new symphonic genre – the Russian Symphony. Obviously, given the prevailing conventions, you may not hear that immediately – the Tchaikovsky was full of romantic melodies; the Stravinsky was chock-full of scattered musical gestures; and the Blake was a contained pool of subtle and interweaving sound ideas.

Angel at Ahipara by Christopher Blake is one of four ‘tone poems’ called the Northland Panels, inspired by four images by a photographic presentation of Northland by Robin Morrison, A Journey (1994). [There are details, scores, recordings, video of the four pieces on the SOUNZ website – see below.]¹

It was for strings only and had seven ‘episodes’² – quite brave for an 11 minute piece! I noted that it had a circular quality in the description – the first and seventh section was the same: The Angel holds vigil at the grave. The piece itself was quite otherworldly – it had a mystical aura.

There was a quality of stasis in the piece – two tones, a descending major second entered pianissimo, then octaves, and then each string section sounded the tones with different durations – as if they have different tempos or time signatures. Then they melodically diverged. The bass held long pedal notes with the treble instruments creating a delicate gossamer of sound. The leader, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, played a poignant melody above slow, deep chords. The celli introduced another melody with more movement that the others responded to, leading a stormy climax. The two tones sounded again, with the solo violin holding a high, empyreal note.

The NZSO strings were magnificent – controlled, sensitive, dynamically excellent – led by the conductor, Fawzi Haimor. His hands had a balletic gracefulness, and he was active, exhorting the sections with his gestures. He was authoritative and confident.

Kate Mead and the programme notes made much of Stravinsky‘s reluctance to compose a Violin Concerto – an instrument with which he was not familiar. For me, the ‘passport chord’ in the beginning of each movement was quite bizarre, and the balance (of the composition, not the orchestra or soloist) in the first movement was very sketchy. Often the solo violin melody lines were obscured by other sections in the orchestra – we only often heard her when she was lustily playing forte in her low strings. It was better by the second movement, and the third movement, Aria II, was beautifully played – a tender, desolate melody from the violin soloist supported by admirable playing from the orchestra. The fourth movement picked up the pace with some idiosyncratic writing from Stravinsky – who would have a violin soloist alternating with timpani and bass drum?

The violin soloist, Carolin Widmann, was accomplished, courageous and talented. It was a challenging work but she performed with self-assurance and poise. She reminded me of an athlete, a high-jumper – alternately crouching back or lunging forward to the music stand, ready to leap! The crowd, deservedly, awarded her with four ovations. For the soloist, I’m not sure if this concerto is rewarding. Maybe the reward is the successful achievement.

Tchaikovsky is not my cup of audio tea. Again, with Kate and the programme notes, I get that Pieter was creating a new symphonic genre, but I can only stand so much emotive gushiness. And too long. A bathetic Bruckner. In the Third and Fourth movement he repeated the same melody in every timbral variation that he can conceive. I appreciate that with J S Bach, when the intellect and emotion are coherent, but not this extravagant mawkishness.

Despite my reservations, the NZSO played the symphony beautifully. The flute, horns and bassoon were impressive but the strings – for the symphony AND the whole concert – were outstanding.

My pick of the ‘bunch’: Angel at Ahipara by Christopher Blake. Mysterious, ethereal, hovering between worlds.

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1:
The listing of the Northland Panels on the SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music website:
Angel at Ahipara
Night Journey to Pawarenga
Anthem on the Kaipara
 
Christ at Whangape
and the Atoll CD: Angel at Ahipara

2:
The seven descriptive episodes for Angel at Ahipara are:
I. The Angel holds vigil at the grave
II. The Angel sings her hymn of hope
II. The Angel makes the spirit soar
IV. The Angel brings joy
V. The Angel calms the storm
VI. The Angel sounds music from heaven
VII. The Angel holds vigil at the grave

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One thought on “NZSO: Winter Daydreams

  1. I would have LOVED to have heard this concert, particularly for the Tchaikovsky symphony! – a work I’ve never heard “live”, only via a number of superb recordings by conductors who seem to be able to convey more of the awakening of the Russian spirit with its heart-on-sleeve emotions and full blooded energies and its pouring (enthusiastically, if a little ham-fistedly) into symphonic form, than the “mawkishness” referred to above – still, merely my opinion, but perhaps a somewhat “protective” one (from my formative listening years!) – so, “chacun en son gout” as they say………

    Like

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