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July 28, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Music From Near and Farr

NZSO, Michael Fowler Centre, 5 July
Vector Wellington Orchestra, Wellington Town Hall, 12 July

Soviet stooge or secret subversive? Opinions of Shostakovich in the West have changed radically in the last few decades. The complex reality is probably somewhere in between, but given the testimony of informed observers such as Kurt Sanderling, and the existence of satirical pieces in Shostakovich’s “bottom draw”, the closet rebel would seem to be closer to the truth. The magnificent advocacy of the Twelfth Symphony (“The Year 1917”) by Yoel Levi conducting the NZSO (Te Tira Puoro o Aotearoa) left me with two abiding impressions. One was that the work was as much a tone poem in four continuous sections, as a symphony in four separate movements. The other was that the Twelfth – like the Ninth – may have been seriously misjudged. Just as the Ninth has been dismissed as lightweight, while arguably full of irony and tragedy (as a performance by the Wellington Sinfonia conducted by Michael Houstoun showed), so the Twelfth has been despised as a propaganda piece when it, too, contains a sombre slow movement (replete with a lamenting solo bassoon).

For many, the highlight of the NZSO’s concert would have been Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski’s brilliant rendition of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The familiar favourite sounded fresh under Trpceski’s fingers, from the bravura flourishes to the moments of Romantic tenderness.

Of particular interest to me was a more modest concert piece – Remembering by New Zealander (and NZ School of Music conducting tutor) Kenneth Young. Concertmaster Vesa- Matti Leppanen’s diaphanous violin floated above pianissimo strings and harp in one of Young’s typically long flowing melodic lines, while touches of woodwind hinted at Debussy, and perhaps Berg or Mahler. The transcendent spiritual rapture evoked reminded me of the slow movement of Young’s String Quartet, and of the “cello concerto” at the heart of his Second Symphony.

The Vector Wellington Orchestra with the NZTrio offered a concerto for not one, but three, instruments. Gareth Farr’s Triple Concerto deserves to enter the repertoire alongside Beethoven’s, and (for any ensemble with a sixteenth-tone harp) Julian Carrillo’s Horizontes. As in Naga Baba, Farr achieved his idiomatic sound without this trade-mark heavy percussion, and the overall unity of the score was all the more remarkable given that the first movement began as an independent composition. The slow movement revealed a world of suspended colour, with expressive portamenti on Ashley Brown’s cello, while Justine Cormack’s violin suggesting the vintage electronic Ondes Martenot. The finale had a klezmer lilt, punctuated by top-of-the-keyboard splashes from Sarah Watkins’ piano.

In Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, conductor Marc Taddei successfully navigated the sea music, but on the whole I felt this reading by the Vector Wellington Orchestra outstayed its welcome, despite the seductive violin playing of leader Matthew Ross. The horn solos in particular were disappointing. The Orchestra was joined by the Orpheus Choir for Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. The delightfully girlish voice of young soprano soloist Julia Moss-Pearson made me think Bernstein’s treatment of the Hebrew of Psalm 23 must be the most beautiful ever.

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