27 Feb 2017

Christchurch Symphony Orchestra's 2017 season opens

From Upbeat, 1:25 pm on 27 February 2017
Denes Varjon

Denes Varjon Photo: Supplied

The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra launched its 2017 season on Saturday with a new work And soon it will be dawn commissioned from Canterbury composer Philip Noman. Chief conductor Ben Northey and guest pianist Denes Varjon did the honours.

Did the concert - titled Romeo & Juliet - meet expectations?

Tony Ryan went to the Air Force Museum in Wigram to see what this year has in store for Canterbury orchestra-goers.

REVIEW by Tony Ryan

After being away from New Zealand for nearly five years, I very much looked forward to this concert. After my long absence it was great to see that the vast majority of the players were still there.

Some of the newer section leaders (newer to me, anyway) like Martin Riseley and Serenity Thurlow are great assets to the orchestra. We have a very capable orchestra in Christchurch and I look forward to more of their concerts. Overall, I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

The evening began with a public acknowledgement from the orchestra’s CEO that this will be the 25th year of sponsorship for the Masterworks concert series by Lamb and Hayward.

Dare I say that this is very astute of Lamb and Hayward, which is a funeral company, because I couldn’t help noticing just how, shall we say, “mature” the large audience on Saturday night was.

Having spent the last couple of years in Singapore where the number of young people at concerts of this type is significant, the contrast was rather apparent.

Even so, it’s wonderful that a local company is sponsoring the orchestra, and I think their long-term support for music in the city, especially through these last six very difficult years, deserves our support in return.

I’ve been away for most of those six years, and I must say it’s rather disconcerting to find how much still remains to be done in rebuilding the city, both physically and in the morale of its population.

I mean, the fact that the orchestra is still performing in such makeshift venues as the Airforce Museum is demoralising to say the least. In terms of both the visual and acoustic aspects of this concert, it’s far from an ideal venue. But I’ll say more about that as we get into the music-making.

Philip Norman – And soon it will be dawn

After the introductory acknowledgement, the first musical work on the programme was a newly-commissioned Fanfare by Philip Norman. The best I can say after one hearing is that it’s an appealing and well-crafted piece that I’d very much like to hear again.

The title seems to come from the 12th-century Occitan troubadour song on which Philip has based his piece. The lyrics of the original song have a subtly erotic connotation, so I’m not quite sure what motivated the composer’s choice here.

He was also asked to use the same instrumentation as Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, but I fail to see the point of this unless the two pieces are to be performed together. The Christchurch Symphony is planning to end its 2017 series with a performance of the Copland, so I wonder if they might consider repeating Philip Norman’s work on that occasion?

Both fanfares are scored for brass and percussion, and last time I saw the Christchurch Symphony play the Copland many years ago, the players performed at the front of the stage, which was very effective – so maybe they’ll consider that on 11 November, as well?

But there are a couple of other things worth mentioning about the performance and about the work itself:

Sitting in the middle of the audience, the acoustic was a significant problem. The sound had no immediacy or impact. This was particularly obvious with the lower-range instruments, and I kept waiting for something loud from a work described as a fanfare, but it never really came.

At several points I thought there was some off-stage brass in addition to the players on stage, because some of the trumpet sound seemed to be coming from the far left. But during the Prokofiev later in the programme, I realised that it was reverberation echo from the back-screen that extended quite some distance to the left of the performing space.

The piece itself started very quietly and expanded to a louder climax towards the end, but then the composer briefly returns to the very quiet texture of the opening.

Now, I know that many contemporary composers like to avoid rhetorical gestures that might be frowned on as musically archaic, but I felt that the piece needed to end with the more imposing dynamic that it seemed to be heading towards throughout.

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op.15 (Dénes Várjon – Piano)

Most of us probably approach performances of Beethoven’s first piano concerto without very high expectations. It’s a very early work and Beethoven himself later dismissed it as “not among the best of my works in this genre”.

Most people, if they’re anything like me, would probably rather hear the 3rd, 4th or 5th. But several current pianists think otherwise.

Martha Agerich, for example, tends to play the first two, especially the second and not the others. So when an international pianist of the status of Dénes Várjon chooses this first concerto, we’re inclined to think “OK, show us!”

But, I have to confess that, as recently as October, I was spoiled by seeing another Hungarian pianist, András Schiff, play the same concerto, and he turned it into such a piece of magic and delight that it’s one of those rare performances that I know I’ll never forget. His phrasing, spontaneity and impulsive vitality revealed all of Beethoven’s youthful inspiration and rebellion.

So I did come to Dénes Várjon’s performance with more enhanced expectations of the work itself. And, while I enjoyed the performance and the pianist’s clear belief and involvement in the piece, it didn’t sparkle in the way that I now know it can. Structurally it seemed rather four-square and lacking in the contrasts that Beethoven so carefully annotated in the score.

I began to wonder if the acoustic of the venue was playing a part in this, because the piano had a very dry sound and the bass register was very noticeably lacking in fullness of tone. If you listen to Várjon’s recording, it’s the left-hand that almost seems to dominate at times, but there was no sense of that on Saturday night.

Some might argue that pianos in Beethoven’s day might have sounded a bit the same, but in this rather capacious venue, that’s hardly a real consideration.

With the orchestra’s contribution, my overall impression of the performance was of rather mellow-sounding Beethoven.

The orchestra used the same size string section that it needed for the Prokofiev in the second half of the programme and, apart from Mark La Roche’s welcome use of hard timpani sticks, there was a noticeably comfortable feel to the performance that ignores the sinewy and muscular impact that we’ve become used to in period-style performances of Beethoven.

I couldn’t help remembering the Beethoven performances that we used to get from Marc Taddei when he was the orchestra’s music director, and the pains he went to, to reflect recent scholarship regarding the tempi and performance style that brought Beethoven back to life in the modern world.

The acoustic was a particular problem in the slow movement where quiet pizzicato on the higher strings was totally inaudible from my seat.

Overall it was a good and enjoyable performance, if not a special one, and one of the things I liked most about it was the use of the longest of the three cadenzas that the composer later wrote for the first movement.

I’ve never heard it before and it’s quite a fanciful and rhapsodic bit of writing that lasts for around six minutes. It reminded me of the Diabelli Variations where Beethoven’s mix of profundity and wit make for very rewarding and thought-provoking listening.

Prokofiev – Selections from Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet music will always be a compelling draw-card for me. It’s truly great music that gets a bad name from being labelled “ballet music”.

Personally I think it’s the greatest ballet score ever written; a bit like Verdi’s late Shakespearean operas in the way that it matches Shakespeare’s own insights and humanity.

Conductor Benjamin Northey obviously shares these views because the inclusion of the tragic final movements of the ballet, as well as the dance movements of Prokofiev’s suites, is certainly recognition of the tragic power of this score.

The opening of the first extract, where Prokofiev combines two movements from his original score into a movement he here calls Montagues and Capulets also demonstrated that a real fortissimo is possible, even in this space, so it’s a pity we didn’t get more of it in the earlier part of the programme.

But the problem on Saturday night was that, for too much of the time, the music was played almost as light-weight ballet extracts, so that the tragedy of the final movements, which the conductor added, lost some of their power to move.

A good example was The Death of Tybalt, where the repeated thuds as he falls and struggles between life and death lacked the tragic weight that’s needed. And the detached chords which follow were spoiled as each one splattered off the back screen when the silence between the chords should choke us, knowing that the love story has just taken its distressingly tragic turn.

Then in the movement called Juliet’s Funeral, the grief-stricken cries from the horns and, later, the trombones, came across as gloriously full-toned brass playing, but again, without the heart-rending tragedy that this music has the power to project.

So the quiet conclusion of Juliet’s Death which ends the ballet and which ended Saturday night’s concert left us dry-eyed.