29 Nov 2021

Orchestra Wellington - Symphonic Dances

From Music Alive, 8:00 pm on 29 November 2021

Pianist Michael Houstoun plays Three Psalms by fellow Kiwi John Psathas, a work dedicated to Houstoun with references to Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Rachmaninov's dramatic Symphonic Dances from Orchestra Wellington under the baton of music director Marc Taddei round out the programme.

Statue of Tchaikovsky near his garden at Klin

Statue of Tchaikovsky near his garden at Klin Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

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Tchaikovsky wrote his Serenade for Strings in 1880.

He produced two quite contrasting works very quickly: a festival overture and the serenade. He described the overture as "very noisy" and said he wrote it "without much warmth or enthusiasm – therefore it has no great artistic value" – he was talking about the 1812 Overture.

The serenade on the other hand, he ventured to hope was "not wholly lacking in artistic qualities." It was a piece from the heart and an immediate success.

Tchaikovsky described the opening movement as his "homage to Mozart", intending to imitate his style, referring back to the slow introductions to a few of Mozart’s symphonies and the light Classical form of a sonatina for the middle section. But its probably more like the kind of music that Tchaikovsky would have written if he’d been around in Mozart’s era.

Tchaikovsky’s Russian soul is expressed in the Finale, where he borrows a folk tune from the Volga region, and the main theme of the movement is a popular dance tune from Moscow.

John Psathas

John Psathas Photo: Gareth Watkins / Lilburn Trust / Wallace Arts Trust


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Performed by pianist Michael Houstoun with Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei.

Three Psalms, a kind of piano concerto, was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the instigation of Michael Houstoun (to whom it is dedicated). Psathas writes, "Michael's playing inspired me throughout its composition, and his enthusiasm for the work as it grew boosted the confidence that an be sensed in the music."

The first movement, 'Aria', introduces the simple melodic idea which 'tells the story' of the concerto and which evolves throughout it.

The second, 'Inferno', was inspired by the haunting and deeply disturbing images in James Nachtwey's photographic elegy of the same name. Nachtwey travels to the world's most troubled places and photographs the grimmest sights in such a way as to thrust them into the view of the world.

The final movement, 'Sergei Bk.3 Ch.1', becomes a celebration of the opening of the first movement of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, on of the most ebullient passages in all piano concerto repertoire. John Psathas writes, "This material has inspired me for the entire course of my musical life to date, and I have always wished that it lasted longer and went further. As I composed the final movement of [Three Psalms], there developed an irresistible gravity that drew together the energy in Prokofiev's concerto and that in my own."

Programme note developed from Erica Challis.


This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

Portrait of Sergei Rachmaninov

Portrait of Sergei Rachmaninov Photo: Konstantin Somov Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rachmaninov's last work was written in difficult circumstances: he was not well, he was an exile in America suffering from homesickness, and he feared for his daughter Tatiana, trapped in France during the German invasion.

It's a tougher less sentimental work than his earlier symphonies, with a muscular hard edge and spiky orchestration that show Prokofiev as an influence.


Recorded 26 September 2020, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington by RNZ Concert

Producer: David McCaw

Engineer: Darryl Stack