Christchurch Symphony Orchestra 10 November 2018 – Pictures at an Exhibition
Benjamin Northey – Conductor; Jayson Gillham – Piano
The thing that really struck me on Saturday night was the quality of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. The sound was so rich and glorious, with magnificent playing from all sections.
That’s not to say that the orchestra was better than usual; I know that I’ve raved about their playing and sound-quality in other reviews this year and last. But on Saturday night I began to feel that here we have a superb professional orchestra, although it’s one that’s not well enough funded for most of the players to give up their day jobs; and with the NZSO seeming to reduce its commitment to Christchurch year-by-year, with just four concerts in 2019, I wonder if it’s time to start thinking about Christchurch having its own fully-funded and full-time orchestra that includes, for example, South Island regional touring and the potential for more community out-reach projects.
And the Christchurch audience seems to share my admiration for the CSO because, even in the spacious Wigram Airforce Museum, this concert, along with several others this year, has been sold out in advance, with people still turning up in the hope of getting tickets.
When conductor Benjamin Northey announced that the next Masterworks concert, at the beginning of March next year, would be back in the Christchurch Town Hall, a huge cheer went up from the audience. But, strangely enough, many Christchurch concert-goers have become fond of the Wigram venue. The woman beside me commented that she loved the sound in this space, and I heard other favourable comments about its acoustic. But you do have to be sitting in the front third-or-so of this hall to get a real sense of the balance and clarity of the sound. The move back to the Town Hall will certainly be an interesting experience for Christchurch audiences. For one thing, driving and parking in the central city is still extremely frustrating . . . but we’ll see!
Lyell Cresswell – Dancing on a Volcano (1997)
Anyway, Saturday night’s concert began, as so many from the CSO do, with a New Zealand work. I don’t always ‘click’ with Lyell Cresswell’s music, although Dancing on a Volcano certainly has impact and some inventive orchestral effects. But it relies heavily on effects and craft, to the extent that the sounds themselves become the musical content. I loved the effect made by four divided cellos and the use of log drums in the percussion. And there were lots of dancing rhythms and some punchy articulation from the wind and brass, but even after listening again several times to a recording the next day, I find it hard to identify anything memorable or compelling in the actual musical content. It’s not an unappealing piece to listen to and its twelve-and-a-half-minute duration never outstayed its welcome; and it’s always good to hear new or unfamiliar pieces in a live concert.
I should also comment that the recording I listened to was the NZSO and there’s no doubt that the Christchurch Symphony’s performance was at least as good. The players had no problems with the piece’s challenges; they seemed to tackle its complexities with almost relaxed abandon. And I think conductor Benjamin Northey needs to be credited with the high standard and consistency that we now enjoy from this orchestra.
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto in No. 2 in C Minor (1901)
Then, with Rachmaninov’s enduringly popular Second Piano Concerto we’re in a completely different world with lush orchestration, richly romantic harmonies and very memorable melodic ideas.
This concerto was written in 1901, well before Stravinsky and Schoenberg turned musical style on its head, but somehow Rachmaninov is considered stylistically anomalous, although really, when you think about it, both the second and third concertos predate The Rite of Spring and even The Firebird let alone Schoenberg’s atonal creations. And these concertos are very progressive and original for their time in terms of structural scale, orchestration, and even harmony in some ways. They are certainly clear successors to Tchaikovsky and Liszt, but I think that’s a positive attribute. When I was a student back in the . . . well, a few years ago, we were given the idea that Rachmaninov would be forgotten as a composer, but, if anything, his popularity continues to grow and his concertos remain an essential calling card for any aspiring pianist. Their status as masterpieces is indisputable.
The problem is that this concerto has become so often-played and so well-known and loved that it takes a special performance for it to fully make its mark. The soloist on Saturday was Australian pianist Jayson Gillham and he gave us a combination of personal perspective and expected virtuosity. One or two tempo choices and contrasts suggested Sviatoslav Richter as his model even if those contrasts sounded carefully planned and rehearsed rather than coming from the spontaneity of the moment. But his technical brilliance was exciting and the sharply focused and sparkling tone-quality that he drew from the piano was exhilarating. And the orchestra was very much an equal partner; I wasn’t the only member of the audience to notice the opulence and sonority of the playing that Benjamin Northey drew from his musicians. I think you could say that this was indeed quite a special performance, but it was the partnership between soloist and orchestra that made it so.'
But, perhaps even more special, was the encore. Rachmaninov’s arrangement of the Prelude from Bach’s E major solo violin Partita was a piece of absolute magic in Jayson Gillham’s hands. The violinists in the orchestra, no doubt all fully familiar with the original work, looked on, captivated, as Gillham gave new life to their repertoire; and the way their smiles broadened whenever the piece became a little more Rachmaninov than Bach was part of the delight of the performance. Yesterday I searched around some big-name pianists playing this piece, but found nothing that replicated the sheer thrill of Gillham’s performance. That, even more than the concerto, made this pianist definitely one to watch.
Mussorgsky-Ravel – Pictures at an Exhibition
If that encore was as much Rachmaninov as Bach, Pictures at an Exhibition, in its orchestral guise, is as much Ravel as Mussorgsky. When you compare Ravel’s orchestration to Mussorgsky’s original piano version (as Vladimir Ashkenazy once did as conductor and pianist on either side of an LP record), it’s like listening to two different works. Several other orchestrations now exist, but Ravel’s is not only totally convincing, but he dares to think outside the box with some extraordinarily colourful ideas that others can’t match. The trumpet solo in the Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿler movement is a case in point, and this was stunningly played by Thomas Eves. The beautifully played saxophone solo from Reuben Chin in The Old Castle was also rather special. But these are just two examples in a work that’s full of wind and brass solos, and every one was played with imaginative and expressive phrasing and again reminded us of the depth of the orchestra’s quality. And the playing of the whole brass section in Catacombs was simply glorious.
But my one disappointment of the night was the final two movements of Pictures at an Exhibition. Baba Yaga just didn’t have the impact that I crave here. Ravel wasn’t one to write dynamics above double forte, so when he wrote double forte he meant it. But on Saturday it seemed a little restrained instead of the music being unleashed with the ferocity (ferocé) that Ravel specifies in the score. And then The Great Gate of Kiev seemed short on awe and grandeur. Again, Ravel asks for Maestoso, con grandezza (majestic, with grandeur), but it all seemed a bit hurried and missing that last ounce of expansiveness, especially the final peroration, where Ravel’s slow four-bar crescendo (starting from double forte!) seemed to be reduced to just a single bar. I’ll never forget a performance of that movement in Christchurch from the visiting Russian State Orchestra with Yevgeny Svetlanov where that final section became totally overwhelming in its power and awesome grandeur.
It’s a pity that this lapse came at the end of such an impressive and special concert, but, even so, overall it remains a night of exceptionally fine music and music-making, ending a year in which the cultural life of Christchurch seems very much back on track.
The Musical Year in Christchurch
I don’t think that I can identify a single concert as a highlight from the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra concerts that I’ve been to this year; the consistency and quality has really been outstanding, but there are individual works that stand out and which remain in the memory:
Nikolay Khozyainov’s blistering performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto is the first piece to come to mind and that really did have a sense of risk-taking and spontaneity – a real ‘seize the moment’ performance that had the orchestra on its toes and the audience on the edge of our seats.
Another stand-out performance was Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in a concert that also included a superb Ravel G Major Piano Concerto with Tony Chen Lin, and my favourite New Zealand work of the year – Leonie Holmes’ Ancient Rhythms.
But more recently there was a wonderfully evocative performance of Vaughan Williams’ rarely heard Pastoral Symphony in a concert that also included a truly soaring performance from visiting violinist Andrew Haveron of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending – just a week-or-so before it featured, yet again, as the top choice on RNZ Concert’s Settling the Score.
Through 2018 I’ve also been to all of the Christopher’s Classics chamber music series, New Zealand Opera’s Tosca, several other music-theatre productions, NZTrio, the NZSO, and more.
And although there were highlights and memorable moments among all of the Christchurch performances, I think that this year the Christchurch Symphony raised the bar to the extent that I’d have to nominate their whole Masterworks series as the highlight of the year.