24 Jun 2019

Review: Moye Chen with the CSO

From Upbeat, 1:32 pm on 24 June 2019

Despite the larger capacity of the Christchurch Town Hall in comparison to the various venues in which the orchestra has played throughout the previous eight years, last night’s audience filled the venue admirably for this latest Masterworks concert, continuing a trend in which the orchestra seems to be increasing its audience along with its reputation. And the quality of the playing in this programme certainly justified that trend.

Salina Fisher: Rainphase

Salina Fisher

Salina Fisher Photo: Hagen Hopkins

The programme began with New Zealand composer Salina Fisher’s 2016 award-winning piece, Rainphase.

The earlier sections of this work relied heavily of sound effects created by the use of such increasingly familiar ideas as string bows used on percussion instruments, slide whistle and breathy sounds amplified through brass and wind instruments, among others.

The composer certainly demonstrated an inventive ear for the use of these effects and an ability to combine and develop them effectively.

Although the comparatively large orchestral forces never got a chance to unleash their full opulence, the subtle introduction of sparsely textured and atmospheric instrumental colours gave the piece a cohesive structure.

Fisher’s description of Rainphase’s representation of “the beauty and chaos of Wellington rain” was certainly fulfilled, at least regarding the ‘beauty’ aspect, but any hint of ‘chaos’ left me wondering if there has been significant climate change in the capital since my own past experience of torrential, almost horizontal rain, cancelled flights and mangled umbrellas.

Even so, the orchestra performed the piece with commitment and polish under the clear and expressive direction of conductor Hamish McKeich.

Despite the work’s many beauties and evocative atmospheric effects, I found myself longing for even just a hint of rhythmic impulse, or an opening of the heavens in terms of sonority.

The whole piece seemed determined to hold the potential power and vitality of a large symphony orchestra very much in check.

However, there were those in the audience who clearly found Rainphase very much to their taste, with even a few isolated standing supporters.

And I know that there are many music enthusiasts out there who prefer the peaceful and calming nature of the Mystic Minimalist school, which certainly had an influence on Fisher’s composition, but I am not one of them.

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor

Pianist Moye Chen

Pianist Moye Chen Photo: Supplied

Although I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve attended performances of Rachmaninov’s second and third piano concertos, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the fourth live in concert until now.

But, even if the fourth doesn’t have quite the popularity rating of nos. 2 & 3, it’s an indisputable masterpiece, full of this composer’s surging melodies and beguiling harmonic invention.

It’s also a fiendishly difficult piece technically for both soloist and orchestra, but both Moye Chen and the Christchurch Symphony coped with the work’s challenges with apparent ease.

And that’s my problem with this performance.

The ‘ease’ was sometimes at the expense of the drama and energy that jumps off the pages of the score.

Parts of the opening orchestral flourish lacked definition with the wind triplets failing to register with the urgency they should.

And the composer’s direction for the soloist’s opening chords is pesante (heavily), but Moye Chen’s approach prioritised finesse and tonal blend over impact and drama, although there is no denying the virtuosic mastery that he demonstrated throughout the whole work.

I began to wonder how much of my need for greater textural clarity and definition was to do with the Town Hall’s acoustics.

Perhaps centre seats in the gallery are not as ideal as you’d expect.

As memory serves, the visual and aural immediacy of a performance is better served a block or two to the side.

My general impression of the piano sound was one of distance and lack of dynamic contrast.

Perhaps the acoustic also contributed to the orchestra’s less than transparent textures and articulation.

My overall impression was of a polished and fluid performance, but one that was missing a degree of Rachmaninov’s colourful drama and excitement.

I still enjoyed the performance, especially because this concerto is so comparatively rarely played, and many in the audience expressed their delight very enthusiastically indeed, eliciting an encore from the pianist.

Although we were not told what the piece was, my guess is that it was something of Medtner’s – not quite Rachnmaninov, but in a similar, if less distinctive, late Romantic style.

This was beautifully played and, to some extent, overcame the projection issues that, for me, slightly compromised the concerto.

Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C minor (Organ Symphony)

Christchurch Town Hall organ played to capacity crowd

Christchurch Town Hall organ played to capacity crowd Photo: RNZ / YouTube

Now that the we’re back in the Town Hall, it’s no surprise that the orchestra has taken an early opportunity to programme a work with an important part for the organ, and what better or more obvious choice than Saint-Saëns’ glorious Organ Symphony.

In the first half of the work, the organ’s role is effective, if rather tantalisingly subtle, but Saint-Saëns eventually unleashes its full power at the start of the Maestoso introduction to the final Allegro, here wonderfully realised by organist Jeremy Woodside at the console high above the stage, after which it continues as a rousing presence for the remainder of the work.

And ‘rousing’ is certainly the effect that stayed with us as we left the auditorium.

Conductor, Hamish McKeich, brought some superb playing from the orchestra, judging the work’s structure and climactic moments to perfection.

His attention to the detail of the composer’s dynamics did mean that quieter passages suffered from the same lack of projection that I mentioned earlier, especially in the Poco Adagio where the lushness of Saint-Saëns’ string writing seemed just a little too underplayed.

But that glorious melody, underpinned by quietly throbbing organ pedals, never fails to tug at the heart strings, and so it did in this performance.

The audience left the hall, uplifted by an evening of superb music and music-making, with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra maintaining a well-deserved following as musical life returns to normal in the city.