23 Sep 2019

Review: CSO's The Planets and Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

From Upbeat, 10:23 am on 23 September 2019

Although the title of the programme refers to a popular orchestral classic, this was a concert that did things a little differently. And it really is time for classical concerts to do things a bit differently – more on that anon!

Might having Frank Zappa’s name as the first composer on the programme have deterred a few regular concert-goers? Maybe it did. Because, although the Town Hall was close to full, I couldn’t help noticing that the age demographic was considerably more diverse than is the norm for the Christchurch Symphony’s Masterworks series.

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa Photo: supplied

Night School included guitar and bass guitar as well as other musical effects that most listeners might more readily associate with ‘popular’ music styles. Frank Zappa often painted himself as something of an iconoclast. In his notes in an album conducted by Pierre Boulez, no less, in the early 1980s he stated ''all material contained herein is for entertainment purposes only and should not be confused with any other form of artistic expression''. But, although his music certainly deserves to be taken seriously, we should take it on its own terms and on its own musical evidence. Even the printed programme notes on Saturday night attempted to pigeonhole Zappa’s genre, perhaps to prepare us mentally, or to explain its ‘style’, almost as if it needed an excuse or apology for its inclusion in the programme.

So, what did we get? Well, for me it came across as an engaging and rhythmically foot-tapping piece, full of variety and vitality. I enjoyed it while it lasted but, apart from a few snatches of ideas that kept replaying in my head, mainly because of the visual aspects of the performance, the piece left little lasting impression until I refreshed my memory on YouTube the next morning. And, actually, those earlier electronic versions made a lot more sense with sparser textures, more obvious effects (especially some note bending, which played no audible part in the CSO’s performance), and a few passages that are totally unplayable on live instruments.

Christchurch Symphony Orchestra at the Christchurch Town Hall

Christchurch Symphony Orchestra at the Christchurch Town Hall Photo: Duncan Shaw-Brown

In Saturday’s performance the orchestration included too much that, like the note bending I’ve already mentioned, was completely inaudible. At times the harp player looked quite busy but, try as I might, I could hear nothing. Nor could I hear the guitar, even though it looked like it was amplified. And the groovy, tonally focused bass guitar that’s such a prominent feature of the original electronic recordings of the piece, emerged in this performance as a rather vague and boomy underlay in the aural mix, although Pablo Ruiz Henao’s funky trombone playing compensated superbly at times. The keyboard, also, was far too blended in the overall texture to make any real impression. The visual effect of three of the orchestra’s percussionists clapping their hands above their heads was a nice touch, at least for those of us, not in the gallery seats above them, who could see them.

Contributions from the strings, especially violins, in the fast semiquaver sections brought some real excitement and the wind and brass added some welcome tonal variety.

Benjamin Northey

Benjamin Northey Photo: Matt Irwin

Conductor Benjamin Northey used the time needed to reset the stage between the concert’s first two works, to interview composer James Gardner about his percussion concerto which we were about to hear. Right from the start of the evening the ‘chaos’ of percussion instruments, as it was referred to in the interview, was a very prominent visual feature of the stage setup. Four percussion ‘stations’ included two towering racks of almglocken (tuned cowbells) along with an enormous array of drums, gongs, large bamboo chimes, metal sheets, wood blocks, etc. etc.

Visually, all of this raised considerable expectations; and the large number of school-age audience members looked rather excited about the possibilities that such a sight inspired. Alas, such expectations were not to be fulfilled. Everything was subtle and ‘underblown’ – I can think of no better word for what we heard. If many contemporary composers have reacted against a perception of the ‘overblown’ in some music of the early twentieth century, why use such overblown visual impact to create something so aurally underblown?

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet Photo: supplied

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet played their part, as the soloists in this concerto, with total commitment, flair and polish. The sheer energy that they conveyed in realising even the subtlest effects was mesmerising if somewhat at odds with the impact of the sound itself. I cannot imagine Gyre (the concerto’s title) without its visual component. Such moments as seeing all four soloists urgently clutching bunches of large bamboo chimes in unison and then releasing them, had high visual impact with understated aural impact. The audience permitted themselves a giggle at this juxtaposition, but whether humour was intended, I’m unsure. There were certainly intended moments of humour in the performance. Late in the work, one of the quartet rummaged through his table of small ‘found’ items, trying out various sounds, finally alighted on a toy dolphin and squeezed it, producing a toy-like squeak. We laughed out loud at this point.

The programme notes loaded Gyre with layers of meaning that related to ocean vortexes, geographical links between the USA and New Zealand and environmental issues. None of this was evident in any way that I could fathom in the music itself! It’s said that empty vessels make the most noise, and how I longed for some real noise from that ‘chaos’ of visual potential on stage. The cowbell towers were hardly used, so, as another audience member said to me “What’s the point? . . . Or perhaps that was the point?” – Another unanswered question, following on from Charles Ives in the previous Masterworks concert.

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet Photo: rikemind

The performance itself brought the usual dedication and commitment from the orchestra, and Benjamin Northey held everything together with masterly control, although he did seem to beat clearly and almost mechanically, despite the programme statement that “Flexible bar values rather than regular pulses give the music room to breathe”.

The nature of the first two works on the programme required quite a creative approach to the orchestral layout. This, along with the content of the pieces themselves, was a welcome variant from traditional programming and presentation. So, now do we need to consider other changes regarding, for example, traditional orchestral dress code? In music such as this, outdated white tie and tails seem at odds with the colour and modernity of the music. And the presentation of bouquets of flowers to soloists and conductors is beginning to look like a convention rather than any sort of spontaneous appreciation from the orchestra and audience.

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Photo: Public Domain

After the interval, traditional orchestral layout was back in full force and, while much of Holst’s The Planets is quiet and atmospheric, at last we got some real noise as well! In this early twentieth century work (possibly one of those which Zappa and Gardner are reacting against) the standard orchestra is added to considerably, especially in the wind and brass (bass flute, bass oboe, tenor tuba) as well as two harps, two timpanists and organ, to mention some. For the most part Holst uses these forces for colour and expressive diversity, but at times he also unleashes the full decibel punch that eighty players are capable of, and those passages were certainly thrilling and uplifting. But even in the quieter moments the aural thrills are plenty, from tummy rumbling organ pedals and throaty contrabassoon to delicate harp chords and ethereal wind. And the six unison horns’ majestic cries together with the glorious string sonorities in Jupiter met every expectation.

If, overall, this was not a performance that really caught fire as a whole, it was full of magnificent parts and some very fine individual contributions from orchestral soloists. The otherworldly sound of the offstage women’s voices at the end of the final movement gave the music a definite astronomical flavour, in contrast to the astrological descriptors that Holst attached to each movement, and sent us off well-satisfied at the end of an adventurous and stimulating evening.