Review of October 2016 Concert

A VIRTUOSO PREMIERE PERFORMANCE

 A capacity audience attended the final concert of the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra to hear the carefully chosen program which opened with a commissioned work by composer Louise Webster, a violin concerto some 26 minutes in length. This work was inspired by a poem “The Sea” by Ruth Dallas. Dallas was born Ruth Mumford in 1919 and became blind in one eye at the age of 15. She was a prolific poet who received many awards including an honorary D. Lit. from Otago University for her poetry. Reading the poem it is easy to see how Louise Webster could be inspired by its down to earth poetic description of New Zealand’s sea and coastal forest. In three movements, the solo violinist Helene Pohl led the orchestra through some colourful passages with some occasional dissonance and ascending to the very highest notes possible on her instrument. The orchestration was finely balanced and sympathetically handled by conductor Michael Joel. The second movement was, to use the composer’s own description, “jagged, rhythmic with a very driven and acerbic quality.”  One could feel how the composer developed an affinity with the Dallas poem in her music writing especially in the final movement which was a gentle slow-moving passacaglia scored only for the soloist and strings. This built in intensity and momentum throughout only to end with the solo violin playing on its own. This premiere performance was warmly received by the audience and I look forward to hearing it again in the not too distant future.  Listening to this work it is easy to appreciate how the composer was inspired by Ruth Dallas’ words, but also by the sounds and images of the sea and the New Zealand landscape.  The solo violinist Helene Pohl gave an inspired performance of this concerto.

The second item was Beethoven’s four movement Symphony No 1. This starts slowly with sustained chords by the woodwind and a wandering melody by the strings which soon moves into a sunny Allegro.  From here on Beethoven shows his sure-footed  grasp of orchestral writing as the bright melody is played by the violins then taken up by the woodwind section who introduce a graceful second tune and then on to a plaintive duet between the woodwind and cello section.   In the second movement, we hear a stately dance with the second violins playing a lovely melody and later development with some brilliant counter-point. Listening to this music one appreciates just how skilfully the composer introduces such beautiful music and handles its progression and development with such confidence and skill. The third movement is labelled Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace. The violins rush in on an ascending scale with pulsing rhythm suggesting tension but order and calm is restored by the woodwind section who break into a trio with pulsing chords.  The movement ends in something of a romp.  The final movement is reminiscent of Haydn but it has the unmistakable stamp of Beethoven’s authority on the music. The cellos and basses are given some wonderful music to play against the main melody carried by the violins with the woodwind and percussion playing their part too. The 54 members of the orchestra gave an inspired reading of this symphony under Michael Joel.  With this numerical strength they are in truth no longer a “Chamber Orchestra” and their ability to play major symphonies is unquestioned.

The final item presented was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 2 which brought soloist Helene Pohl again to the podium. This concerto starts off in positively dark mood with the soloist playing a melody that is full of foreboding and tension. The orchestra joins her in a different key which heightens the tension, and the music continues in the same dark mood with the soloist having to play some fiendishly difficult passages. The second movement introduces a graceful melody with pizzicato accompaniment, and some inventive musical development involving interweaving melodic themes.  In the third movement the soloist showed her consummate skill in some of the most difficult music she was called upon to play.  Although this movement featured the percussive effects of castanets I did not think the music was in any way Spanish in style.  It was however fast-paced and rollicking music which the composer had instructed that the end be played “Tumultuoso”. The first performance of this concerto was in 1935 in Spain. At the present performance, the audience showed their admiration for the virtuosity of the soloist and the high standard of the orchestra.

To wind up the concert a general invitation to partake of wine (supplied by sponsor, Coopers Creek) and nibbles was warmly welcomed by the audience.  The 2017 program was unveiled.  Musical Director Michael Joel spoke and explained how future programs were selected. He explained that suggestions for future programming would be welcomed.  A presentation was made to Michael McLellan who was stepping down as concertmaster after 26 years in the role.  He was given a worthy round of applause.

Robert O’Hara