A capacity audience gathered at St. Matthews for the final concert in the 2014 scheduled programme, on a lovely spring day that made the heart glad to be alive. The first work featured a composition from one of the members of the orchestra, Violist, Alison Talmage, who works as a music therapist at the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre, and the Auckland University Centre for Brain Research. Although the programme did not say so, I believe this was the premiere performance of the work. The music was somewhat introspective and apparently drew inspiration from a World War 1 poet Wilfred Owen. Although the music was modern in the sense that it explored new tonal harmonies, it did not seem to settle into a specific key which left me feeling somewhat frustrated at the end. I feel sure that on second hearing I would gain more from the piece than I did at first. The St Matthews Orchestra is to be commended that it programmes new works like this, and gives exposure to the music of contemporary composers. We can all learn from hearing these works and I would like the opportunity to hear this work again.
The remainder of the programme was devoted to French composers, and first up was Ravel’s well known Pavane pour une infant defunte. A Pavane is a stately dance and Ravel’s first theme features the horn in a somewhat melancholy mood with the same theme repeated by a plaintive oboe and carried on by singing strings and harp. The orchestration grew in volume and intensity and finished up playing in fortissimo at the conclusion. Ravel dedicated the work to his patron, Princess Edmond de Polignac and suggested that listeners imagine that the work would have been a dance that the little princess (as painted by Diego Valezquez) might have danced. This was delightful music and much appreciated by the audience.
The next item was Faure’s Suite from Masques et Bergamasques in four movements, Overture, Menuet; Gavotte and Pastorale. Originally commissioned by the Prince of Monaco as incidental music for a one act presentation, Faure later assembled the four Pieces to form this orchestral suite. This featured some cheerful melodies and lovely writing for the strings in the menuet, and later some stately music in the gavotte. The strings excelled themselves and conductor Michael McLellan enjoyed bringing forth some crisp playing from the orchestra. The harp featured in some soulful playing and the orchestra members clearly enjoyed themselves performing this elegant music.
Following the interval, the Auckland Youth Choir assembled behind the orchestra to perform the Faure Requiem. Audience members were provided with the Latin words of the work together with an English translation, and were able to follow the choir and soloists as they sang their way through the work. The introduction and Kyrie were beautifully sung by the choir, with great contrasts in volume which gave added point to the text. Baritone Benson Wilson featured in the Offertorium and his ringing voice gave authority to the words. He was especially effective later in the Libera me and he was able to stress the gravitas of the prayer seeking liberation. Soprano Hannah Bryant was also most eloquent in her solo performance of the Pie Jesu hich is preceded by the Horn Section in declamatory fashion In the Sanctus. As far as I am aware this is the first occasion in some years that the Orchestra have featured a choir in their programme in St. Matthews Church, and it was a welcome departure from the usual. The Auckland Youth Choir are a superbly disciplined group who sing as one voice and it was a joy for audience members to hear them in such a wonderful work as the Faure Requiem. Clearly we have a group of young singers who perform music to a very high standard, and who are well trained by their Musical Director, Lachlan Craig. Also deserving of mention was the discrete organ continuo provided by Timothy Carpenter, and the unique contribution of the two harpists, Melody Lin and Emilia Guo. On the podium Michael McLellan again showed sensitive control of the orchestra, and also gave positive direction to the choristers throughout the requiem.
Following the programme audience members were invited to share wine and cheese and the 2015 concert programme was unveiled. It is a great pleasure to see former solo performers like Simone Roggen (violin), Camille Wells (oboe), James Tennant (conductor & cellist) Gillian Ansell (viola) and Holly Mathieson (conductor) who have previously featured in S.M.C.O. concerts returning to delight audiences in 2015. The Orchestra and its following go from strength to strength. Robert O’Hara