CHALLENGING PROGRAM A TRIUMPH.
The buzz of conversation among the audience told me at the outset that they had been looking forward to this final program. The works selected were some of the most technically difficult for the orchestra that they have played this year. However the petite conductor gave such clear direction that the orchestra players were able to master all of the difficulties and deliver a superb performance.
It was a pleasure to listen to the very first public performance of “Whim”, a work commissioned by the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra from Auckland composer Leonie Holmes, who is a lecturer in Composition and Music Studies at the School of Music, University of Auckland. It was described by the composer as “a light-hearted look at the epic, versus the whimsical in an all-out stylistic battle”. Although it was easy listening for the audience, this was technically difficult music to play and the percussion section shone with Sam Girling’s playing of the xylophone especially effective. After some capricious melodic passages the piece eventually modulated from the minor to the major key for a satisfying conclusion. The audience showed its ready acceptance of this bright new work, and applauded the composer and conductor together.
The viola concerto by Sir William Walton is not particularly well -known and there are all too few concertos written for the instrument. This concerto was first performed in 1929 and later in 1960 the composer re-wrote it omitting some woodwinds and brass but adding a harp. The soloist was Gillian Ansell, violist with the New Zealand String Quartet, and sister of Simon Ansell, violinist in the orchestra. The orchestra with all strings muted allows the viola soloist to soar beautifully above in the spot-light with a lyric melody that forms the main theme of the work. A second theme is introduced in which both major and minor harmonies are used. The orchestration features the oboe and flute, and Gillian Ansell demonstrated some impeccable double stopping. A dancing Scherzo in which both soloist and orchestra play melodies that are broken up by syncopated accents finishing with a flourish. A solo bassoon leads into the final movement in which the orchestra and soloist inter-weave material that had been previously introduced and wind onwards to a peaceful conclusion. Throughout there had been obvious rapport between the conductor and soloist and the audience showed their appreciation of this work.
It was however in the final work that the conductor Holly Mathieson, such a tiny figure on the podium, was a veritable “tour de force” in her direction of the orchestra throughout Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The work opens with a blazing and ominous fanfare from the horns and brass suggesting that fate “hangs like the sword of Damocles above our heads”. This moderates somewhat until later the same fanfare brings the movement to its conclusion. The oboe plays the melancholy theme introducing the second movement which reflects the composer’s sorrowful past pain following his disastrous marriage to a young student, Antonina Milykova. The third movement, a scherzo, features the entire string sections playing pizzicato, probably inspired by the balalaika. This was done with great delicacy by all of the strings and was most effective. In this movement’s trio the melody played by the oboe suggests drunken revelry by peasants, and this is referred to by the composer in his correspondence with his mentor, Madame Nadezhda von Meck. The finale features a Russian folk song, “A birch stood in the meadow” and while the fateful motif of the first movement is re-introduced, it does not dampen the celebratory fervour as the work progresses to a spectacular conclusion. Holly Mathieson’s conducting drew forth some magic playing from the orchestra whose obvious enthusiasm was evident in their performance of this exciting Symphony. The audience showed their enthusiastic appreciation with foot-stamping applause.
Following this concert the audience were invited to partake of wine (from sponsor Cooper’s Creek) and cheese to celebrate the release of the 2016 program. It is pleasing to record that Holly Mathieson will return next year to conduct a Tchaikovsky Symphony.