Review of August 2014 Concert

INSPIRATIONAL “EMPEROR” CONCERTO FROM GUERIN

The August concert of the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra was originally an “All Beethoven” programme, and although the celebrated Triple Concerto was planned, this had to be abandoned when the Ben Morrison trio was no longer available. I am reliably informed that Ben Morrison, (one of New Zealand’s most talented young violinists) has accepted a position playing with an orchestra in Vienna.    Its replacement with the “Emperor” concerto featuring piano soloist David Guerin was a serendipitous choice.

The opening offering, “Distant Voices” was a short piece composed especially for the S.M.C.O. by Louise Webster who is the orchestra’s principle second violin.  She has previously written for the orchestra and her explanation of the title made it easy for the audience to hear it with greater insight.     “Distant voices “is intended to reflect the way in which our forebears speak to us through the stories, writings and objects that they leave behind.   The composer was motivated by “the centenary of World War One as the horror and pointless suffering emerges from old letters, journals and eyewitness accounts.”      The opening used the poignant sound of the clarinet playing a sombre melody with muted strings accompanying.  The mood of the piece throughout was sad and melancholy and obviously intended to convey the composer’s sadness at the futility of war.   This was a most appropriate piece to perform to mark 100 years since World War One broke out.    I suspect that in her other profession (She is a paediatrician at Starship Children’s hospital) she is daily confronted with suffering and sad situations from which she could take musical inspiration.    I look forward to hearing more of her compositions in future.

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture was written in 1807 intended for Heinrich Joseph vin Collin’s tragic play “Coriolan” which was about the ancient Roman leader Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.   The structure of the overture follows the course of the play in a general way, commencing with some emphatic declamatory chords followed by a rhythmic melody that is developed further.   The first part in a minor key reflects Coriolan’s war-like attitude (he is intending to invade Rome) while later a more gentle theme in a major key tends to suggest a softening in his attitude, and when he finally recognises his mother’s pleading not to invade the City, he gives in to her pleas .    He has however led his army to Rome’s gates and cannot turn back, so he resorts to killing himself.     This overture was a chance for conductor Michael Joel to demonstrate his control of the orchestra and its dynamics and he did so to perfection.

The “Emperor” concerto with David Guerin as piano soloist was a wonderfully satisfying work.  In three movements, it does not follow convention in that after the initial chord, the soloist launches straight into a lengthy and quite brilliant cadenza, a solo showpiece which normally is presented later in the usual piano concerto format.   David Guerin stamped his authority on the work from his first chord, and continued throughout to charm the audience with his crisply clear playing of runs and his affinity with the orchestra.  His judicious use of the pedal throughout the work helped to heighten the drama of the piano part, and demonstrate his keyboard skills.    At times the work featured the cellos and basses playing pizzicato against the legato bowing of the violins and violas with the piano soloist towering over all.   This movement showcased Beethoven’s ability to introduce a theme and then develop and adorn it with so many subtle variations.  Suddenly the Bassoon heralded a key change and led to an impressive sweep into the final movement which kicked off without a break.   The final Rondo movement produced some wonderful pianistic effects from the soloist, who dashed it all off with nonchalant ease. Guerin got a clamorous ovation from the audience and seemed to be modest in his acceptance.   The Orchestra too got their share of the applause and deservedly so.

The final work was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.   It premiered in 1813 which marked a high point in Beethoven’s popularity.  On that same occasion the appreciation of the symphony was somewhat dulled by the “Battle Symphony” (or Wellington’s Victory) a showy work that Beethoven did in collaboration with Johann N. Maelzel (the inventor of the Metronome, who also made Beethoven’s ear trumpets).  In the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven reverted to a slow introduction in the first movement which is a long and dignified passage which morphs into a bouncy 6/8 rhythm which carries on to the end of that movement.  The allegretto movement is a slow and somewhat sombre march led by the cellos and double basses which is later joined by a plangent obbligato.   It moves inexorably on to finish rather wearily on an unresolved minor chord.     In the following Scherzo an exuberant melody Is introduced with some clever changes of key and the scherzo and trio is repeated leading to the final movement.    Two huge chords introduce the final movement which launches into a dance-like rhythm in which the timpani play an important role.    This symphony has on occasion been dubbed “The Symphony of Dance” and one can see why especially in this final movement.   The orchestra for this concert boasted four double basses and eight cellos which enabled these sections to command audience attention especially in the final work.

The venue was well filled for this concert and clearly audience appreciation is leading to more supportive attendance, which the players really deserve.   The next concert on Sunday 14th September will feature Clarinet soloist James Fry in the Finzi Clarinet concerto, and also Elgar’s widely popular Enigma Variations.   Robert O’Hara