Review of September 2016 Concert

MOZART PIANO CONCERTO DELIGHTS

With José Aparicio conducting and Stephen De Pledge the featured soloist, the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra had two terrific drawcards to attract a capacity audience for their September Sunday concert, and it was with great anticipation that I took my seat in this inner city church. Firstly José makes his return visit to St Matthew’s to conduct, and we are so lucky that such a talented musician originally from Alicante, Spain has chosen to settle in New Zealand.   He is of course married to New Zealand singer Anna Pierard, who comes from the Hawkes Bay. Stephen De Pledge is now settled here where he is a Senior Lecturer in Piano at Auckland University and also manages to fulfil a wide-ranging schedule overseas as a performing soloist, chamber musician and accompanist.  Both of these men have impressive music backgrounds and it is quite a coup that the orchestra was able to engage them for this concert.

First up we heard Wagner’s stirring Overture to “The Flying Dutchman“.  This work gives a wonderful foretaste of what is to follow in the opera itself.  In 1839  Richard Wagner was a conductor at the Court Theatre Riga and in his autobiography, Mein Leben, he claimed that he had been inspired to write “The Flying Dutchman“ after having suffered a horrendously stormy sea voyage between Riga and London.  The opera featured a Sea Captain who is doomed for his blasphemy to sail forever, and only be allowed to come ashore every seven years to find a faithful woman.  Senta is that woman who remains faithful unto death.  In the Overture (which was written last) Wagner incorporates leitmotifs firstly of the storm, then The Dutchman and finally Senta.  Conductor José gave a wonderfully dynamic performance of this overture and was able to bring out the full drama of the music in all its power.   Clearly the members of the orchestra enjoyed playing under his direction and rose to the occasion.  It is worthy of mention that the conductor chose to reposition the different string sections from their usual format, and while some would debate this aspect, I believe that it offered a better balance for the cellos and violas to be more centrally placed.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto number 20  was one of only two written in the minor key. It was a particular favourite of Beethoven and the only one that he wrote cadenzas for.    It was also the only Mozart Piano concerto that Beethoven ever performed in public.  Throughout the concerto the orchestra and soloist take it in turns to introduce a melody then respond and develop it. This is probably Mozart’s most popular piano concerto and it deserves to be because it has so much musical substance and variety of melodic material.  It contains a wonderfully satisfying cross-section of orchestral colour, sound and dynamics with the piano taking its turn to be the focus of attention.   Stephen De Pledge did not play the Beethoven cadenzas but substituted his own, and they were just seamless with the Mozart.   I understand that in rehearsal his own cadenzas were different again and embodied some nursery rhymes. Such exceptional talent was fully appreciated by the audience and they also appreciated the mutual understanding evident between conductor and soloist.  This made for a truly memorable performance of this exceptional piece of music.  No doubt in Mozart’s day he would have conducted the orchestra from the keyboard, as have many modern performers like Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Mitsuko Uchida and Maurizio Pollini.

Finally we heard the passion, energy and wonderful melodic content of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No 1.  In 1839 Schumann wrote, “Sometimes I would like to smash my piano; it has become too narrow for my thoughts.”   He was in fact referring to the orchestra as the medium for which he yearned to compose.  Two years later his wish came true and he confided to a friend, “How I enjoyed hearing it performed.”  He was referring to his first symphony.  Its first performance in Leipzig was conducted by Mendelssohn.  At one stage the composer considered giving each of the movements titles like “Spring’s awakening” ; “Evening”; “Merry Playmates” : and “Spring’s Farewell”   but in the end rejected the idea.  Indeed music that is as fresh and confident as this is needs no supporting text to explain it.     The work suggests the bitter cold of Winter being pushed aside with melting icicles and Spring arriving with bubbling torrents of water evocative of boisterous weather.  This is then pushed aside in the coda which ends in a beautiful hymn-like melody.   The second movement brings a tender love song played by the violins, then the cellos and finally by the woodwind section, then the trombones quietly draw the key from E flat major to G minor as the movement closes.  The Scherzo is something of a tug-of-war the first sombre theme and the more happy tunes that follow suggesting some black clouds supplanted by a bright sunset.  The brightness of the first movement returns with the final movement which is introduced by a soulful horn call followed by a trilling solo flute which seems to hint at sadness in this world.  This is however swept aside by the full orchestra which dances joyously on to a Sunny conclusion.    Conductor José’s  direction was both positive and economical.  He drew some beautiful sounds forth from the orchestra, which resulted in a performance that the audience enjoyed and appreciated.

Lois Westwood’s informative program notes were once again well researched and presented.

The next St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra concert is on Sunday 16th October 2016  conducted by Michael Joel with Helene Pohl violin, playing the Prokofiev violin concerto No 2, and will include Beethoven’s  Symphony No 1. There will also be the premiere of a new work by Louise Webster.

Robert O’Hara.