28 November 2014

Review: Auckland Chamber Orchestra with Ben Hoadley

Auckland Chamber Orchestra
Soloist Ben Hoadley
Directed by Peter Scholes

Holst: Brook Green Suite
Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony Op.110a
Taylor: Bassoon Concerto
Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste

23 November 2014, Raye Freedman Arts Centre
Review by Sarah Ballard

The Auckland Chamber Orchestra certainly produces some of the most nourishing classical music programmes in Auckland. In years past, director Peter Scholes has programmed a delightful set of New Zealand composer portraits, Dutch composer Michael Van Der Aa’s revelatory Mask for ensemble and electronics, and earlier this year ACO delved into crossover with award winning songstress Maisey Rika. This is hardly representational of the range of works that the orchestra has programmed, but these examples show an ensemble that does not subside into any predictable course of action or routine. On Sunday it seemed circumstances had aligned to allow Scholes to stretch to new and innovative heights: on this occasion a “dream” programme of Holst, Shostakovich, Bartok and a collaboration between bassoonist Ben Hoadley and composer Alex Taylor. More often than not, ACO seems to meet this balance of new works and reverence of repertoire greats.

This early evening affair was met with a sense of elation amidst the warm spring air as patrons gathered at the Raye Freedman Arts Centre. Holst’s Brook Green Suite maintained the collective sunny demeanour, with string orchestra launching into the piece with great sprite, vibrantly led by concertmaster Miranda Adams. Pastoral charm was illustrated with liquid silk bowings, effectively conveying the rustic lushness of the second movement. Robert Ashworth's cascading viola line was passed seamlessly and sumptuously over into the bowings of cellist James Tennant, providing the most engaging sonic moment within the piece. The race to the finish was executed with panache, and received enthusiastic applause from a reasonably full audience.

In retrospect the Holst seemed the misfit of the programme. One can only assume that it was included in order to fill out time, a neatly packaged morsel. Nevertheless, the decision to place this piece first on the programme was well judged, so as not to intrude upon the fine musical triptych the following pieces formed.

With tam-tam and harp beckoning onstage in deserted spaces, Shostakovich's musical cryptogram, DSCH, permeated the hall. In this acoustic Adams' foreboding violin solo was more sterile than singing, over an arid bass drone. However she delivered dagger accents with conviction and stringency, but struggled to get the cooperation of the rest of the section. Scholes shaped the dramatic impetus of the work with careful dynamic shading and gentle, free-flowing gestures. The orchestra responded with sardonically nasal earwig trills crawling in and out of earshot, the crackle of bow friction on string and a loitering drone devoid of vibrato, all realised with admirable sensitivity.

It took us so far away from where we all were at that particular moment . The performance succeeded in transporting me as the listener, lifting me out of my context from there in front of the stage. The performers effectively painted the musical juxtapositions which were so important as driving forces of the piece. The ensemble was left decaying on open strings; James Tennant looked truly moved, hanging off an open C as if trying to expel all the anguish of the piece.

The most captivating part of the concert was Alex Taylor’s eagerly anticipated Bassoon Concerto. Soloist Ben Hoadley appeared gallantly onstage with bassoon at the ready, in striking attire to match vertical stripes of crimson red at the backdrop. Labelled as five distinct movements: ‘heave, shuffle, trudge, jolt and roam’, these terms certainly outline a journey of sorts, as mentioned by composer in the programme note. It is a journey mapped out across an emotive terrain, one that the listener senses intensely from the narrative of the protagonist bassoon and its interaction with the orchestra, essentially humanising the instrument. Taylor has for some time had a strong and independent voice, but this piece covers new ground. It is unquestionably still his music, but at the same time there has been a development in musical language, a different sort of expressivity and approach to colour that one could begin to hear in [inner] (2011), for viola and orchestra.

A broad, looming pianissimo chord introduced us to ‘heave’, the composer having taken great care to balance each element. We were then mesmerised and captured, with ritualistic resounding rumbles from low double bass and bass drum and the shimmer of high divisi strings, gliding atop a sonic gulf. Tense, metallic pangs of xylophone announced the arrival of the bassoon, slimy and serpentine, crawling out of the depths of the lower frequencies of the ensemble, and seeping in and out of the musical texture. Hoadley relished in the virtuosic burst of ‘shuffle’, his bassoon line shimmying at the beck and call of the ensemble. At the composer’s most sensitive of writing, and protagonist’s most vulnerable state, Hoadley sounded the most gloriously dulcet high tones, this one of many instances within the work that demonstrated the composer's talent for great colouristic control. Taylor kept the listener enchanted with sublime and intense sensory moments, the opening chord of ‘roam’ seeming to contain the whole world within it.

By the end of this journey I wasn’t sure where we had wound up. The musical trajectory had seemed so perfectly paced up until the second cadenza near the end of the piece. In context, the way the material of this cadenza was presented felt unfamiliar and somewhat out of place considering the lush, emotive writing style that characterised the rest of the piece. However, one can feel quite dissatisfied when a piece ends with a sense of predictability. The unanswered question left in the clearing in this instance made a lasting impression, and piqued plenty of curiosity to warrant reconnecting with the piece in future to retrace this transformative journey. In performance the piece was so engrossing that it did not seem to take up its 25-minute duration, a sign of a well-crafted and cohesive work. It was also striking how effectively integrated the bassoon part was into the material of the ensemble, a special achievement of this concerto. Taylor has contributed a brilliant and sensitive new work to the bassoon repertoire.

Post-interval, the performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Strings, Percussion and Celeste may have suffered somewhat from ambitious programming. It was clear here that Scholes had a different agenda in his conducting. Rigorous and more demanding of players, the focus was on keeping the more rhythmic sections together and expression seemed to be lost as a result. Accuracy and intonation were often an issue and the mechanistic material did not always come off. However the ensemble redeemed itself, evoking opulence in the final Allegro, along with a compelling cello solo from Tenant. For all its insecurities with the repertoire, the ensemble made up for it with enthusiasm and professionalism. This concert marked a brilliant end to the ACO season and highlighted a noble undertaking in bringing some exceptionally fine repertoire to the fore.

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