Review: Orchestra Wellington brings ‘neglected’ composers to center stage and creates the work of John Psathas

In the opening of the second movement, the conductor of the Wellington Orchestra, Marc Taddei, perfectly captured the mood of the soft lyricism.


In the opening of the second movement, the conductor of the Wellington Orchestra, Marc Taddei, perfectly captured the mood of the soft lyricism.

Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei with Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach (percussion). Music by Fanny Mendelssohn, Psathas and Schumann. Michael Fowler Center, May 21. Reviewed by Max Rashbrooke.

No one would call Robert Schumann, one of the world’s most famous composers, overlooked; yet his orchestral music receives relatively little attention, at least in New Zealand.

Orchestra Wellington wants to change that: hence a Saturday night concert anchored by Schumann’s Spring Symphony. Overcomposed and sometimes repetitive, it’s not my favorite track. But as is often the case, when a conductor absolutely believes in a composition, the performance goes up a notch, and this was the case on Saturday.

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After a few uncertain first notes, conductor Marc Taddei draws a tense and restrained sound from the orchestra; in the strings, the zigzag darting patterns were particularly good, while the woodwinds were dexterous in their delicate and rapid passages. In the opening of the second movement, Taddei perfectly captured the mood of soft lyricism. The cellos played beautifully, and the end of the movement was delicacy itself. The finale, for me, lacks invention; but the playing stayed on the right side of the line between triumphant and pompous, with the brass sounding particularly good.

Previously, the concert had opened with a work by an undeniably unknown composer, Fanny Mendelssohn. His choral works – especially the adorable Gartenlieder – are being rediscovered, and here the Wellington Orchestra has presented its Overture in C to local audiences. But while the performance was crisp and well-formed, it was peppered with errant notes, awkward entries, and less-than-perfect harmony between strings and brass.

However, the musicians seemed completely at ease during the premiere of The All Seeing-Sky by composer-in-residence John Psathas. Declaring, in its program notes, a desire to move away from the “fireworks mega-spectacle of recent percussion concertos”, Psathas produced a work in moments of transcendent beauty, one that united Hell from Dante to the modern surveillance state.

Swiss percussionists Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach.  (File photo)


Swiss percussionists Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach. (File photo)

Swiss percussionists Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach, full of a supple and golden energy, conjured up a delicate and hushed opening. The interaction between the strings and the percussion was perfect, the complex syncopation of the latter filling in the spaces left by the longer lines of the former. You could almost feel the slow ebb and flow of the underworld tide.

In the second movement the timpani, predominant throughout the concert, were again in the foreground, supporting the plaintive accents of the brass. The final movement, though slightly less captivating than the first two, nevertheless ended with a bang. Psathas then took the stage to warm and sustained applause. When he finally calmed down, a kid behind me said, “They were amazing.” There is a lifelong viewer, hopefully.

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