The curved grandeur of the Auckland Town Hall was filled with colour and nuance last night with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s Boléro programme. Conductor Kazuki Yamada led the APO through an enchantingly rich programme including Arvo Pärt, Bela Bartok and finishing with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and a finale of Boléro.
To open, Pärt’s Fratres spread its vapours over us and created the space to receive the evening. And it allowed the extraordinary timbres of this piece to fill the Great Hall. The solemn percussive beats were like the call to prayer. The quiet spare chords in the strings slowly swelled in a mesmerising fashion. The apex could have had greater dynamic intensity to earn the quiet landing but certainly the stillness of Pärt’s ‘otherworld’ was present.
Bela Bartok’s works can be dense and dark but his Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste, a prosaic title for such a rich work, was given clear and bold colours. Bartok stipulated interesting configuration of the orchestra by placing two string orchestras facing each other with percussion in between. Piano and celeste are used percussively so are placed centre. Eerie dissonant fugue themes created spooky tones with some brilliant mysterious flourishes from David Kelly on the celeste.
Yamada drew out great depth of colour from the orchestra here with a fine control over the complex layering. In the second movement, he danced on the podium drawing out playful pizzicato from Sarah Watkins’ piano and scurrying strings. Movement four gave rise to joyous folk melody themes subsiding once more into the opening movement of worried fugue sounds. This was Bartok absolutely bursting with colour.
As well as the Fratres, it was a chance to hear Ravel that drew me to this evening’s performance. His Piano Concerto in G with Louis Schwizgebel on piano was written in the latter years of Ravel’s life when he was struggling with exhaustion. But here is a concerto full of life, wit and sweetness. Drawing on jazz sounds which he encountered on a concert tour of the United States in 1928, the concerto seems to anticipate Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Utterly ravishing delicacy was drawn by Schwizgebel from the piano. And the ‘duetting’ with the (quite robust-toned) cor anglais played by Martin Lee was the delicious centre of the work. Sensitive woodwind playing from Kathryn Moorhead’s flute evoked the magic woodland that you hear in much Ravel. The final presto section spilt sunshine into the forest and we heard Ravel’s joyful toy box of colours. Moments from his L’Enfant et les Sortilèges were brought to mind.
Judging by how busy the ushers were chasing down errant audience members who had whipped out their mobile phones for a quick vid, quite a few in the hall were there to hear the final work Boléro. Popularised in films and by ice skaters Torvill and Deane the work is doubtless on the programme more times than orchestral players would like.
But the work is such a smasher. Not only that but it actually gives an opportunity to hear some of the section leaders. Not least Eric Renick on the snare which tracks the build to the end of the piece’s 15-minute conclusion. A chance to hear a gorgeous solo from bassoonist Rachel Guan Ebbett as well as some slinky sax from Reuben Chin.
Ravel admitted what interested him most with this work was the orchestra’s ability to sustain one single unchanged rhythm for the duration and still achieve musical effect. There was some pretty loose playing with a pulse that was a bit untethered. I loved the comedy playing out in the double basses (we saw youuu), as they plucked notes on their neighbour’s bass. Got to do something with 15 minutes of repetition?!
But such fun on the stage and the audience loved it. Conductor Kazuki Yamada was enjoying himself hugely and gave free rein to the orchestra, scooping great swells of sound from the sections. His conducting style was a delight, almost interpretative dance on the podium! And who can beat the final chord shift in Boléro, it’s such a triumph. And with the final clashes of gong and bass drum this fabulously vibrant evening was brought to a joyous finish.