Bold Worlds - Pictures At An Exhibition

By Amber Kelly

Artist:  New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Date / Venue:  Friday October 10th, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

The NZSO looked out to a bustling Michael Fowler Centre as they presented Bold Worlds; Pictures at an Exhibition. This celebration of Brass repertoire sandwiched big ticket works by Leoš Janáček and Modest Mussorgsky with an equally big ticket trumpet soloist, Håkan Hardenberger, who gave us the New Zealand premiere of Australian composer Brett Dean's Trumpet Concerto. With guest conductor Dima Slobodeniouk at the helm the evening was invested with great energy and imagination, and Slobodeniouk elicited refinement from the scores and players alike.

The programme opened with Janáček's brassy Sinfonietta, the triumphant phalanx of fanfares performed by an additional ensemble of no less than 13 brass players. If the audiences weren't settled in their seats before the concertmaster finished ‘tuning' the orchestra they definitely were after the opening march of trumpets, euphoniums and timpini that crown the Sinfonietta's five-movement progress. Originally commissioned for a ‘gymnastics festival', much has been written about the piece's nationalistic symbolism, enthusiasm and spirit, further evidenced by the work's dedication to the "Czechoslovak Armed Forces".

Yet the work is far richer than its military nods. The fanfares were irresistible, but most memorable were how Janáček introduced new musical ideas without warning. This offered a sense of surprise and suspense that continued throughout, right up until the triumphal return of the march-like theme and the final crashing amalgamation of sound at the very end. The exclamations of the cellos and basses near the start of the fourth movement were particular highlights, and the melancholic opening of the final section between flutes and strings was compelling. Aside from was sounded as some minor losses of concentration in the middle, the thrill of the concluding brass was unforgettable.

Dean's newly commissioned concerto Dramatis Personae, played worthy follower to Janáček. Written for Hardenberger, Dean's concerto was first heard at the Grafenegg festival in Austria and has since travelled widely. Hardenberger's familiarity with the music was evident; and he was immersed in the performance from the start. Cast in conventional form the concerto refers to the different characters Dean associates with the trumpet's persona. Drawing upon comic book scenarios and classical tales of heroism, the soloist is depicted as the fallen superhero, and Hardenberger's artistry captured this character deftly.

The concerto's whimsical opening was quite a shift in pace from the Sinfonietta's explosive end and Hardenberger's solo exploits, pitted against the orchestra as he moved through the first movement, were impressive. Using an array of mutes Hardenberg's technical abilities were captivating, and his flair and sensitivity in the second movement gave an almost a vocal quality to his timbre. A whimsical flavour returned to the music in the final movement when Hardenberger shifted to the rear of the stage and joined the trumpet ranks for the concluding bars. My only quam lay not with the playing, but with some elements of the composition - Dean's use of comic elements blended with traditional tropes was not completely convincing for me. Aside from this, the audience marvelled at Hardenberger's virtuosity, who well deserves the praise as the world's ‘greatest trumpet soloist'.

Ravel's incredibly recognisable arrangement of Mussorgsky‘s Pictures At An Exhibition was final work of the evening and had the orchestra sounding at their best. Set in 10 movements, Mussorgsky wrote the work as a tribute to the architect and painter Viktor Hartmann. Taking inspiration from Hartmann's paintings the suite depicts an imaginary tour of an art exhibition; each movement suitably characterful with its own individual colours. Of particular highlight was the way the opening ‘Promenade' theme was reworked and integrated throughout the ten scenes; the sorrowful iteration of the theme by the oboes in the ‘Catacomb's' was incredibly effecting. The exotic saxophone solo in the ‘second movement was very well done, and seemed a perfect addition to the orchestra.

Slightly away from the main action was a delightful scene of small boy, sitting in the front row, directly behind the conductor, who sat furtively in his seat following the wild and energetic movements of the conductor's baton; mimicking the sweeps, staccatoed thrusts and circular swirls as Slobodeniouk led the orchestra. Throughout the evening there was some inspired played, and orchestra, soloist's and conductor were well up to the demands of the music. Dunedin is the next stop for this programme and I am in no doubt the audience will be equally swept up in the brave bold world of Brass.