Dunedin Symphony Orchestra: Viola Viola

I’ve always found something so marvellous in the way an orchestra prepares to give a performance. The chaotic overlap of drawn bows over various stringed instruments, snippets of melodies, broken and distorted, all combined in a final tuning check that causes the theatre to swell like a breathing being. It’s a glimpse of what’s to come. When the conductor enters suddenly, the musicians see nothing else, except their leader and the music they’re about to create together. Within the comfortable setting of the Kings and Queens Performing Arts Centre, we waited for the lights to dim and the sounds of the evening to be revealed. To the outside world, a blustery Saturday evening in Dunedin, few would know a new composition was about to be exhibited in its premiere performance, and we would be the lucky first to hear it.

Tim Deighton, soloist, with Anthony Ritchie, composer. Photo courtesy of Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.

The nights concert was conducted by Richard Davis, the current Chief Conductor and Head of Orchestral Studies at the University’s Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. When he entered, the audience united in esteemed applause, quickly settling in anticipation for those brilliant opening chords that would take us down the rabbit hole.

The first piece of the programme was Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony (1933-1934). The work is a far cry from simple, and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra executed it with ease, skill, and plenty of flair. Simple Symphony consists of four movements, each re-casted from old piano tunes and song melodies Britten wrote in his pre-teens. Consequently, the work exudes the charms of youth; from the descriptive titles of the movements ‘Boisterous Bourrée’ or ‘Playful pizzicato’, the upbeat, toe-tapping lines, and to the way Davis embodied the music himself, bouncing on his feet along with the springy string nuances. It was a pleasure to listen to, as well as to watch. The orchestra revealed their versatile musicianship in the third movement, ‘Sentimental Sarabande’, drawing out the sombre lines with feeling. ‘Frolicsome Finale’ called back the cello theme from the first movement and the piece closed with a flourish. Simple Symphony hadn’t been performed by the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra since 1992, and it was a wonderful way to open the evening.

From Britten to the Americas, next came Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944); a Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet score written for choreographer Martha Graham, which captures an American sensibility and exudes a nationalistic quality. Copland was among those American composers interested in finding a music that would ‘speak of universal things in a vernacular of American speech rhythms’, to which Appalachian Spring typifies this philosophy. Davis introduced the work, indicating that it was traditionally performed by smaller ensembles to fit within the small ballet venues. Tonight, however, we would be treated to a very rare performance of the original scoring which included the sounds of the flute, clarinet, and oboe; the ‘wind infiltrators’ of the string selected programme. The orchestra skilfully set the scene. Despite the title of the work, the vast landscape of the Appalachian Mountains was not Copland’s inspiration when he wrote the piece, and misplaced praise at his ability to depict such a setting is noted as having been frequently expressed, much to Copland’s amusement. The work progressed and the orchestra took up the lines with grace, boldly highlighting some of the more angular melodies throughout. The elegant flute line ended the work, to which Davis described was like a pictorial version of the stars coming out at sunset, as the ballet’s narrative bride and groom metaphorically embrace for the first time.

Two further things captured my attention during the performance; Firstly, Davis danced, practically off the podium at moments! Secondly, amidst the flurry of sounds, one was not like the others; a glance to my left confirmed the kind, elderly usher was absorbed in humming Copland’s tune to himself. More than anything, it was a confirmation; the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra had delivered a successful rendition of the Copland favourite.

A break ensued; A stretch here and there, excited conversation, pleasant mingling in the foyer, ice cream for the lucky some. The lights dimmed, concentrating everyone’s focus back to the small world residing centre stage, and the orchestra recollected themselves. The time for tonight’s headline piece, Anthony’s Ritchie’s Viola Concerto No.2, with esteemed virtuosic soloist Tim Deighton, had arrived. The audience united in a moment of silent breath holding, the people in my row leaned forward eagerly, gripping the edges of their folding theatre seats. Well, maybe that was just me! Though an anticipatory energy could certainly be detected rippling amongst the audience.

In truth, I didn’t know what to expect. Fantastic composing was guaranteed, but of the musical story itself, I was in the dark. The piece opened in waves of lyrical cascade before bouncing off some unique tonal ideas which continued to build, never allowing one to reside in the comfort of resolution. Immediately I was struck by the uniqueness of the work; it’s character turbulent and emotive. There were curious tonal harmonies that were unpredictable, leaving you with a distinct impression as the work continued to traverse forward.

Anthony Ritchie is considered one of New Zealand’s most prolific composers. A career, involving a decade of freelance composing, several composer residencies, and many years teaching music at Otago University, saw him compose over 180 works in that time, with many performed by renowned ensembles. Viola Concerto No.2 was composed on a request from friend and esteemed musician, Tim Deighton, for a new work for viola and orchestra. Anthony notes that ‘while the music is not programmatic, it does traverse an emotional journey’ with emphasis placed ‘not on solo virtuosity but rather [on] an integrated relationship between soloist and orchestra’.  This became apparent in the effortless way the orchestra and Deighton manoeuvred through the passages, like a seamless conversation between two, or a pair in a partner dance. Throughout the work, the viola took on another character, exposing us to its expressive potential through rich, idiomatic scoring. I do not doubt the piece, or Deighton’s singular playing, left an impression on us all, each of us proud to have been treated to such talent, and especially, to have enjoyed the music written by one of our very own.

Tim Deighton with the DSO viola section. Photo courtesy of Dunedin Symphony Orchestra

To conclude what had been a marvellously designed and executed programme, we enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings; a well-loved and well-known piece. The long, melancholic lines, famous of Tchaikovsky’s writing, were sung beautifully, with the athletic cello melodies rollicking, and the overall orchestral sound agile and elegant. It was no surprise the gentle hummer took up his stride again. After Tchaikovsky’s masterful scoring saw the bittersweet opening quotation returned to for a final time, the evening drew to a close with distinguished applause, although, not before Davis announced a final surprise. There was a stir of recognition amongst the audience as the encore string melody blossomed. Conversation afterwards confirmed the piece was Adagio for Strings (1938) by American composer Samuel Barber; an emotionally impacting and rousing work, which has also lent itself to powerful uses outside the concert hall setting. It was a moving conclusion to what had been a most enjoyable programme.

Photo courtesy of Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.

As usual, the evening had left me with lines of glorious melodies running circles in my head. Yet, I also found myself contemplating the wonderful ability music has at bringing people together. Old and young, orchestra and audience, composer, conductor, soloist or music-appreciator, alike, we were united under a shared joy. As I ventured out into the blustery Dunedin evening, I felt satisfied that we would be enjoying classical music such as this for a long while yet, particularly with composers like Anthony Ritchie in our midst adding to its wealth.

Review by Sarah Manktelow.