Saturday, July 09, 2016

Eroica concert

Late this afternoon we went to the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra's Eroica concert, with Holly Matheson conducting. A bit of name-dropping here. When our children were still children, Holly and her family lived nearby. Holly was in the same school class as one of our boys, and my oldest girl was friendly with one of Holly's older sisters.

In the years since, Holly has gradually built up her musical CV and has conducted a number of orchestras not only here in her home town of Dunedin, but also overseas. I hadn't seen her on the podium previously, so it was good to catch her in action, as it were.

She has a kind of balletic style, often up on her toes, and with plenty of movement in her work, often showing by her gestures the kind of feel she wants from the orchestra. This was especially evident in the Bach, where she and the orchestra often seemed to move as one.

The concert this afternoon, which started at five - five was probably once a very fashionable time of day, but seems a bit odd in the New Zealand context - included two performances from Amalia Hall, violinist. She's also a New Zealander. Hall performed Bach's 1st Violin Concerto (accompanied only by the strings and David Burchell on harpsichord), and Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Both well-known pieces, and beautifully played, especially the second. (The tuning of the strings in the Bach seemed just a little edgy, but perhaps because it was the first piece for the evening, the orchestra was feeling its way.)

Between these two items were two rather undistinguished selections - or so it seemed to me. The first was Purcell's Suite for Strings, a collection of short pieces without any of Purcell's distinctive flavour. The second was a kind of also-ran piece: Paisiello's Overture to The Barber of Seville. This opera in its day was more popular than Rossini's version, but has gradually been superseded. If the overture is anything to go by, it's not surprising.

The only work in the second half was Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. The name relates to the fact that originally the symphony was dedicated to Napoleon, a man Beethoven much admired during the time he was writing the piece. However, after Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven scratched out the dedication. The symphony isn't 'heroic' in any sense, though the second movement, a funeral march, could easily be seen as connecting to the funeral of some great person. There are various interpretations of the symphony, but a listener needs to take it on its own merits, which are many.

It was interesting to hear a live performance of it with a relatively small orchestra. All the wind parts were there, of course (including the three horns who have a delightful section to themselves in the third movement), but the strings were somewhat small in number: six firsts, four or five seconds, three or four violas (from where I was sitting it wasn't easy to gauge the exact numbers), four cellos and two basses. This is possibly not a small number in relation to the original performances of the piece, but we're used to large forces of strings in modern performances. The upside of this was that the detail from the wind and brass came across clearly, and there were many things that seemed unfamiliar, because they're usually absorbed by the big string sound. The downside was that the strings had to work hard to produce enough tone for the bigger moments.

All in all, however, an enjoyable concert, and a delight to see Holly at work.

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