CSO – Homage

The rapport between solo violinist Mark Menzies and the orchestra was tellingly evident during Saturday night’s CSO concert.


Christchurch Symphony Orchestra
March 18, 7.30pm, Charles Luney Auditorium

The Christchurch Symphony should be congratulated on this brilliantly conceived, innovative and superbly executed programme. None of the works is usual concert fare, but each draws on masterpieces of the past, hence the concert’s title – Homage.

The opening of Webern’s transcription of Bach’s Ricercare a 6 from The Musical Offering was remarkably suggestive of Webern’s own Symphonie, in which the composer distributes the notes of the theme around different instruments. But, as the CSO strings entered the texture, the expressive qualities of Bach’s original, itself built on a theme given to the composer by Frederick the Great, were fully realised by refined and committed playing from the orchestra.

That commitment was the key ingredient of the performance of Gubaidulina’s Offertorium, effectively a violin concerto. Here, soloist Mark Menzies communicated such fervent belief in this challenging work, that he carried conductor, orchestra and audience along for its entire 40-minute duration. Also based on Bach’s Ricercare theme, Offertorium takes Webern’s pointillistic technique even further by giving every note of the opening statement to a different instrument.

Menzies played the solo part with consummate virtuosity, intense expression and a clearly-communicated understanding of the work’s architecture and expressive intent. The orchestra matched the soloist with spectacular playing, and the rapport between soloist and orchestra was tellingly evident.

Rehearsing this complex and demanding work must have been a rare challenge, but the performance was full of flair, vitality and disciplined ensemble, expertly controlled by conductor Tom Woods, and the extended and meltingly beautiful ending section was wonderfully played.

Soloists from all sections made impressive contributions to the success of this exceptional performance, and I need to acknowledge the opulent brilliance of the horn section in particular.

The horns also shone in the more familiar territory of the final work on the programme, Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1, arranged for orchestra by Webern’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. In this performance, the arrangement was astonishingly convincing, with Brahmsian romantic richness combined with Schoenbergian expressionistic extravagance.

Tom Woods gave the orchestra its full head, especially in the exuberant gypsy Finale, which also included some outstanding playing from lead clarinettist Ellen Deverall, and so, the CSO carried off another technically challenging piece magnificently.

I spoke to several audience members who had come especially to hear this unusual programme; more please Christchurch Symphony!

 – Stuff

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