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NZSO Plays Bach and Ellington

The NZSO’s Shed Series returned for 2019 with the aptly titled REBIRTH at Shed 6 on Friday 8th. This theme dealt with the way in which music constantly evolves and changes, with styles and musical periods reborn in completely new and different ways. The repertoire selected by conductor Hamish McKeich celebrated the cross pollination of influences classical and jazz music have had on each other.

The first piece was Fanfare for Bert by NZ’s Jack Body.

McKeich explained that Body composed this piece as a Tribute to Bert Kaempfert (born Berthold Kämpfert; 16 October 1923–21 June 1980), a German orchestra leader and songwriter. It was a nice loungy piece to start the show on with complex overlapping African melodies and a relaxed pace. The SOUNZ archive says that Kaempfert’s use of African influences in fact made him an early exponent of world music. I actually have a copy of this LP in a crate somewhere and went through a period of playing it on repeat.

“He made easy listening and jazz-oriented records and wrote the music for a number of well-known songs, including "Strangers in the Night" and "Moon Over Naples". The LP entitled A Swingin' Safari was heavily influenced by South African "kwela" style music, containing versions of "Zambesi", "Wimoweh", "Skokiaan", and "Afrikaan Beat", as well as the title track.”



Next up was La Création du Monde by French composer darius Milhaud.

This is a 15-minute-long ballet composed in 1922–23 to a libretto by the French modernist Blaise Cendrars. Interesting side note - Cendrars was one of the US writer Henry Miller’s influences. The libretto outlines the creation of the world based on African folk mythology.

McKeich also explained how Milhaud lived in Brazil after WW1 and was exposed to lots of different world music influences there. He then moved to New York in 1922 and discovered Jazz in Harlem and promptly fell in love with it. Mckeich said he probably saw Duke Ellington play there. Milhaud started to incorporate jazz elements into his compositions from that point.

In this NZSO setting, the viola was replaced by saxophone to jazz it up even more. That worked a treat and gave it a moody John Coltrane vibe, and even touches of a Latin tinged sound like Davis’ Sketches of Spain.

This piece had beautiful flow and pace from a gentle smooth pace in the first movement and then in the second moved on to a more ‘Dixie Jazz’ or southern tinged feel in a more bouncy and danceable rhythm. This was interspersed with dreamy sections and built again to an almost frenetic Bebop jazz tempo. The complex melodies repeated variations of the theme throughout in everything from mournful to cheerful feel before coming increasingly abstract, urgent and distorted near the end, finally resolving back into the melody and finishing on a single extended and hopeful note.

Here is a version played by Orchestra Nacional de France, conducted by the legendary Leonard Bernstein

Then we were treated to some Bach in the form of Cello Suite No.5 in C minor, BWV 1011, I. Prelude.

McKeich explained that Bach has one of most adapted composers by jazz musicians. This solo piece was played by Principal Cellist Andrew Joyce. What can I say, it was Bach and it was an amazing performance.

Here is the legendary Yo-Yo Ma playing the piece:

Then a small selection of musicians moved to the other end of the shed for a rendition of Estonian avant garde composer Arvo Pärt’s Wenn Bach Bienen gezüchtet hätte ... (If Bach had been a Beekeeper).

This featured excellent Woodblock and other percussion from a very busy single percussionist, as well as Violins playing repetitive drone sounds, Bassoon, two Clarinets, a French horn and Flutes. The gravity of bassy horn and bassoon bursts nicely offsets the high pitched violin drones and flutes in whistling melodies. There were some particularly beautiful heavenly violin chorus lines at the end.

Then we had more Bach solo, this time a single violin playing Violin Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004, III. Sarabande, IV. Gigue.

This was an excellent choice and a beautiful piece well played. The Partitas are generally thought to be of unorthodox formal design consisting of sequences of Baroque dances. This piece had a quite exploratory, improvisatory feel and some highly complex violin technique was obviously required. The audience was rapt throught this performance.

Here it is played by Hillary Hahn

The concert finished with legendary composer, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige Suite adapted for orchestra by Maurice Peress.

The extended jazz piece was composed for big band, but NZSO played an adapted version for orchestra by Peress boldly addresses African-American history and premiered in 1943 at Carnegie Hall. As McKeich explained Ellington was in fact the first African-American composer to perform there. It was attended by the who’s who of the jazz and classical works and McKeich quips, nobody was happy with it. However it is now considered a masterpiece and a signature piece by Ellington, although rarely performed.


The work deals with the coming to the US of African Americans, through to WW1. It was derived from a 33-page verse narrative, by Ellington tracing the history of an African named Boola, and tells of his arrival in America by slave ship, of his servitude in a strange and beautiful land, his emancipation and his discovery of the blues.

The narrative "Black, Brown, & Beige" is thought to be Ellington's philosophical metaphor for black survival in a white world. It is an enigmatic and complicated work, made all the more extraordinary by the disarmingly comfortable tonal palette and rhythmic flow of a jazz band,

The original Suite includes seven movements including an opening "Black" section a "Blues" section, a "Work Song" theme depicting the ax chop and after-grunt in a simulacrum of the hard labor of slavery. This flows into "Come Sunday" - a scene where black folks are standing outside a church they cannot enter, enjoying the music and harmonizing along, praising the universal God of all men. A transitional phrase and a trumpet cadenza then leads into the happy-go-lucky "Light", a variation on "Work Song" ending with a final quote of "Come Sunday"--- this last, a 1969 idea of Duke's, to give the three movements a proper close.

Even the cut down version played by NZSO is a truly epic piece. It features Bouncy bass lines

Jazz high-hat drumming and Tom's simulating African percussion sounds. Bluesy Violin lines enter and sudden Horn stabs, trills and melody lines. There was Tintinnabulation, possibly church bells?, and some Swanky jazzy horn lines. The obvious narrative structure gave it an almost film-score like big band sound. We were lucky to have been treated so this profound and beautiful piece of history.

Summary

Another great show from the NZSO series, this idea is certainly well received and it played to a sold out audience. One minor complaint a few people mentioned was the lack of seating. It is done on a first in first serve basis, with the idea that people move around throughout. However, like the property market this didn’t seem to happen. Instead people got in early to the prime locations and sat on them until the end. I get the idea of not filling the room with seats, however why not throw in a few extra cushions at least? Or even better, play a mandatory round of musical chairs at half time? People standing or sitting on the floor for a couple of hours might seem hip and cool but for older people in attendance it is not the best. Just a thought from a perennially late journalist. Otherwise keep it up NZSO - this approach is helping to make excellent music more accessible to the masses.


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