New Zealand Pietari Inkinen Festival – 2015: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Pietari Inkinen (conductor), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. 12.6.2015 and 13.6.2015. (PM)
Wagner Gala (12 June)
Wagner: Scenes from Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, Christine Goerke (soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Karen Gomyo Plays Beethoven (13 June)
Beethoven: Violin Concerto, Karen Gomyo (violin)
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite
After eight seasons as chief conductor of the NZSO, maestro Pietari Inkinen is about to move on – he’s just concluded his final week of touring with the orchestra, presenting two programmes and touring the four main centres as a kind of “farewell” to the country that’s been his home for the past eight years. He’ll go from New Zealand to the Czech Republic, where later this year he becomes chief conductor of the Prague Symphony (cheek-by-jowl with the great Czech Philharmonic, of course), and then next year he’ll also become chief conductor of the Japan Philharmonic.
As a mere music listener of a number of years’ standing, but with a limited (and, perhaps, “old fashioned”) grasp of orchestral politics, I would marvel how a conductor can adequately assume TWO “chef d’orchestre” posts at once – I assume the words of novelist L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there,” applies to this case as much as to anything in this day and age.
Certainly, having a European base in Prague will put him right in the geographical centre of European cultural activities almost halfway between Berlin and Vienna, and with an orchestra living and breathing virtually the same air as one of Europe’s greatest, and therefore, presumably, out to “prove its worth” – what an invigorating challenge for any conductor, even one who’s already taken his own orchestra to two of the world’s most prestigious concert halls and performed there with distinction.
Pietari Inkinen will obviously regard the 2010 tour of Asia and Europe with the NZSO as providing two of the most significant events of his career to date – those concerts given by orchestra and conductor at the Musikverein in Vienna and at the Royal Festival Hall in London will resonate for all time in the memories of those who took part in them. But he has other strings to his bow with comparable resonances, which add their own special lustre – his eight years at the NZSO’s helm as music director, and his rapidly burgeoning reputation as a conductor of opera, particularly of Wagner, supported by various performances of individual works and of a complete Ring for Opera Australia – and a highly-acclaimed one at that.
With the NZSO Inkinen has most successfully combined these strands of activity on the concert platform – in 2012 a complete, semi-staged Die Walküre was performed in concert as part of the orchestra’s subscription series. What a pity that we had to be content this time round with excerpts from both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, instead of a complete Siegfried, which would have continued the elongated but still historic continuation of what could one day become the first New Zealand Ring cycle performance. However, sufficient resources couldn’t be marshalled, and so that will have to wait a while longer.
It’s ironic that the NZSO in recent times has had two music directors whose skills, experience and abilities would have been ideally suited to performing the entire Ring operas. But alas, each was given only once chance to conduct a complete work with the orchestra – Franz-Paul Decker in 1997 with Das Rheingold and Inkinen with the aforementioned Walküre in 2012. Of course the latter could conceivably return in his capacity as “Honorary Conductor” of the orchestra and properly complete the cycle, were sufficient financial support to be made available. After all, he’s already conducted the entire Ring in Melbourne, and is planning to do it again there in 2016 – for Wagnerites in this country, a case, it seems, of “so near, yet so far…”
In default of the prospect of complete performances of the remaining Ring operas, we were grateful that Inkinen would be giving us at least a concert of excerpts from those two extant parts of the cycle. What was more he had at his disposal two of the world’s most exciting young Wagner singers to help with bringing certain parts of these works to tingling life. For those of us who had experienced the thrill of hearing that live Walküre in the Michael Fowler Centre in 2012, it was almost like joining in with a reunion of old friends, as both of the singers, soprano Christine Goerke and tenor Simon O’Neill, took part in that performance.
So our expectations were high, fuelled partly, as they were, by what had been before – and happily we weren’t disappointed. When performing opera in the concert hall, there are always swings and roundabouts regarding what “works” well or otherwise – for example, singers able to concentrate on their words rather than their acting, resulting in extra vocal clarity but a loss of theatrical impact. In Walküre, the semi-staged aspect allowed the singers some movement and gesture by way of helping conveying something of their roles’ characters, and thus was the case here, with both singers indicating through facial expression and body language that they hadn’t forgotten the “theatrical” aspects of the characters they were portraying, and therefore interacting and conveying so much more than simply by vocal means alone.
Siegfried began with the Act Three Prelude, the orchestra brasses on excellent form, hurling out the various motifs with attitude, and setting the scene for the (somewhat truncated) drama that was to follow. Following the Prelude, the music adroitly took us to Brünnhilde’s mountaintop prison via the “Magic Fire” music, Siegfried having broken through the flames to discover the still sleeping captive awaiting his arrival. Though, for me, Simon O’Neill’s voice often seems to want that last ounce of heroic “body”, here he was able to convey all of his character’s fear, excitement and longing in his first, disarming encounter with a woman. His wonderment and confusion at “Wie weck ‘ich die Maid” (How shall I awaken the maid), had a wholehearted “here-and-now” quality which easily transcended the limitations of the concert platform and brought the scenario to life.
As did the awakening of Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde – as alive to theatrical possibilities as O’Neill’s Siegfried, and given all the time and space she needed by Inkinen’s patient direction, she made the new day her own with her voice’s radiance and her character’s strength and vulnerability. A most telling moment in the scene was the seamless introduction of the “Siegfried Idyll” music to the drama’s narrative. In some performances it sounds like an interloper, a sequence that’s wandered in somehow by accident – here, by refusing to underline or otherwise draw attention to its beginning, Inkinen achieved a rare kind of unity between the sequence and the whole, so that in what seemed no time at all we were at the climax of the duet, and the orchestra was roaring its approval of the lovers’ union!
More was to come after the interval, with scenes from Götterdämmerung, given much the same treatment as was Siegfried (incidentally, I could find no credit given in the programme to the arranger of each of these works for concert purposes). But we had those arresting opening chords (the same that accompanied Brünnhilde’s awakening on the mountaintop) to begin, taking us to the depths of the world’s darkness, out of which grew the wonderful Dawn sequence and the lovers’ awakening – radiant singing from both of the protagonists, and exciting orchestral playing during the following “Rhine Journey”, leading to the first grim strains of the corrupt world of the Gibich family, whom the hero first encounters on his adventures.
Though mightily impressed by Inkinen’s handling of the orchestral textures and overall flow of the sequences thus far, I still wasn’t prepared for the power, weight and black cruelty he got from the orchestral brasses, whose playing punctuated the following sequences – these sounds depicting the world of the evil Hagen, half-brother to the Gibich children, and son of Alberich, the Nibelung dwarf who stole the Rhinemaidens’ gold at the story’s very beginning. From here, the music moves through Siegfried’s betrayal of Brünnhilde and murder by Hagen, before giving us the hero’s final words of greeting/farewell to his absent love, beautifully and movingly realized by O’Neill, with ecstatically “floated” dying tones – how appropriate to fill the ensuing void of shock and loss with the famous “Funeral March”, even if I thought Inkinen in his excitement didn’t entirely avoid a feeling of “jauntiness” in his direction of the more vigorous bits.
It was left to Goerke to deliver Brünnhilde’s famous “Immolation” scene, which she did with complete and utter authority – here, after all, was a singer whose abilities, like those of O’Neill’s, point to ongoing and greater achievements, such as a complete Ring at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, which is among her immediate plans. We have to thank our lucky stars that we heard her when we did, in repertoire such as this featuring quintessential examples of the dramatic soprano’s art, and here realized with those qualities already well to the fore.
There were places where the orchestral sound threatened to overwhelm the singers, an inevitable by-product of performing this music not for where it was written, in the theatre with the band down in the orchestral pit, but instead with singers and orchestra together on the concert platform. For Walküre I had seats in the stalls, in front of the orchestra, and could hear the singers perfectly, but this time I was seated upstairs, a good distance away from the musicians, changing the sound picture according to one’s situation in the auditorium.
Karen Gomyo Plays Beethoven
Still, a successful first evening’s music making, which threw the focus, then, on a different kind of programme for the second concert, one involving a concerto, with the coupling an extended orchestral work. The concerto was Beethoven’s for violin, and the soloist was supposed to be Hillary Hahn (whom I had never seen in concert, so was looking forward to her appearance) – however, her pregnancy necessitated a change of player, which was what we got with Japanese-born Canadian, Karen Gomyo, whom at first I wasn’t well disposed towards, for reasons that were obviously no fault of hers!
To my surprise and pleasure the “replacement” turned out to be a star in her own right. Gomyo trained at the Juilliard School in New York, winning various awards and performing with the top American orchestras as well as establishing links with other orchestras worldwide. She had played concerti with Maestro Inkinen previously, although not in New Zealand, and their rapport was obvious throughout the first exchanges. From Gomyo’s very first entry, the composer’s uncompromising, prosaic-sounding stepwise opening solo passage which violinists everywhere have variously struggled with trying to extract music from, she caught our attention, already nicely primed by Inkinen and his players with the opening orchestral tutti – right from the outset, timpani that “spoke”, and strings whose players bent their backs into sounding out the music’s sonorities.
That final note at the top of Gomyo’s opening phrase was voiced by her as a distinctive and triumphal moment, a place she had reached from which she could survey the terrain and begin her explorations. All through the performance I got the feeling from her playing a sense of something completely spontaneously expressed, a unique journey, one whose quicksilver aspect and frequently whispered voicings gave her interaction with the orchestra real edge and tension. And Inkinen’s accompanying allowed his players a real partnership in places with the soloist – the minor key passage with the bassoons in thirds, for example, had oceans of deep feeling rather than merely sequences featuring “interesting” orchestral colouring.
Apparently her first movement cadenza was copied by her from a recording made by one of her heroes, Nathan Milstein, a passage that’s never been written down and published – again, the music seemed to “invent itself” as it went along, and join with the orchestra once again as naturally as two tributaries making a larger river.
A rapt performance of the Larghetto featured a beautifully breathed solo line and lovely orchestral colours, including a breath-catching pizzicati-accompanied sequence, dramatically set against a dramatic penultimate orchestra outburst which galvanizes the violinist’s line into dance mode, here with more of an elfin, rather than a bucolic quality from the soloist, the orchestra the perfect foil for the violin’s bright, direct, and sometimes even dangerous sounding utterances! When it was all over, I immediately found myself at loggerheads with my neighbour, who had found Gomyo’s playing “too interventionist” – but most other people I spoke with at the interval were as charmed as I was.
At the second half’s beginning, concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen spoke briefly but to appropriate effect concerning the occasion of conductor Inkinen’s last Wellington appearance with the orchestra as its music director. He touched on the most notable occasions that had marked Inkinen’s tenure, mentioning the various projects the orchestra had undertaken, which included the Beethoven symphony cycle of the previous year, one which would have undoubtedly enriched the performance of the Violin Concerto we’d just heard. Another was the complete Sibelius symphony cycle, which was here, very appropriately echoed by the four-movement Lemminkäinen Suite, making this final concert all the more relevant to what Inkinen had achieved during his time here. We then joined with the orchestra in welcoming the maestro to the podium on this final historic occasion.
Two of the Suite’s movements occasionally get an “airing” – The Swan of Tuonela, and Lemminkäinen’s Return – but the others practically never, unless as part of the rarely performed complete work, so this was a rare treat Inkinen was giving to us. The Suite’s overall them is the adventures of the Finnish folk-hero Lemminkäinien, who, in time-honoured mythological manner, manages along the way to get himself killed at one point, though also miraculously brought back to life (Lemminkäinen in Tuonela), hence bringing about a triumphant conclusion (Lemminkäinen’s Return).
Inkinen and the orchestra certainly pulled out all the stops for us, none more so than in the spooky Lemmminkäinen in Tuonela, with its “Finnish gothic” horrors (Sibelius had not long previously visited Bayreuth and heard the Ring, which probably accounted for the Hagen-ish brass snarls and gloomy Nibelheim-like atmospheres of this music). Curiously the conductor chose to change the accepted order of the two middle movements, putting The Swan third instead of second, which would have confused members of the audience unfamiliar with the work and seeking illumination from the programme notes! But otherwise, the performance was a great success, an entirely fitting climax to Inkinen’s tenure as the orchestra’s music director. His final performances came a week later, in Auckland, but this was Wellington’s special farewell, replete with floral tributes and coloured streamers and a sense of a real occasion. We in New Zealand wish him well!
Karen Gomyo. Photo: Gabrielle Revere