The day before Stravinsky’s 131st birthday, the Auckland Chamber Orchestra and conductor Peter Scholes presented a programme built around the Russian composer’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments and featuring works by Lyell Cresswell, George Antheil and Brett Dean. Lyell Cresswell is a New Zealand composer currently living in Scotland. His 2004 piece Con Fuoco is a riotously animated work for small ensemble which the programme suggests is influenced by scenes of fire from the Maori Legend of Maui and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Cresswell’s modernism isn’t terribly challenging; in fact, in a way his soundworld is not too radically different from the following Antheil piece. They share a whirling, almost dizzying rhythmic vitality, though the Cresswell isn’t quite so intricately orchestrated; you are likely to hear (for example) the wind acting in consort with one another.

Henry Wong Doe
Henry Wong Doe

Even so, it would be difficult to perceive that the 70 years lay between the compositions of the two works. Antheil’s quarter-hour Concerto (1932), scored for wind alone, is stylistically very much indebted to Stravinsky’s neo-classical music. This was a real whirlwind of a piece, absolutely bristling with musical ideas which tumble out and recurred with a frequency that was rather disorienting. Despite a basic fast-slow-fast structure, tempi were also often in flux, constantly changing. Not a great masterwork perhaps (certainly not as fun as his Ballet mécanique, but it mostly held one’s interest for its duration. Both here and in the Cresswell, the orchestra relished the opportunities given to them, in performances of great vigour and precision.

Acclaimed Australian composer Brett Dean’s Recollections concluded the first half. Six short movements dedicated to exploring memory immediately placed us in a very different soundworld from the rest of the concert. If one could easily perceive the Stravinskian influences on both Cresswell and Antheil, one would be hard pressed to do so here. From the haunting opening clarinet motif, Dean’s grasp of timbre was evident. The pianist was called to pluck the piano strings and tap them with mallets, and the movement “Relic” brought an archaic sound to the proceedings with its use of tuned gongs. Most eerily, the final movement, “Locket”, has the piano playing a Clara Schumann piano piece while the other instruments pitch-bend mistily in microtones around it. The sound textures created by Dean were ravishing throughout – his is clearly a major talent in the modern classical music world, and here’s hoping the Auckland Chamber Orchestra offer future performances of his work performed as adroitly as here.

The rather shorter second half was set to consist only of Stravinsky’s neo-classical masterpiece Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. However, there was a surprise addition to the programme of young New Zealand composer Alex Taylor’s Loose Knots for solo bassoon. This short work makes the most of the bassoon’s potential as a solo instrument and featured intriguing forays into the worlds of multiphonics and microtonality. It was performed most convincingly by orchestra principal Ben Hoadley. Taylor looks to be a composer of some promise and this piece should be a good addition to the repertoire of solo bassoonists.

Stravinsky’s Concerto (1923–24) was written for the composer himself to play and he kept the exclusive performance rights for a period of several years. Strangely enough (considering this should be the best-known piece on the programme), at first the ensemble here was less tight and less confident than in the first half. The brass sounded a bit ragged in the wonderful funereal opening; however, they soon recovered and their usual accuracy and precision was back in full force as they swung into the first movement’s boisterous conclusion. Scholes gave the piece an ideal swagger in the concluding march.

A lack of confidence was certainly no problem for the soloist, New Zealand-born Henry Wong Doe. He approached the work with great clarity of touch, though could have perhaps done with a little more gradation of dynamics; his performance most came to the life in the barnstorming moments. The technical demands of the piece held no horrors for Wong Doe – the performance was remarkable for its accuracy of rhythmic attack. Despite his occasional Lang Lang-like stage gesturing, he and Scholes refused to sentimentalise the slow movement; the result was a stronger awareness of the work’s Baroque influences. Throughout, pianist and conductor joined forces to create a distinctive feeling of dialogue between piano and orchestra. It was no surprise to read that Wong Doe’s doctoral dissertation was on the influence of the player piano on Stravinsky and other 20th-century composers - there was a certain mechanical precision about it all. If the end result was sometimes a little clinically perfect, far better this than any kind of distorting romanticism. Furthermore, any suspicions of over-clinical characteristics of Wong Doe’s playing were dispelled by his encore, Gareth Farr’s The Horizon from Owhiro Bay, an impressionistic miniature played with extreme sensitivity and lightness of touch. This was a lovely concert putting Stravinsky in perspective in the context of the 20th century with the Auckland Chamber Orchestra on top form.