October 22, 2021

Gemma New receives high praise for debut with The Hallé

Gemma New chooses large-scale works for her debut with The Hallé
By Peter Connors
October 22, 2021

Gemma New made her debut with The Hallé conducting three pieces for very large orchestra. We started with Lera Auerbach’s Icarus. In her programme note, the composer wrote that all her music is abstract. She gave this piece its title after it was written, and it is up to the listener how to connect with the music. Having said that, when encountering an unfamiliar piece of music with a title, we are bound at least to consider it in the light of that title. To me there was a considerable element of storytelling in Icarus which could be associated with the familiar tale from Greek mythology. On the other hand, it was a dazzling aural experience, sometimes very loud, sometimes very quiet and often very beautiful. The orchestration included a theremin, which combined magically with other instruments and created an intriguing and unexpected soundscape. No wonder this piece has had many performances across the world.

New and The Hallé were joined by Laura van der Heijden for William Walton’s Cello Concerto, the piece with which she shot to fame when she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2012. It is obviously a work that is close to her. She played beautifully, reveling in the long melodic lines that were such a feature of the first movement in particular. In a pre-concert interview, van der Heijden said that she often thought of music in terms of images, and the beginning of this concerto suggested sunlight reflecting off rippling water, which for me encapsulated it nicely. The second movement was livelier: Walton handled the interplay between orchestra and soloist with a light touch, deftly switching from one mood to another. The finale is in the form of a theme and variations (designated "improvisations” here), of which the second and fourth are solo cadenzas with a purely orchestral section separating them. This gave van der Heijden the opportunity to show off her technical skill before leading the work to its calm and introspective conclusion.

It is almost exactly 75 years to the day since Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered Aaron Copland’s Symphony no. 3, a wonderful work that is rarely performed, at least in the UK. This is the Copland of his most popular ballet scores. The opening evokes the wide open spaces of America, well known throughout the world from cinema and television. The whole work exudes a positive, confident atmosphere, reflecting the time of its composition, toward the end of the Second World War when victory seemed certain. The third movement was intriguing: it began peacefully and built up to something livelier. The transformation was handled expertly by New, as was the gradual return to something slower and more mysterious. It was the finale, however, that left the greatest impression. Copland had composed his Fanfare for the Common Man a few years earlier and now incorporated it into his Third Symphony. There had been hints of it in earlier movements; now it came to the fore, first quietly and then in all its splendour with brass and percussion dominating. It was a glorious conclusion that the Bridgewater Hall audience received enthusiastically.

It was a splendid debut for New. She appeared to have a great rapport with the orchestra and successfully marshaled over 100 musicians to produce stunning performances of largely unfamiliar music. The Hallé players took their many solos within all three works with style and skill. New gave them the acknowledgement they richly deserved at the end.

To read the full review, click here.

Van der Heijden, Hallé, New, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - rising to challenges
By Robert Beale
The Arts Desk
October 22, 2021

The youthful New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New and British cellist Laura van der Heijden between them set the Hallé quite a challenge at this concert.

The music was all written in the past 75 years or so – by classical measures that’s pretty recent – and not by any means standard repertoire. And, written for large orchestra in complex scoring in each case, it made considerable demands. They rose to almost all of them with passion and skill and won a generous reception for their efforts.

The newest was first: Icarus, by Lera Auerbach (written this century). It’s based on the famous story of the high-flyer who flew too high, and the composer invites listeners to let the music “take you wherever it takes you”. Is that to say there’s something programmatic in it? Maybe … I could hear it as a series of events (take-off, floating, crisis, crash, mourning, elegy), but I suspect that was mainly because Gemma New brought it to life as a series of bite-size chunks: often a good way to make sense of unfamiliar music and the more welcome for that. The orchestra gave her playing of precision and vivid colours.

Walton’s Cello Concerto is another thing entirely, subtly constructed with the illusion of rhapsodic flow coming from taut, theme-based construction. As ever with cello concertos, the matter of balance looms large, especially with an orchestra as large as Walton uses (and the Hallé had 60 strings to offer). The textures are cleverly designed to deal with this, as they often play piquantly, as much in rests as richness, and by the third movement the backcloth to Laura van der Heijden’s solo was ultra-discreet.

Van der Heijden herself (pictured above with orchestra and conductor last night) does not often go for in-yer-face expression, but her playing has a lovely soulful tone that suits this piece perfectly. The opening movement came across quite sleepily nostalgic, and the hyperactive scherzo style middle one had a fairy-like quality in the solo (and lightness and grace in the adroit orchestral contributions). But the first solo variation of the third movement (one of two that are like cadenzas in effect) showed that she can deliver a big sound and masses of attack when required. It was playing of remarkable resource and range.

Gemma New brought her sense of episode to those variations, with the same clarity as she had in the Auerbach piece, and the concerto’s ending, as if with all passion spent and resignation looming large, was very beautifully done by both soloist and orchestra.

Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony brought the opportunity to unleash the potential of the forces onstage. Written for Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, it captures post-Second World War relief and optimism – and its most memorable theme is that of Fanfare for the Common Man, which Copland had written a couple of years before and which he uses extensively in his “grand manner” (his words) finale.

Can you get an extended sonata movement out of that tune, and indeed build a whole symphony out of the desire to build up to it? Well, the answer is probably a qualified yes, and it’s been hailed (by Koussevitzky: who else?) as “the greatest American symphony”. Gemma new made a very good case for it, and Copland’s trademark open textures, downright diatonic harmonies, wide intervals, honkytonk hoedown rhythms, bright-eyed canons and tolling pedals are all there.

At times it takes on the characteristics of his ballet scores (and there’s nothing wrong with dancy tunes in a symphony), but the third movement is deeper and was given fine expression here, with eloquent, near-anguished, solo playing by guest leader Hannah Perowne.

It was a very worthy embodiment of the grand manner.

To read the full review, click here.