Manawatu Sinfonia
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May 19th 2019 Manawatu Sinfonia


Speirs Centre, 2.30pm

Our first concert, conducted by Peter van Drimmelen, will feature cellist Rolf Gjelsten playing Antonin Dvorak's cello concerto -- often called the greatest of all cello concertos.

Also to be performed are Hamish MacCunn's lush romantic Scottish overture, Camille Saint Saëns's sinister Danse Macabre and Sergei Prokofiev's witty and ironic Lieutenant Kijé Suite.

First half:

Hamish MacCUNN, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood

Camille SAINT SAENS, Danse Macabre

Sergei PROKOFIEV, Lieutenant Kijé Suite


Second half:

Antonin DVORAK, Cello concerto


Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916), The Land of the Mountain and the Flood

Hamish MacCunn was born in Greenock, Scotland, the son of a wealthy shipowner. At the age of 15 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. During his four years there, his teachers included Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, a concert overture composed in 1886 while he was still a student, presents a lyrical, romantic view of the Scottish landscape. The title is taken from Sir Walter Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The rugged rhythms and pentatonic openings to the first and second subjects suggest the voice of the mountains. A gentler pastoral passage soon gives way to a rumbling pedal note and a gradual increase of pace, suggesting the wild natural forces of the flood. MacCunn attended the premiere performance of this work at the Crystal Palace in London in 1887. Although the famed critic George Bernard Shaw gave it a withering review, criticising MacCunn's teachers, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood has stood the test of time, remaining by far the composer’s most popular work. From 1973 to 1976 it was used as the theme for the BBC television series Sutherland's Law.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Danse Macabre, Op. 40

Camille Saint-Saëns originally composed Danse macabre for voice and piano, using a text by poet Henri Cazalis. In 1874 he expanded and reworked this piece into a tone poem for augmented orchestra, replacing the vocal line with a solo violin part. According to medieval French legend, Death appears at midnight every year at Halloween with his fiddle, calling the dead from their graves to dance until dawn. In Saint-Saëns's piece the harp is first heard striking midnight. The solo violinist tunes the E-string down a semitone to E flat, creating the discord (a tritone) heard at the beginning of the solo, which takes its theme from a variation on Dies irae ('Day of Wrath'), an ancient funeral lament. The xylophone evokes the rattling bones of the dead as they dance their waltz. The dancers whirl faster and faster until, with the crowing of the cock, they vanish. This hugely popular piece has been adapted many times for TV and film productions, e.g. as the theme music for the crime series Jonathan Creek.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Lieutenant Kijé Suite

Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé score was originally written for the film of the same name, released in March 1934, in the very early days of sound cinema. Prokofiev was not an obvious choice for the commission. Based in Paris for almost a decade, he had a reputation for experimentation and dissonance but he was anxious to return to his homeland and used the commission as an opportunity to write music in a more accessible style, evoking eighteenth-century Russian melodies. After the film’s successful release Moscow Radio promptly commissioned Prokofiev to revise the film score into a five-movement suite. First performed in December 1934, it quickly became one of his best-known and most frequently recorded works.

The story of Lieutenant Kijé goes back to anecdotes about the notoriously eccentric Tsar Paul I, who reigned from 1796 to 1801. Allegedly, a dispatch to the Tsar, asking him to authorise the promotion of some officers, split the word for ‘junior officers’ (praporshchikizhe) so that the final two syllables (spelt kijé) began a new line. The Tsar interpreted these four letters as a name and authorised promotion of the imaginary soldier Kijé to first lieutenant. Not content with that, over the next few days in successive promotions Tsar Paul bumped Kijé up through the officer ranks as far as colonel. It was an awkward moment for the army when the Tsar finally asked to meet this supposedly distinguished Colonel Kijé but they resourcefully informed him that Colonel Kijé had died. ‘Too bad,’ Paul said, ‘he was a good officer.’

The five movements of the suite delineate Kijé’s imaginary life. The Birth of Kijé is heralded by a trumpet solo over a snare drum roll. The balance of the movement, starting with a jaunty piccolo tune, evokes Kijé’s military exploits. A sad and soulful Russian tune, introduced by the first flute and the tenor saxophone, becomes Kijé’s distinctive theme. The Romance consists of variations on Prokofiev’s parody of Russian popular song, with a series of instruments, from double bass to celesta, holding the solo part. Kijé’s Wedding opens with a pompous phrase from the brass, followed by the happy wedding song, the sad Kijé theme, and finally the return of the wedding song and the brass. Troika, a musical ride with sleighbells and balalaikas (rendered by pizzicato strings and piano), depicting a band of drunken officers going to fetch the imaginary colonel, is based on an eighteenth-century Russian drinking song. For the Death and Burial of Kijé, many of the themes heard previously make a final appearance. Kijé’s theme returns on the solo trumpet and dissolves into silence. The Tsar, marching with the entire regiment, is the only person who doesn’t know that he is following an empty coffin.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191

This concerto, Dvorak’s last, was written in 1894–95 toward the end of Dvorak's three years as director of the National Conservatory in New York. The composer was at the height of his international fame, a far cry from his humble beginnings playing the fiddle at village weddings and the viola in the pit of the Prague Opera House. He had previously turned down requests for a cello concerto, thinking the instrument would not project adequately. But when in 1894 one of his colleagues at the Conservatory premiered a cello concerto Dvorak was inspired to write one of his own. This work was premiered by the English cellist Leo Stern. It has become one of the two most performed cello concertos (the other being Elgar’s). Brahms is reported as saying: ‘If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!’ The solo part requires high technical ability, with octaves and many double and triple stops. Stern testified that he found the concerto ‘very difficult as regards intonation. I had to practise almost seven hours a day in order to master it.'

The piece is an exploration of moods, with some resemblance to a tone poem, and the composer expressly forbade performers from adding showy cadenzas in normal concerto style. The first movement introduces two of Dvorak's most memorable themes, the first on the clarinets and the second on solo horn. The lengthy second movement, an Adagio, features one of his own songs (‘Let Me Be Alone’), a favourite of the composer's sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, who was in her last illness at the time of composition. A cadenza-like section is accompanied mainly by flutes, giving the cello prominence. The final movement, in rondo form, opens with a quiet rendition of the main theme on the horn. This leads to a lively dance, which is unexpectedly interrupted by an elegiac slow section. Dvorak wrote: ‘The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . . then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood.’


Soloist, Rolf Gjelsten

Dr Rolf Gjelsten grew up in Victoria, Canada, in a Norwegian family of folk dancers. In his teens, he became an accomplished accordionist, winning top prizes two years running in the USA Northwest Accordion Championships, before focussing on cello studies with James Hunter and Janos Starker. At age 22 he took up a position with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. He furthered his cello studies with Zara Nelsova in Cincinnati and chamber music with such eminent groups as the LaSalle, Hungarian, Vermeer, Cleveland and Emerson string quartets. He was a regular participant in both the Banff School of Fine Arts and the Aspen Music Festival. His Vermilion String Quartet won Ensemble of the Year from Downbeat Magazine and was the graduate Quartet-in-Residence for two years with the Vermeer Quartet at the University of Northern Illinois. As a member of the Laurentian Quartet for almost a decade he toured internationally as well as teaching cello at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. During this time he was also a member of the New York Piano Trio, as well as playing regularly with organ legend Anthony Newman and the Collegium Musicum of New York. In 1990 he continued studies with the great Casals protege Bernard Greenhouse at Rutgers University, where he received his doctoral degree. Rolf has performed with such eminent artists as Menahem Pressler, Anton Kuerti, Andre LaPlante, Piers Lane, Franco Gulli,Zoltan Szekely, Nobuko Imai, Frans Helmerson, Colin Carr, James Campbell, Gervais de Peyer, and members of the Tokyo and Vermeer String Quartets. He has played with the New Zealand String Quartet since May 1994, touring at home and abroad and making recordings. He teaches cello at the New Zealand School of Music and gives master classes throughout the world. He became a New Zealand citizen in 1997 and in 2014 was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to music.

Conductor, Peter van Drimmelen

Born in Holland, Peter studied violin at the Rotterdam Conservatory and viola at the Utrecht Conservatory. He was Sub-Principal viola in a choir-accompanying orchestra in Delft and then a member of the Auckland Philharmonia from 1983 to 1987, with two years as violist in the Auckland String Quartet. He conducted three ASQ Summer School orchestra projects during that time. While in the NZSO, which he joined in 1987, he conducted the Wellington Chamber Orchestra numerous times and also the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra (Auckland), the Nelson Symphony Orchestra, and the Manawatu Sinfonia on a near-annual basis since 2003. He has also adjudicated for local ensembles. In 1996 Peter set up the Michael Monaghan Young Musicians Foundation, to encourage young musicians to audition for an opportunity to play a concerto movement with a professional orchestra made up of volunteers from the NZSO and Wellington Orchestra. Over 100 teenagers availed themselves of this opportunity in the 14 years that Peter ran the Foundation. Peter has made numerous recordings for Radio NZ. He retired from the NZSO in 2014 and since then has written his memoirs ‘Driving for Music’, where he recounts his life in a professional orchestra and behind the wheel of a bus. If you are interested, the book is still available at In 2018 Peter was made a life member of the Manawatu Youth Orchestra Inc.


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