The cornerstone of Gemma New's debut with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra is Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, a bright song of praise to a free and happy person.
”I was a pretty fearless young person,” Gemma New, a conductor from New Zealand, told the Canadian newspaper The Star in 2016, explaining how her career has progressed so rapidly. The cornerstone of her debut with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra is Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, a bright song of praise to a free and happy person. Luciano Berio’s Voci is woven from Sicilian songs and interpreted her by Antoine Tamestit, one of the few but brilliant solo viola players touring the world’s concert stages.
New Zealand-born Gemma New is one of the few female conductors to have simply brushed the shards from her shoulders as she bursts through the glass ceiling. She studied mathematics, physics and music at Christchurch University before taking up an opportunity to study music at the Peabody Institute in the USA, and classes with Gustav Meier, Gustav Dudamel and Kurt Masur soon sent her career into orbit. Tonight’s concert marks her debut with the Helsinki Philharmonic.
It was while she was playing the violin in an orchestra of 200 when she was 12 that Emma New got truly bitten by the music bug and realised what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She was 15 when she first conducted an orchestra, having closely observed how players react to different conductors, and reckoned she had the potential for succeeding. And indeed: over the past year she has guest conducted such orchestras as the San Francisco Symphony, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. Among other things, she is Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic in Canada, Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony and Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony.
Few viola players can boast such a distinguished, world-touring solo career as France’s Antoine Tamestit (b. 1979). Not only has he performed with numerous celebrated orchestras; he has also had residences with the Frankfurt RSO, the SWR Stuttgart, the Vienna Konzerthaus and others and taken top prizes in the world’s leading viola competitions (such as the Maurice Vieux, Primrose and ARD). His repertoire is vast, stretching from the Baroque to the present day, and he listens to anything from classics and contemporary to French pop. Luciano Berio’s Voci, which he has performed in cities including Cologne, Berlin, London and Salzburg, is, he says, one of the most moving works of the late 20th century.
Like so many viola players, Tamestit began with the violin, but his first acquaintance with the viola – the violin’s bigger brother – was a case of ‘love at first sight’. He plays what is believed to be the oldest viola built by Antonio Stradivarius, on loan from the Habisreutinger Foundation. It dates from 1672 and is known as the “Gustav Mahler” because Rolf Habisreutinger bought it on the composer’s 100th birthday in 1960.
Gioachino Rossini: Overture to Semiramide
Though still under 30 at the start of the 1820s, Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) was already at the height of his career, with operas being performed all over Europe. His Semiramide was premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1823, Rossini having dashed off the score in only 33 days. The leading role was tailored for his soprano wife, Isabella Colbran.
The two-act opera is based on Voltaire’s tragedy Sémiramis of 1748. Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, has her husband assassinated so she can be with her lover, Prince Assur. She then falls in love with Arsace, a soldier, and plans to marry him, but he turns out to be her son. The jealous Assur tries to kill Arsace, but kills the Queen instead by mistake, and Arsace is crowned King of Babylon. The overture is unusually long for Rossini and bears no hint of the tragedy about to unfold. Rather, it would be more fitting for a light comedy or farce.
Luciano Berio: Voci for Viola and Two Instrumental Groups
Luciano Berio (1925–2003) made many transcriptions, of works both of his own and of others. “The act of transcription,” he said, “may imply three conditions: the identification of the composer with the original musical text, the turning of the text into a pretext for analytical experimentation and, finally, the overpowering of the text, its deconstruction and its philological ‘abuse’. I believe that an ideal situation occurs only when the three conditions come to blend and coexist. Only then may transcription become a truly creative, constructive act.” He wrote Voci (Folk Songs II) in 1984 for Aldo Bennici, who provided the original musical material: songs of work and love, lullabies and ‘street cries’ from different parts of Sicily. The work has two instrumental groups, one larger than the other but with some of the same instruments in both. The solo viola is clearly the ‘singer’, performing the Sicilian songs as such, breaking them down into fragments or using them to create a completely new melody.
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) composed his fifth symphony 150 miles from Moscow in 1943 and conducted its premiere in Moscow two years later. Just before the concert, news came that the Red Army was at that moment marching into Nazi Germany, and cannon fire could be heard outside the hall to mark this victory. Sviatoslav Richter, present at the premiere, reported: “When Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. He raised his baton. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this, something symbolic. It was as if all of us – Prokofiev included – had reached some kind of turning point.”
Prokofiev had said before the premiere, “I conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit . . . praising the free and happy man – his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.” The symphony is in four movements, all richly melodic and colourfully orchestrated.