Chinese New Year with NZSO

ARTS, Music

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Town Hall, Auckland | February 3

Concerts fusing musicians with Eastern and Western classical works now seem de rigueur. This is especially evident (and fitting) at the start of each year when communities around the globe celebrate the Chinese and occidental New Year in proximity and in unison.

Building on its splendid effort from 2011 with Postcards from Exotic Places, the NZSO brings back conductor Perry So and, on this occasion, pairs him with pianist John Chen and soprano Jenny Wollerman, two well-respected local bred musicians. And the result is simply ravishing.

The evening opened with New Zealander Ross Harris’s The Floating Bride, The Crimson Village, written during a Creative New Zealand/Jack C. Richards Composer-in-Residence at the New Zealand School of Music. This one movement song-cycle with its moments of dark beauty and fleeting light was delivered with panache by Wollerman, a Curtis Institute of Music alumna. The soprano responded to the challenge as did the conductor who negotiated a wonderful balance between the voice and orchestra.

Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Concerto (1969) has its roots in an earlier orchestral work, the Yellow River Cantata of 1939. In 1968 some of China’s most accomplished musicians came together to design this piano concerto version which disappeared from the concert halls following the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, but since the late 1980s has begun to resurface. It is one of the most widely performed works of any Chinese composer. This rendition proved a crowd pleaser allowing pianist John Chen to explore the full range of the keyboard with some memorable trill playing in the last movement. Chen, one of our finest musical exports, is currently studying at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg in Germany.

Crowning the evening was a high-spirited performance of Beethoven’s majestic Symphony No.6 Pastoral (1808). A perennial favorite, it premiered in Vienna alongside his Symphony No.5 and Ah! perfido. Under the baton of Maestro So, whose animated hand gestures are a work of art themselves, the orchestra rose to new heights. There were exquisite passages to savor: the woodwind interplay in the third movement and the fifth movement pizzicati of the celli in particular. The Gewitter, Sturm (Thunderstorm) passage was especially atmospheric. Tempi throughout were well chosen, and the youthful conductor elicited fine playing across all sections of the orchestra.

It is worthwhile noting the abundance of Chinese faces in the audience. Not surprising if one considers the programme and talent on showcase for this concert, but such a presence is generally lacking at mainstream arts performances and festivals. In a city as ethnically rich as Auckland, this is surely an audience development opportunity for any savvy arts organization? The evening was a beautiful fusion of East and West. Whoever feels a gap exists between the two needed to have been at this performance. Bravi!

» Image Credit: Jane Ussher