Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra;
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

ARTS, Music,

Two very different programmes were on offer in recent concerts from New Zealand’s two finest orchestras. The Thursday night concert by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (Auckland Town Hall, July 23) saw an odd pairing of Spanish composers de Falla and Rodrigo with Brit Ralph Vaughan Williams. The programme opened with Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo (‘Love the Magician’), a colourful if lightly-textured score consisting of thirteen scenes from a gypsy story. The APO’s performance included notable contributions from many woodwind and brass players, but too often the Orchestra overwhelmed soloist Anna Cors, a New Zealand-based Spanish soprano, who otherwise displayed admirable pronunciation and enthusiasm.

The soloist in the next work on the programme, Australian guitarist Slava Grigoryan, had no trouble being heard, due to rather overdone amplification. Grigoryan was performing in Joaquin Rodrigo’s vastly overrated guitar concerto, Concierto de Aranjuez, the work that presumably drew the evening’s sell-out audience. The appealing opening movement that darts between soloist and orchestra, and limpid Adagio that follows, saw the guitarist and many players from the orchestra shine, most notably Martin Lee on cor anglais. The forgettable third movement did nothing to deter a vociferous audience response, which was rewarded with a saccharine encore written by Grigoryan’s brother.

The second half, comprised solely of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 3 (1922), was introduced by conductor (and APO Music Director) Eckehard Stier, who banally suggested a link between the Symphony and the New Zealand landscape. It was an unnecessary introduction to a work that owes much to Vaughan Williams’s time in France during the First World War, a powerful elegaic score in which safe harmonies are constantly undermined by a nagging dissonance. The Symphony here received a thoughtful performance from Stier and the Orchestra, particularly in the first two movements, with a noteworthy performance from Nicola Baker on first horn, and an impressive cello solo from David Garner in the second movement.

There was a thematic link between Thursday’s close and the opening of Friday night’s concert by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Auckland Town Hall, July 24). Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) too was written in a time of war. Not your usual concert opener, the Sinfonia derives its programme from the Mass for the Dead. Unfolding gradually, it contains more than a hint of Mahler, particularly in the first movement Lacrymosa. The enlarged orchestra, with the welcome additions of Debbie Rawson on saxophone and Andrew Uren on bass clarinet, enhanced the excitement of the Dies irae, and the innovative fragmentation that leads into the closing Requiem aeternam was convincingly handled by the NZSO.

A repeated note motive that features in the Sinfonia provided a material link with Haydn’s Symphony No. 90, the second work on the programme. Woodwind soloists Bridget Douglas and Robert Orr were impressive in the witty first movement, though the real entertainment came at the end as the audience was caught out by a number of false ‘endings’.

The concert’s heart lay in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 (1858), featuring the superb young Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov. This was a fine performance indeed, with Melnikov completely in sync with the orchestra and conductor Mark Wigglesworth. Beautiful string playing, especially from the low strings, was a highlight, and the second movement particularly impressed, with superb control of dynamics in both piano and orchestra. Like the Rodrigo Concierto, the third movement of the Brahms underwhelms, but Melnikov gave a rare display of pianism throughout, an eloquent and assured performance from open to close.

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The arrival of Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku in New Zealand gave dual reasons for celebration. Not only did we have one of the world’s foremost clarinetists performing here, but he had convinced the NZSO to programme two substantial contemporary pieces by fellow Finns Magnus Lindberg and Jukka Tiensuu. These two works were without doubt the highlights of the concert series, but were sandwiched between standard concert repertoire that came off looking a little banal by comparison, in spite of consistently excellent playing by the NZSO.

The Friday night concert (Wellington Town Hall, June 12) opened with Rossini’s ubiquitous William Tell Overture. William Tell was Rossini’s last opera, and the Overture contains, in its final section, one of the most pervasive musical memes ever written. It has been appropriated for use in a range of popular media from A Clockwork Orange to Lone Ranger, and the resultant familiarity makes it an enjoyable choice for performance. The NZSO’s performance under the baton of Pietari Inkinen was uniformly tight, and featured a beautiful performance of the Ranz des Vaches (herdsman’s call) by Michael Austin on cor anglais.

The high point of the first concert was undeniably the work that followed: Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto. The work resulted from collaboration with Kriikuu, and it displays typical Lindbergian energy and colour, at times hinting at the romantic excesses of Mahler and giving distinctly Gershwin-esque flashes toward its conclusion.

But like many concerti, it is essentially a vehicle for the soloist. And Kari Kriikku was the ultimate soloist, from his lithe and mobile figure to his shiny tan shoes, his James Dean-like poses, and most importantly the range of sounds that he coaxed from his instrument, and the breathtaking virtuosity that he displayed in a constant interplay with the Orchestra. For their part, the NZSO proved more than capable, with particularly nuanced playing from the front desk of the cellos in quieter moments.

The second half of the concert consisted solely of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, an attractive work that felt a little flat after the exhilaration of the first half, in spite of some momentum gained in the darker final movements.

Saturday night began with a work rivaling the Friday night opener in the populism stakes: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a work best known in New Zealand for being the annual closer of Christmas in the Park. The piece celebrates the 1812 defeat of Napolean by the Russian army and features a host of National tunes from the Marseillaise to a Russian liturgical chant, along with canons (rendered here necessarily if somewhat unfortunately in a recording triggered from an Apple laptop). Like the Rossini of the night before, it’s a familiar opener, but one that could have done with a little less of Inkinen’s Nordic restraint, and could happily be saved for outdoors.

At the other end of the evening, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a symphonic suite based on episodes from The Arabian Nights, is musical orientalism at its best. The work is noted for its colourful orchestration, and the Orchestra shone again, with particularly good solo turns from principals David Chickering and Ed Allen, Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and percussionist Lenny Sakofsky, who displayed an artful lightness of touch in his snare drum playing.

The star of Friday night, Kari Kriikku, reappeared for Jukka Tiensuu’s Puro for clarinet and orchestra, a work written for the performer in 1989. Tiensuu, an important figure in Finnish Modernism, has spent much time in electronic studios around the world, and the influence of this is evident in Puro. The work has as its harmonic basis a spectral analysis of a low note played on the clarinet, and this is made manifest throughout the piece as chords based on the analysis. It is a more difficult work than the Lindberg, lacking the familiar gestures and ‘safe’ moments, but is nonetheless immediately appealing, eschewing aggression as melodic ideas presented on the clarinet echo around the orchestra.

Again the Orchestra was up to the task, giving one of the best performances of contemporary work that I have seen from the NZSO. Kriikku’s mastery was especially evident in the lengthy cadenza, with echos previously made by the orchestra now coming from the solo instrumentalist in a stunning display of virtual and actual polyphony. Even the most reluctant listeners could not help but be excited, with Kriikuu’s adventurous performance eliciting a deservedly rapturous response from the audience, who were rewarded with a witty klezmer encore.