NZSO: Beautiful stripes of sound

By William Dart

Australian Simone Young will conduct the NZSO in Bruckner's Fifth Symphony. Photo / Klaus Lefebvre
Australian Simone Young will conduct the NZSO in Bruckner's Fifth Symphony. Photo / Klaus Lefebvre

Next Saturday the NZSO is in town to deliver a concert showcasing Bruckner's Fifth Symphony.

Christopher Blake is still in his first year as chief executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Some know him as one of our senior composers, with an opera (the 1994 Bitter Calm), a symphony (the 1996 The Islands) and other major works to his credit; others from his day jobs - over a decade heading the Ministries of Culture and Heritage and Internal Affairs, not to mention a two-year stint at the National Library.

"I did miss being connected with music," Blake confesses. "I hadn't really intended to stay quite as long and get quite so far away from the concert scene."

Yet he agrees that the skills of administration and composition are not mutually exclusive. Whether it is a matter of large-scale organisations or large-scale composition, "it's a matter of not getting impatient and finding a way of embracing it all".

Just weeks after the release of the Government's Professional Orchestra Sector Review, Blake feels the NZSO is in an extraordinarily good shape, and not just artistically.

"When I came in I found there was a real honesty about being able to maintain quality," he says. "There are systems now that provide ongoing development opportunities for the musicians as well as processes that can address artistic problems and standards."

A brave and necessary move, he feels, as "high-quality professional arts performing organisations must have this built-in capacity to renew".

Artistically, the orchestra's historic presentation of Wagner's Die Walkure has left a real afterglow.

"A huge amount of resources was devoted to it," says Blake. "The risks worried me but it was a spectacular breakthrough in terms of the way the orchestra was able to focus on such a complex and sophisticated work and deliver it."

Each performance had its own special qualities. Auckland's drawcard was the Town Hall. "The acoustics gave it a bloom that we didn't have in the other centres."

In Christchurch, a few nights earlier, the CBS Canterbury Arena tested what Blake describes as the orchestra's infinite adaptability.

"Musicians weren't getting much resonance from the hall, so they had to focus as if they were playing solo, which made for a really crisp ensemble. There was an oddly intimate quality to the event, with soloists almost in your lap."

Blake has firm ideas on the direction to be taken in terms of concert programming, some of which will be seen next year. He envisages a pyramid structure with a "base of solid repertoire, broad and large enough to help sustain box office". Further up the pyramid, the orchestra will integrate works that might be "a bit more difficult for middle-of-the-road concert-goers".

Blake even hints at a Southern Hemisphere performance of a new work recently premiered in Europe.

"There's a bit of a hole in our delivery of contemporary music," he admits. "Perhaps these international pieces would work well against the best of our New Zealand composers."

Blake happily identifies the standard symphonic repertoire as bread-and-butter, but the rewards of the great symphonies are limitless.

"I'm always disappointed if I listen to one of them and not hear something new - and it's often the performance that brings the different insight. That's what is great about new conductors and young musicians processing these works through different hands - people with life experiences similar to yours but different from a previous generation."

We may all feel we know Beethoven's Fifth through hearing it on everything from television advertisements to iPods and CDs but, Blake stresses, "real live is important".

"But we need to find more ways of helping audiences to understand and enjoy music. A Brahms Symphony can be quite a step for some people."

There are many issues confronting those in the business of live concerts, from repertoire through to the time of the actual event, and he mentions David Zinman's successful late-evening concerts for young Zurich audiences.

Just last March there were two free "Lunch Date" concerts the NZSO was able to put on in Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre when a film gig was postponed. They were a tremendous success, publicised through the internet, with conductor Tecwyn Evans giving audience-friendly introductions from the podium.

"The audience included guys in overalls and woman with babies who came because the usual issue of concert formality wasn't present."

Next Saturday's Cathedral of Sound concert, with Australian Simone Young conducting Bruckner's mighty Fifth Symphony, might be a relatively formal affair, but it is worth changing out of your overalls and hiring a baby-sitter.

"Although I haven't spent a lot of time with Bruckner, I do know the Fifth," Blake says, "and one of the things I enjoy about it is the enormous architecture of the piece. In fact, it almost seems as if Bruckner's symphonic output as a whole is part of some enormous architectural span. I admire the scale of his conception; the way he conceives his ideas and takes the space and time to build them. Right from the opening you know you're in for some really large enterprise."

For some, Bruckner was an organist first and a composer second, Blake concedes, but there are side benefits.

"That purity of his orchestral colour sets him apart from other composers," he explains. "He makes those beautiful big stripes of sound, quite lucid to follow - something that not many composers could do."

What: The Cathedral of Sound with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Saturday August 18 at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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