William Dart: Gaining strength from masterworks

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The NZSO uses modish imagery. Photo / Supplied.
The NZSO uses modish imagery. Photo / Supplied.

With the world around us plugging into iPod isolation, seeking social sustenance and trivial diversion via Twitter and Facebook, the concert hall experience can offer a blessed reassurance. There is much to be said for the communal enjoyment of music; committing to a time and a place, alongside other sympathetic spirits, to hear musicians recreate the often iconic masterworks from which our society draws its strength and identity.

Such thoughts occupy me as the country's major concert-giving organisations canvass for the year ahead with handsome brochures to catch your cultural dollar.

The most sumptuous publication comes from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, clustering its 2011 season around themes of Glory, Passion, Heart, Colour and Revolution, illustrated by modish tableaux peopled by fancy-dressed NZSO players.

Yet perhaps there are others like me who do not warm to images of Pietari Inkinen and his musicians depicted as snarling, would-be Schwarzeneggers, against a mythical metropolis that makes our new Super City look like Cowtown NZ.

But can the NZSO live up to its imagery? How seriously can one take a concert titled Postcards from Exotic Places when over half of it is given over to Dvorak's New World Symphony and Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole?

Two Mahler symphonies from Inkinen are welcome enough, but a Romeo and Juliet evening (Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and bits of Berlioz) does not excite and the NZSO's most adventurous programme, featuring Berio's Sinfonia and Ligeti's Atmospheres, will compete with the other events that tempt Auckland Festival patrons in March.

Two living New Zealand composers - Jack Body and Gareth Farr - make it on to main bills, albeit in a supporting capacity, although May brings us our first Made in New Zealand concert, with a newly commissioned Lyell Cresswell Piano Concerto.

In the final count, though, it is the ad agency hyperbole littering the NZSO booklet that really depresses, especially when Elizabeth Marvelly is touted as "a unique musical identity re-uniting popular and classical traditions in a refreshing crossover style." Really?

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has come up with a far more cohesive selection. Its launch, two weeks ago, was a generous concert, including a short preview of the new Ross Harris Symphony scheduled for April.

The APO programmes local music with style. Its contribution to the Auckland Festival has John Psathas going Greek in his New Zeibekiko and two months later local poets and composers will be brought together under the banner of the Writers & Readers Festival. Elsewhere, one applauds the chance to hear music by Brett Dean, Sallinen, Foss and Schreker; the orchestra's Splendour Series, Inspired by Bach, includes a Schnittke Concerto Grosso and the Berg Violin Concerto and numerous opportunities to involve the Town Hall's refurbished organ.

The return of popular soloists like Nikolai Demidenko, Cedric Thibergien, Sara Macliver, Michael Collins and Natalia Lomeiko creates a buzz of anticipation, as do the newer names.

As well as all this, music director Eckehard Stier is at the helm for a concert performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold, with Paul Whelan, Anna Leese and Richard Greager.

Chamber Music New Zealand is also bringing back favourites in the new year with return visits from the Eggner Trio and the Brentano String Quartet, while English violinist Tasmin Little follows her Sibelius Concerto with the APO with her own Naked Violin show. New Zealand String Quartet and soprano Jenny Wollerman let us catch up with Ross Harris' song-cycle The Abiding Tides.

Perhaps a younger set will switch on to the hip, post-Twilight publicity shot of John Chen's Saguaro Trio in August; their reward will be a new work from the young expat Alwyn Westbrooke.

The other big player on the scene is NBR New Zealand Opera but, alas, its frantically designed brochure has only two offerings. Handel's Xerxes during Auckland Festival and, later in the year, the familiar double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Expect a few new spins - Trelise Cooper is promising "embellishment full-on" for the design side of Xerxes and the backing band is the prestigious Lautten Compagney - but on the debit side, why are there only two productions this year, why is there no touring opera and where is the New Zealand work that seems suspended in a state of perennial promise?

While the Big Four are responsible for most of the large scale musical offerings for the year, there will still be choice offerings from smaller organisations such as Bach Musica, Auckland Chamber Orchestra, Opera Workshop and Auckland University's School of Music. Full marks, though, to the tireless Indra Hughes who is already marketing Musica Sacra's March concert with celebrated German countertenor Andreas Scholl.

- NZ Herald

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