Arts Festival Review: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Town Hall

By William Dart

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James Judd, NZSO conductor. Photo / Supplied
James Judd, NZSO conductor. Photo / Supplied

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's A Symphonic Odyssey, inspired by Stanley Kubrick's visionary use of music in his 2001: A Space Odyssey, looked promising.

The evening set off well. James Judd created a dawn-to-dusk life experience out of Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Resonant strings sustained intensity after the work's opening 2001 moment; later joys and passions were caught with an appropriate sense of delirium.

The 1961 Atmospheres is classic Ligeti, an eight-minute festival of colours, emerging from what English composer Robin Holloway has described as the Hungarian's characteristic "clear white nothingness".

The NZSO laid out a world of magical shimmering, buzzing and twitching, with some fearsome sonic waves that inevitably reminded one of the horrors than Japan is experiencing.

Following this, a stilted, heavy rendition of Strauss's On the Beautiful Blue Danube somewhat deflated the spirits.

After interval came the concert's drawcard, the New Zealand premiere of Berio's Sinfonia.

The orchestra had the full measure of this 1968 masterpiece; one could sense the players' appreciation of wry musical quotes threaded through Mahlerian mazes. As well, the players clearly enjoyed finessing the coloristic details of the second and final movements.

Two weeks ago, Judd told me that one of the biggest interpretative decisions here was to determine the extent to which the vocal component of the score should, as he put it, come out of the mist.

Auckland vocal ensemble V8 sounded familiar with Berio's notes, but its eight singers were kept firmly in the mist - out of sight amid the orchestra, and inadequately microphoned. Thus we were denied the all-important opportunity of appreciating the sometimes wild theatricality of their contribution as well as hearing among other things, the third movement's key commentary from the writings of Samuel Beckett.

Hopefully, when the concert is mixed and replayed on Radio New Zealand Concert, this last issue will be righted. However, many who came along on Saturday for the big Berio experience may have left wondering what all the fuss was about.

- NZ Herald

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