William Dart: NZSO Soloists

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If you had gone to the NZSO Soloists' Carmen Suite concert expecting inflamed passions in, out of and around the bullring, you may have been surprised by the rather low-key offerings in the first half of the evening.

Arvo Part's Fratres would have been the most well-knownwork. And, after a slightly nervous solo, Vesa-Matti Leppanen led the orchestra's strings and percussion into the lulling familiar Partland.

In fact, we had already been lulled by Toru Takemitsu's Rain Tree, with a trio led by Lenny Sakovsky delivering Takemitsu's wash of vibes, marimba and chiming crotales.

Sound would have been sufficient. Laurence Reese's lighting, as specified by the composer, distracted. An overall subdued lighting plan would have worked better, rather than what seemed like a slow motion strobe throughout the piece.

Throughout these two works, Kenneth Young's newly-commissioned Portrait, which had launched the concert, very much stayed with me.

Young is one of our few composers who can make a relatively conservative idiom registers as fresh and personal. He deals in easily perceptible shape and structure, such as the simple eight-note scale, reiterated and reworked throughout much of the piece.

Young is a shrewd colorist especially when harp and vibes complement the subtly modulated string writing. Leppanen, in a solo part of concerto dimensions, reminded one of his glowing account of the same composer's Remembering four years ago.

If a shortish Allegro section seemed a little peremptory, Portrait ended effectively by restoring its initial calm. At 45 minutes, Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen Suite proved a long haul.

The Russian brings some cute party tricks to play with Bizet's music, such as when the soldiers change guard to the sort of percussion effects you giggle at in Esquivel lounge music.

Soon after, the percussionists added their own touch - the Toreador's Song on kazoos, in a section which Shchedrin had left tuneless, with sinister intent.

And so, despite the group's remarkable ensemble without conductor and startling outbursts of passion from the full-blooded cellos, this Carmen was more of a trip to the circus than the tragic story of the original opera's heroine.

- NZ Herald

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