Weaving the magic of Mahler

By William Dart

NZSO musical director Pietari Inkinen with the NZSO. Photo / Patrycja Szarczynska
NZSO musical director Pietari Inkinen with the NZSO. Photo / Patrycja Szarczynska

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is in town with some distinctly unsymphonic additions to its ranks. Mahler's Seventh Symphony calls for a guitar and mandolin, and there is talk of principal trombonist David Bremner picking up a euphonium.

Pietari Inkinen, the orchestra's music director, says this is his sixth Mahlerian outing with the NZSO. "The NZSO already has quite a tradition playing Mahler," he tells me. "Having done 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 is a good foundation for taking on this one."

The Seventh has a chequered history. It was famously and ardently defended by Leonard Bernstein who railed against those who saw it as "the ugly stepchild of the Mahler symphonies, a sort of puzzle to performers and audience alike".

Inkinen admits it is "quite a wild piece, and structurally, it can feel rather fragmented" but it is "one that certainly has all aspects of Mahler's life in it".

Tonight's concert opens with a curiosity, a Bach Double Violin Concerto, with Inkinen as one of the two soloists, alongside concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppanen.

The conductor has a background as a violinist; the Sibelius Concerto is in his repertoire and he has led his own Inkinen Trio. Relinquishing baton for bow to play with the band is a first for him in this country. "We have done a lot of things together but not this."

There are practical advantages in having a violinist's background, especially when a conductor works with soloists. "Having been on the same spot myself many times I know exactly how they feel," he explains.

"And, if the musicians in the orchestra know you can play an instrument well, it certainly doesn't do any harm."

On the concert front, Inkinen is concerted about the apathy our digital age can produce, with potential audiences staying home to enjoy the Berlin Philharmonic's virtual concert hall or catching a Metropolitan Opera production at the local cinema.

"There could be a generation which doesn't know the power of a live performance," he sighs. "I hope that will never happen. Sitting comfortably in a movie theatre with popcorn is not the same experience."

He talks of "the magic of the Royal Albert Hall where you can have an audience of 6000 for a solo recital. You can almost hear all those people hold their breath at certain moments and that experience is incredibly powerful. And some pieces like Mahler's Ninth and the Verdi Requiem need to be experienced live."

The Verdi is featured in the NZSO's extremely conservative 2013 season, in one of three concerts conducted by Inkinen.

The other two range from a programme of Pruden, Dvorak and Rachmaninov to a performance of Holst's The Planets, coupled with the orchestra's only 2013 commission, Eve de Castro-Robinson's The glittering hosts of heaven.

"I haven't seen a note yet," is the response when I ask Inkinen about the new piece. Understandable enough; for this conductor, "the most exciting and wonderful thing is what's in front of you at the moment".

He is proud to have taken New Zealand music overseas, "unfortunately limited to the Aotearoa Overture which had its Leipzig premiere last June". And, it seems that Lilburn's 1940 piece will also be played by the Helsinki Philharmonic next year.

Meanwhile, I ask why the NZSO's Made in New Zealand concerts seem to have disappeared from its schedule and Inkinen is unable to respond.

The "replacement" - a Hear & Far programme pairing John Adams' Harmonielehre with John Psathas' Orpheus in Rarohenga - does not fully compensate.

One can only hope that a complete Kiwi concert might still eventuate, like next month's Freddy Kempf Gershwin concert, as a late and valued addition to the 2013 bill of fare.

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, tonight at 8pm
NZSO musical director Pietari Inkinen, here with baton, will perform as a violin soloist in tonight's concert.

- NZ Herald

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