William Dart: Cooking up a concert menu

Photo / Adrian Malloch
Photo / Adrian Malloch

One of the many strengths of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra is its astute programming. This year's line-up of composers ranges from the contemporary (Thomas Ades, Ross Harris) to Joseph Jongen, whose Symphonie Concertante is given a work-out by flamboyant organist Cameron Carpenter in July.

Ronan Tighe, the APO manager of artistic planning, plays a central role in deciding on the concert line-up. It was another orchestra that, 24 years ago, on the other side of the world, focused his musical commitments. The 14-year-old clarinetist was bowled over by the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, playing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. "I didn't know that such music existed," says Tighe, in a soft Irish burr. "Whatever they're doing, I want to do that."

He ended up in London, managing clients for the prestigious agency, IMG Artists, from pianist Dmitri Alexeev to conductor John Nelson. Duties included "spending one Sunday afternoon in Birmingham finding Indian takeaways for Itzhak Perlman because he'd heard the city had the best around".

The move to New Zealand in 2010 was a culture shock, he admits. "London felt like the centre of the cultural universe; Auckland seemed so small."

Yet advantages soon became apparent. "We don't have to deal with the weight of history as Europe does. The APO is hugely dynamic and flexible with a real 'give-it-a-shot' attitude. That doesn't happen in Europe where everything goes much more slowly. Here we just get on with things. Someone has an idea and a week later, the wheels are in motion."

Tighe works closely with music director Eckehard Stier, who opens rethe New Zealand Herald Premiere Series on Thursday, conducting Turnage, Mozart and Strauss. "I'm looking forward to hearing Thus Spake Zarathustra," says Tighe. "Eckehard will have a lot to say here because he really gets under the skin with Strauss' music. He's got that fire in his belly that translates well in this area."

Tighe anticipates memorable Mozart from Norwegian pianist Gunilla Sussmann and assures me that Scherzoid, a 2005 score from English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, is "a driven, high-energy work with a distinct bluesy feel - a great opening for the season".

He is justly proud that Australian colleagues, working in that country's main orchestras, envy the breadth of the APO's offerings, and perhaps, he muses, this has something to do with Auckland.

"Some orchestras in Europe can't do anything outside of the core repertoire because people wouldn't come to the concerts. In Auckland, there is a relatively open-minded audience, which reflects the way we're so embedded in the local community with our various projects."

He has survived a few potential nightmares, one being last year's unexpected cancellation by soprano Deborah Voigt. Catastrophe was averted by Christine Brewer, who was "such a dream to deal with; a down-to-earth Southerner who was so happy just to be here and make music with us".

Of the many visiting conductors, he cites Spaniard Eduardo Portal and the American John Nelson, who, before stunning us with Berlioz, gave us Jack Body's Hector's Ghost not once, but twice.

"By and large, the modern conductor is a charming person," Tighe points out. "The days of the tyrant are long gone. You won't get work if you're horrible to an orchestra because the players won't have you back."

As for the ideal programme, it is "getting the proportions right, so it all makes sense in some way.

"There can be a thematic thread or it might be that the flavours blend well. Prokofiev's Classical Symphony would fit nicely with a Mozart concerto, followed by something richer and lusher in the second half." He smiles. "I make it sound a little like being a chef."

Performance

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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