Classical review: Big band boogie brings out smiles

By William Dart

Adams' energetic Fearful Symmetries highlight of ACO concert.

James Tennant was at his best during George Crumb's  Vox Balaenae .
James Tennant was at his best during George Crumb's Vox Balaenae .

Auckland Chamber Orchestra's Voice of the Whale concert on Sunday took its title from George Crumb's 1971 eco-trio, but I suspect that the spectacular concert-hall boogie of John Adams' Fearful Symmetries is what attracted one of the ACO's biggest audiences of the season.

The evening had been carefully designed to grow organically from Messiaen's Le Merle Noir, played by flautist Adrianna Lis and pianist Katherine Austin.

While the energetic Lis did not quite deal out the liquefied luminescence that this music demands, Austin's piano was unerringly responsive to every flutter and fragment of birdsong.

They were then joined by cellist James Tennant for a gripping account of George Crumb's Vox Balaenae.

Wearing masks, in subdued lighting against a background of nocturnal blue, it was, in the words of Leonard Cohen, as if God were alive and magic afoot.

Amplification was expertly handled, whether accommodating Lis' poignant vocalising or Tennant's swooping, eternally sorrowful gulls, while Austin searched out spellbinding sonorities from within her instrument.

We were then privileged to have conductor Peter Scholes bring us a 2008 work by Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, the recipient of this year's prestigious Grawemeyer Award.

The Dutchman's Mask laid out a meeting place of electronic and acoustic, encompassing spirited interjections between the two, resolving in ghostly equivocal chords.

The stage was crammed to the wings to hold what John Adams has described as his mutated big band.

The American likes images of travelling in connection with Fearful Symmetries, and Scholes and his orchestra took us through the liveliest of dance halls with a full and generous dance card.

The musicians smiled as they played, and so too did the audience. The occasional fleck in Adams' trademark gleam or smudging at climaxes did not matter too much. The zest of it all was irresistible.

Inevitably the orchestral exotica stood out: Tatiana Lanchtchikova on synthesiser heading a trio of busy keyboard players, Michael Jamieson navigating his quartet of saxophones through thickets of frenzied arpeggios and, best of all, a thrill-dispensing trio of trombones to mark the gear changes.

Classical music

What: Auckland Chamber Orchestra
Where: Raye Freedman Arts Centre

- NZ Herald

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