After last week's rather underpopulated We Remember concert, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra once again faced a half-empty town hall for its annual contemporary showcase, Near & Far.

The presence of James MacMillan as conductor and composer was not the crowd magnet that might have been expected.

MacMillan's compositions engulfed the second half of the evening and an hour of his retro rhetoric proved wearying. This was far from the "superb and engaging" music that the programme booklet promised.

The gothic-tinged subject matter of both Woman of the Apocalypse and The Confession of Isobel Gowdie inspired much splashing about of orchestral colour.

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And, when we were told that there would be even more "relentless pounding" at the end of Woman, some may have felt quite sated already.

Both pieces chopped and changed like a musical representation of attention deficit disorder and, regardless of their flashy orchestral garb, cliches are cliches and even more so when layered one upon the other.

Stalking trombone lines would have brought a blush to the cheeks of Liszt and Wagner, while quieter episodes often degenerated into meandering mood music.

Two MacMillan works were simply too much, but one did shudder at the thought of how a gentler piece might have coped with the penetrating buzz of air conditioning that persisted through the second half of the concert.

Earlier on, Lyell Cresswell's new song cycle The Clock Stops also had its problems, when the town hall intercom blared from outside during a particularly quiet passage.

The Clock Stops was a faith-affirming demonstration of what composing is all about. While MacMillan lashed on the primary hues with a house-painter's brush, Cresswell favoured the subtlety of the finest sable-hair.

Colours co-ordinated, with the clatter of col legno strings complementing sparks of percussion; roaring, brilliant climaxes, beautifully moulded, grew from the songs.

Fiona Farrell's 11 short poems, chronicling the modest pleasures and major disasters of urban life, gained a real cumulative power. Baritone Jonathan Lemalu, although suffering from laryngitis, was duly attentive to their understated beauties and truths.

Music review
What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Saturday.