Concertos capture soul

By William Dart

Christopher Seaman will feature at The New Zealand Herald Premier Series. Photo / Kurt Brownell
Christopher Seaman will feature at The New Zealand Herald Premier Series. Photo / Kurt Brownell

Christopher Seaman is a regular and welcome guest with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and, next week, with Australian cellist Li-Wei Qin, the English conductor launches its New Zealand Herald Premier Series.

William Walton's 1956 Cello Concerto brings back memories both of playing under the composer's baton as a young timpanist and, later, conducting his music with the BBC Scottish Symphony.

"It was a wonderful programme of four living composers," Seaman enthuses, "Walton, Lutoslawski, Iain Hamilton and Andrzej Panufnik. Walton was living in southern Italy by then and found Edinburgh in August very cold. I remember him shivering in the thinnest of raincoats."

Musically, Walton's music is "pretty eclectic, in the best possible sense, open to the worlds of Stravinsky and Bartok," Seaman explains.

A jazz influence comes through in scores that are "rhythmic and positively snappy in places."

However, as a conductor, Walton was sometimes hoist by his own petard.

"He didn't like tackling his more rhythmic music," Seaman confides. "On one occasion I remember him totally messing up a passage and storming off after the performance saying that he was never going to write a bar of 5/8 again."

Yet there is also beauty and lyricism in the composer's three concertos, for cello, viola and violin.

"All three capture the very soul of their featured instrument from the start," Seaman explains. "The opening notes on Thursday, plaintive and plangent, were absolutely born to be played on the cello."

After interval, Mahler's mighty Fifth Symphony is on the menu and Seaman warns me that his interpretation, very much affected by the mentoring of Christoph von Dohnanyi and Jascha Horenstein, might be less theatrical than some.

"While both of these conductors recognised the emotional power of this score, they didn't put too much make-up on the face. Neither overindulged and, as a result, the piece always emerged with an almost classical completeness."

Seaman has no time for conductors adding up to five minutes on to the celebrated Adagietto.

"It's such a glorious song," he sighs. "And taking it too slow makes such nonsense of the lovely harp part.

"There's a certain simplicity here that's so touching. It's easy to forget that Mahler had very strong roots in Schubert, and had the same ability to write melodies that connect directly with the heart and don't sound like a visit to the psychoanalyst."

In 2013, Seaman collected together his expertise with a baton into a lively, anecdote-laden publication, entitled Inside Conducting. His thoughts on Mahler as a conductor are revealing. "Although he was occasionally very awkward and clumsy physically, Mahler exerted such a strong presence and determination as to how the music should play, he was known as a superb interpreter of classics such as Mozart and Beethoven.

"It's this classicism that underpins the drama in Mahler's own Fifth. The work should come across as a magnificent piece of architecture lasting an hour and a bit; at the end, there should be this marvellous feeling of a wheel coming full circle."

Next week is a busy one for the APO. As well as Thursday's Town Hall concert, Aotea Square's Summer in the Square hosts five lunchtime concerts by the orchestra's Young Achievers, setting off on Monday with the trio of Nathaniel Smorti, Carol Wang and Rachel Song on clarinet, bassoon and piano.

Seaman has always enjoyed working and interacting with young musicians and is thrilled.

"Any teacher will tell you that students who sing or play in a choir, orchestra or band will have more focus and discipline; they understand what it's like to be part of a team. It's all about realising that there's something bigger than you out there. That's a very important thing."

Performance

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, The New Zealand Herald Premier Series
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm
What: Summer in the Square, with the APO Young Achievers
Where and when: Aotea Square, Monday-Friday, 12.30pm-1.15pm

- Weekend magazine

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