NZSO's new musical director Edo De Waart

By William Dart

US-based Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. Photo / Mark Mitchell
US-based Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In less than a fortnight, Edo de Waart presides over his first concert as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's new Music Director.

The conductor's geniality almost beams down a crackly line from Antwerp and he is immediately taken by news that Auckland Arts Festival is giving the New Zealand premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China.

De Waart conducted the first recording of the opera back in 1988: "It's an incredibly wonderful work," he enthuses, telling me about his special friendship built up with its composer during his tenure with San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

He well remembers punishing schedules - four concerts a week, sometimes five, week after week - but says Adams was a godsend, building up his familiarity with the latest American music.

"He was a fantastic adviser," de Waart recalls. "He'd turn up with ten new scores and cassettes, along with the reasons why they were interesting."

But at first, Adams didn't put his own pieces forward, which was initially worrying.

"I'd never heard John's music and I was afraid," de Waart admits. "Maybe it was like Stockhausen's, which I'm not particularly fond of. However, when I heard John's Shaker Loops I immediately liked its quirkiness and inventive use of rhythm, which was not as repetitive as Philip Glass."

Unfortunately de Waart has not brought us any Adams for his previous NZSO concerts, the most recent signing off 2014 with a memorable Mahler Ninth Symphony. Ten years before, he introduced us to Chinese pianist Lang Lang, playing Chopin.

Lang Lang delivered a somewhat idiosyncratic concerto, rewarding us with an encore that, at the time, I described as flashy, splashy, trashy and even a little bashy, but kind of fun all the same.

De Waart laughs, but is quick to defend his soloist as a lovely person and a tremendously serious musician.

Now, as the NZSO's Music Director, there are new responsibilities reflected in the seven concerts he will conduct in 2016 under the banner of Edo de Waart's Masterpieces. The first is next Friday's Mahler Third Symphony. The preponderance of German and Austrian music chosen does not worry him because if they were taken out of the repertoire it would be very hard to put together a good season.

"Composers such as Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss were the great writers for this art form," he says. "You can't get around them."

Come November, Elgar slips into the Teutonic Pantheon with his First Symphony and de Waart is a devotee of the composer.

"I think of him as an English combination of Strauss, Mahler and Bruckner," he explains. "Yet he has his own sound. When you're driving in your car and turn on the radio, you know after four bars that it's Elgar."

There's even a taste of Kiwi in de Waart's 2016 offerings when Douglas Lilburn's Festival Overture opens an April programme of Beethoven and Brahms.

"It's very nice. The orchestra's previous CEO, Peter Walls, is a great lover of Lilburn and I'll finally make him happy."

First up, though, is Mahler's Third, which I'm told is well worth its 90 minutes if only for the last movement.

"It also has the greatest slow movement ever written, bar none," de Waart insists, describing the composer's setting of Nietzsche's words, to be sung by Charlotte Hellekant, as "the emotional core of the work."

He has worked with the Swedish mezzo before, singing Berlioz in Cleveland and Janacek in Amsterdam. "She's an excellent artist and a wonderful singer," he assures me. "She's very smart and knows the language."

What: Nixon in China, Auckland Arts Festival
Where & when: Auckland town hall, tonight 7.30pm

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Friday 1 April 7pm

- NZ Herald

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