Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra: Returning in triumph

By William Dart

Virtuoso violinist brings swashbuckling sounds to Auckland Town Hall.
Ning-Feng. Photo / Lawrence Tsang
Ning-Feng. Photo / Lawrence Tsang

Ever since Ning Feng topped the 2005 Michael Hill International Violin Competition, he's returned to New Zealand for regular concerto appearances with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

"I'm always thrilled to come back," says Ning, who has recently completed a tour of Serbia with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra.

He sealed his 2005 victory with Brahms; since then Auckland audiences have enjoyed a host of concertos from Mozart and Dvorak to Glazounov and Bruch, including an inspired Britten on his last visit in 2014.

He remembers it vividly - as anyone fortunate enough to have been in the town hall on that October evening would.

"It's a great piece, so challenging both technically and musically," he sighs. "And, although it's getting more popular, it's still not played as often as it should be."

Next Thursday his concerto is by Erich Korngold, a composer known for the plush film scores that accompanied such swashbuckling Errol Flynn epics as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk. Ning's surprisingly hip reaction to the lushest scores that you're likely to hear this season is, "What's not to like?" I agree and especially if you're a fan of Korngold's film music, with his classic scores for Juarez and Anthony Adverse both turning up in the 1945 concerto.

It's a work Ning has loved since first hearing the definitive 1953 recording by Jascha Heifetz, who premiered the piece in 1946, and "combines poetry and virtuoso brilliance so effortlessly." he explains, marvelling at the extraordinary resonance the legendary violinist can draw from just one open string.

"Here is a player who's never afraid to take risks in order to make thrilling music."

I can't resist asking how many concertos Ning now has in his repertoire; his reply is a disarmingly casual, "About 30." As for new ones, he's curious to try William Walton's 1939 Violin Concerto.

"After the Britten, it would good to come back to an English composer," he says. "Also, it's another piece that was written for Heifetz."

April has been a busy month for Ning, serving on the judges' panel for the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition. He describes it as a great honour, saying he used to compete in these events when he was younger.

"Now I'm on the other side of the bench. The competition is very intensive," he adds, describing 16-hour days with concerts on the side. "This year is the centenary of Menuhin's birth, so it was a really big event and the winner, apart from receiving a generous financial prize, will get to play in my home town, Berlin."

For those who cannot enjoy Ning live, there is a small but impressive catalogue of CDs, mostly on the Channel label. When we last spoke, he was most enthusiastic about his 2007 Hello Mr Paganini album, featuring the music of a composer who "kept his technique secret so that other players didn't know how to do it".

Ning's latest recording, Apasionado, features Spanish-styled music by mainly French composers, played with the Orquestra Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias, under Rossen Milanov.

The Channel Records website, in the quaintest English, describes its van, packed with microphones and cables, driving "all the way through French mountains and along Spanish coastlines to the Auditorio Palacio in Oviedo where we captured his daredevil violinistic 'stunts' and tones of unsurpassed sweetness and purity."

Ning laughs when I quote it to him but, I suspect his performances on it will more than live up to the label's promises.

Beethoven's Triumph also includes Dame Gillian Whitehead's ... the improbable ordered dance ... which was written for the APO in 2000 and Beethoven's Symphony No 5, with the most famous four notes in music.

Performance

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Beethoven's Triumph
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall; May 5 at 8pm.

- Weekend magazine

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