Concert review: NZSO, Auckland Town Hall

By William Dart

Showcase of cutting-edge music from NZ and abroad a definite Downunder bonus.
Auckland pianist Stephen De Pledge says he was instantly attracted to Magnus Lindberg's new concerto.
Auckland pianist Stephen De Pledge says he was instantly attracted to Magnus Lindberg's new concerto.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra sees tonight's Aotearoa Plus concert as its "annual showcase of cutting-edge music from New Zealand and abroad". Indeed, it's an evening of premieres.

One has conductor Bramwell Tovey rejigging his 2011 opera The Inventor into a suite that puts him at the keyboard of a honky-tonk piano; the other is the orchestra's major commission this year, a new symphony by its own CEO, Christopher Blake.

Sandwiched between them is a startling 2012 score by Magnus Lindberg, described by the New York Times as a "monster concerto, a surging, mercurial 32-minute work in three contrasting sections that unfold continuously".

Auckland pianist Stephen De Pledge, undertaking solo duties at the Steinway tonight, admits that the Finnish composer's Second Piano Concerto is very piano-centric.

"I play most of the time and the piano is very much driving the work, right from the beginning."

De Pledge points out the significance of it being written for the great Israeli-American virtuoso, Yefim Bronfman.

"Bronfman's famous for playing all the great romantic concertos," he tells me, describing how sharp ears might catch Lindberg's tongue-in-cheek quotes from scores such as Grieg's Piano Concerto and Chopin's finale Etude.

"It's fun guessing the private messages that lie underneath these," De Pledge says, smiling as he talks of "doing this crazy Etude at the end while the orchestra comes in with bizarre interjections".

It has been a luxury having had Lindberg's score for a year now, and it has been tackled in bite-size chunks, "although breaking the back of the notes was 50 per cent of the battle".

Having always admired Lindberg's 1994 First Piano Concerto and having played the composer's solo work Piano Jubilees in Britain a decade ago, De Pledge was instantly attracted to the new concerto.

"It's not just that it's virtuosic, but it's magnificently big-boned and romantic," he says.

"You get the sense of it being a grand work for piano and orchestra in the tradition of the great concertos and I think audiences here will love it."

Pianists take to Lindberg, despite Herculean demands listed in the New York Times ranging from thick chords leaping across the keyboard and cascades of double thirds to finger-twisting counterpoint.

"But then Lindberg's a pianist himself," De Pledge explains.

"As with composers like Rachmaninov, Chopin and Ravel, his writing falls under the hands. It's difficult and certainly pushes the boundaries, but it fits."

He muses on the two approaches composers can choose when writing concertos: either following the Mozartian model, with the soloist blending into the colours of the orchestra, or the later more gladiatorial conception, with soloist and orchestra undertaking a sparring contest.

"Lindberg does stage this huge romantic battle between the two of us," De Pledge laughs. "And although it's not so much a matter of who wins -- inevitably it's the pianist -- I suppose, because he has the most notes per square inch."

There is something very special about piano concertos and it's not just that "a piano, unlike any other instrument, can match decibels with an orchestra playing at full volume".

"The repertoire is so beloved," De Pledge says. "Audiences will swoon over the Rachmaninov Second, more so than a Tchaikovsky Symphony, even though they both sell tickets."

However, these days, concertos are an expensive commodity.

"Unlike a solo work, a concerto needs an orchestra," De Pledge points out. "This makes it a much more risky venture financially, a bit like an opera."

As it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra and Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony, Lindberg's new concerto is guaranteed three performances. Tonight's is a definite Downunder bonus.

Performance

What: Aotearoa Plus, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, tonight at 7.30pm.

- Weekend magazine

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