Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's journey to La Belle France opened with the elegant sway and swoon of Ravel's

Le Tombeau de Couperin

.

Here, and throughout the evening, conductor Hamish McKeich unerringly found the musical equivalent of that most admired of Gallic cultural assets, le mot juste (the right word).

More robust fare would come later with vigorously played selections from Bizet's L'Arlesienne, brightly and breezily registering as portents of a Carmen yet to come (the APO accompanies NZ Opera's Auckland season of Carmen in June).

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Highlights included Michael Jamieson's soulful saxophone and a particularly beguiling transformation of minuet into waltz.

We may smile at the nudging narrative of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but McKeich and his players made us aware of its composer Dukas' stature as a maestro magician.
The star soloist was Mahan Esfahani, on a two-manual French harpsichord, in Poulenc's Concert champetre.

What joy Poulenc dispenses, with a first movement that's a runaway amalgam of everything from Baroque wallpaper to mock Stravinsky, fanciful and rustic by turns.

Tender Andante emotions were caught in lilting melodies and Esfahani's melancholic rubato, while Poulenc's final irrepressible reel, delivered with flying fingers and bittersweet tangs, ended with the composer's best joke - a gentle, piercing woodwind clash, followed by the harpsichord's final pianissimo minor chord.

Esfahani stayed in France for his generous encore - a Rameau Gavotte with achingly beautiful ornamentation and six dazzlingly spry variations.

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewer: William Dart