Watching Tianyi Lu on stage is to sense that special bond between orchestra and conductor.

In conversation, the 27-year-old New Zealander speaks as decisively as she wields a baton, as she will do on Saturday evening when she conducts the Manukau Symphony Orchestra in its mid-winter Romance concert.

It's this focus and energy that has taken her to Europe to study and work with such formidable maestros as Bernard Haitink, Mark Elder and Carlo Rizzi. Her most recent appointment takes her to Melbourne, as assistant conductor to Sir Andrew Davis.

"It's very useful for a conductor to have an assistant," she says. "It's often hard to hear the actual sound of the orchestra when you're standing on the podium."

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Yet, she insists we must beware of judging music by the artificially engineered sound world of the CD.

"Sometimes watching a Rachmaninoff concerto and seeing the pianist struggle against the orchestra without hearing the piano can be a valid dramatic experience in its own terms."

The all-important issue of balance comes up in Saturday's concert with a 1938 harp concerto by the Russian composer Reinhold Gliere, in which soloist Yi Jin is pitted against fairly large orchestral forces.

Lu is not worried. Having been introduced to the work in Wales, she's looking forward to unleashing its passionate, Rachmaninoff-styled romanticism.

"It's such a tuneful score," she says, "a simply gorgeous piece that so effortlessly highlights all the special qualities of the harp."

Having started her own musical studies as a composer, she's pleased to open the concert with a new work by Charles Royal, Whitiora, written for cello, orchestra and chanting voice. She says Royal, who will deliver his own words, sees the piece as a journey from conflict to resolution.

"This healing is very relevant today with the recent government apology for Parihaka. We need to acknowledge that such things have happened in our history and move forward through reconciliation."

Lu is enthusiastic about Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, which completes the programme. It's one of her favourites and she describes it as having a vivacity that gives it a life and character all of its own, full of light and sparkling colours.

While Lu's career may have transported her to some of the world's leading opera houses and symphony halls, she enjoys and values working with young players and community orchestras.

"After all, it's through such organisations that a young conductor gets her breaks," she says, "but speaking seriously, in the end, music must be about making contact and connections with people.

"The young are so willing to learn, open to new ideas and music can very much influence their attitude to life. It's such a wonderful way to teach perseverance, compassion and belief in oneself, as well as the willingness to work towards something as a team."

What: Manukau Symphony Orchestra
Where & when: BNZ Theatre, Vodafone Events Centre (770 Great South Rd, Manukau) Saturday at 7.30pm.