William Dart: The vitality of virtuosity

By William Dart

Conductor Julian Kuerti takes the helm to lead NZSO through a bill with plenty of bite Julian Kuerti will conduct the NZSO's Fireworks & Fantasy. Photo / Hilary Stock
Conductor Julian Kuerti takes the helm to lead NZSO through a bill with plenty of bite Julian Kuerti will conduct the NZSO's Fireworks & Fantasy. Photo / Hilary Stock

The advertising around the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Fireworks & Fantasy concert is frenetic. The poster features a stubbled face baring teeth; the press release talks of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique chopping off its head with music.

Yet conductor Julian Kuerti is the epitome of cool graciousness.

Growing up with a pianist father (Anton Kuerti) and cellist mother (the late Kristine Bogyo), music was inevitable. "I don't know what it might have been like to have grown up without it," he says. "It wasn't until I was 5 or 6 that I realised that not everybody's parents were musicians and not everyone had a piano in the living room."

The young Kuerti went to sleep listening to chamber music rehearsals and wonders whether his mother performing the Elgar Cello Concerto just a few months before he was born had any effect on his musical leanings. He now looks back with resignation at "a misspent period at university collecting a degree in engineering physics. Music was what kept me going and what I always came back to with affection and fervour."

Initially a violinist, he only picked up a baton when he had to conduct a film score he had written. "Up until that point I looked on conducting as either a necessary evil or something that anyone could do. I was wrong on both counts."

Kuerti is grateful he was able to work alongside both Ivan Fischer with his Budapest Festival Orchestra and James Levine with the Boston Symphony. "There's nothing to compare with being embedded in an orchestra."

Unlike many conductors, he likes to listen to what others have done with scores that are on his schedule. He reels off a list of admired maestros from Solti and Bernstein to Furtwangler and Munch. "I am more and more struck with the genius of Stokowski, his daring and creativity ... it is difficult to imagine someone today performing like Toscanini, with such relentless drive."

Amongst Kuerti's numerous posts is that of principal conductor of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Concepcion in Chile, and he jokes how he "traded off slightly less authority to make for less day-to-day bureaucracy, which isn't as important to me as working with the music".

He is still glowing with pride from a concert last week with Boston's New England Conservatory Orchestra. Hans Werner Henze's Eighth Symphony was featured and this 1993 work prompts Kuerti to stand up for orchestras embracing the contemporary.

"Music needs to remain a living, relevant art. We won't be doing anybody any favours down the road if we lock it up and say that all the masterpieces have already been written.

"Nor should we draw a line in the sand and say that every score after a certain point hasn't been vetted and vouched for so we should replace it with something better known."

Even though the NZSO's Fireworks & Fantasy programme does not get any more modern than Britten's 1946 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Kuerti speaks up for its vitality.

He praises this "wonderful masterpiece of orchestral virtuosity", going into raptures over "the humour of the double bass, the drama of harp and horn, the heart-wrenching oboe and soulful cellos" almost convincing me it might have been written yesterday.

The concert ends with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, a work that can still sound startlingly modern, all these years after it shocked Paris in 1830.

"It's the epitome of the romantic spirit," says Kuerti. "It's the work of a young man. We hear the infatuation of someone head over heels in love. Above all, it's frighteningly original from beginning to end. As thrilling to listen to as it is to perform."


Performance

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where and when: Founders Theatre, Hamilton, Thursday at 7.30pm; Auckland Town Hall, Friday at 7pm.

- NZ Herald

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