What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Where: Auckland Town Hall

When: Friday

Reviewer: William Dart

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The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's first concert this year came with a title, Spirit, that caught both the determination of this country's cultural sector and the fervour of audiences to hear live music.

Berlioz's Le Corsaire overture was a bracing opener. You could almost feel a full town hall holding its collective breath at the welcoming rush of violins answered by chattering woodwind syncopations.

And conductor Hamish McKeich didn't hold back for Berlioz's full-on climaxes when the brass took their theme for a striding march.

From the podium, McKeich promised us that Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony would be a "veritable carnival of melodies, all put together with rhythm, vigour and great inventiveness" and we were not disappointed.

The opening Andante had all the required tonal weight without any sacrifice of clarity. The Adagio allowed soaring strings to remind us of Prokofiev's great ballet scores; on either side of that, there was all the incisive wit and steely brilliance that are this composer's trademarks.

During Simon O'Neill's brief introduction to Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer, I found myself wishing the entire audience might have experienced the tenor's lively pre-concert talk.

With irrepressible bonhomie, singing and accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard, O'Neill introduced Mahler with a blend of perceptive analysis and hilarious anecdote. He revealed the equivalent of a Yiddish "oy vey" in one song, and admitted that another called for a touch of Frank Sinatra.

All of this was lovingly rendered in performance, with every song artfully characterised, as McKeich wove subtle, chamber music-like textures around him.

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Six lieder by Richard Strauss did not fare so well, lacking the cyclic cohesion of Mahler. There was often a need for more caressing of vocal lines and, at one point even O'Neill's magnificent voice struggled to surmount a surge of orchestral sumptuousness.