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Inevitably, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Friday concert took its title from the evening's final offering, Debussy La Mer.

It was a memorable seascape that conductor Pietari Inkinen fashioned. One was tempted to see the glint of light on water in brilliant, coursing woodwind or feel Mediterranean breezes courtesy of expressive strings; but the final movement's dialogues had a psychological intensity that probed more deeply than the jousting of wind and wave.

The first half of the evening had explored other shores. Sibelius's The Oceanides is a slight work but, knowing Inkinen and the orchestra's fine Sibelius recordings, one detected hints of symphonic sinew.

Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes were unflinchingly tough, through to an explosive storm, as much about human torments as anything meteorological.


Chausson's Poeme de l'amour et de la mer offered a formidable challenge for American mezzo Sasha Cooke.

The composer, who bewailed the difficulty of finding singers who could understand Maurice Bonchor's dense poetry, would have appreciated Cooke's response.

Floating over wafting orchestral textures, she started by evoking the fragrance of lilacs; later, the word "forgetfulness" resonated ominously against doom-laden trombone chords.

Yet, brought on perhaps by an early missed cue, there was a slight sense of caution as Cooke navigated over Inkinen's surging Wagnerian ocean.

The following evening, Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer was altogether more secure.

Cooke had little need for more than a glance at the score in front of her. Text was familiar, to the minutest inflection; from the country air optimism of Ging heut' morgens' ubers Feld to the despair and resignation of Die zwei blauen Augen.

Inkinen's intricate handling of Mahler's often delicate scoring echoed his approach to Lilburn Third Symphony that had opened the evening.

Uniquely terse in its language and emotions, this iconic work was delivered with a muscular grace and buoyancy that overrode the occasional blurring of detail.

While it is popular to cite Sibelius and Vaughan Williams as Lilburn's musical forefathers, Lenny Sakofsky's nervy snare-drum made it clear that, by this time, the New Zealand composer had added Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra to his list of favourites.

Stravinsky's The Firebird provided a title and a closing showcase for Saturday's concert.

This was the complete score, as you might hear it in the theatre, with all the musical links that accompany dancers between the set pieces. Halfway through, you might have wished for a moratorium on string tremolo, but there was no tiring of Inkinen's inexhaustible catalogue of gestures to catch every twirl and flurry of the ingenious Igor Stravinsky.