Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra is on a well-deserved roll. For the second week in a row, this time for its Organ Symphony concert on Thursday night, every seat in the town hall was taken.

Not all was lost, however, for the ticketless; the evening was relayed live through Radio New Zealand Concert and streamed online, where it will remain until mid-March.

The audience had a distinct advantage with the opening Pacific 231 by Arthur Honegger. This paean to the power of the locomotive has a physicality best experienced in the flesh. Conductor Eckehard Stier took to it with the eagerness of a young boy receiving his first train set and, with a huff and a puff, the mighty APO engine rode the rails.

Alexander Gavrylyuk is a formidable pianist and he tackled Rachmaninov's First Concerto with absolute authority. The soloist calls the shots here, inspiring the orchestra with fearless octaves and splashes of virtuosity.


Gavrylyuk's strength is that he seems to find an implied narrative in this score; one felt stories were being told while, around him, the orchestra created great waves of passion. Delicate solo work for individual players enabled them to enjoy the intimacy of chamber music with the Ukrainian pianist.

An encore, of Rachmaninov's third Moment Musical, was dedicated to the victims of the Kiev uprising. Inevitably, one could read the bittersweet rising dissonances as signs of hope in the face of a tyranny that was perhaps being caught in some of the piece's stark octaves.

After interval, Saint-Saens' much-maligned Organ Symphony took the stage with John Wells at the town hall organ. As a work, this does have a few dull patches, but Stier was determined to minimise them in an elegant reading.

What resulted was a vindication of Saint-Saens' artistry and taste, especially in his subtle navigation of the perils of sing-song 6/8 in the first movement, presented here with a very Gallic finesse.

The Finale was a predictable barnstormer, but for many, the hushed Poco Adagio in which Wells and the orchestra created a cool, chiselled classicism, may have been the high point.

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall