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Feathered creatures of all musical persuasions seemed to flutter around the Town Hall on Thursday night during Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's Exotic Birds, a rather clever programme, built around pianist Joanna MacGregor.

Conductor John Nelson is still remembered from his 2012 visit, when he and the APO had Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique living up to its name; he launched Thursday's concert with a minor miracle - recharging Respighi.

The Baroque transcriptions of the Italian's The Birds were not the bland avian picture-postcards they can be. Well-honed playing, primed to the last musical barbule, ensured that.

Bede Hanley's oboe, serene sarabanding in Jacques de Gallot's representation of a dove, was one of many sterling woodwind contributions; later, minimalist urges seemed to take flight during a Pasquini portrait of a cuckoo.


MacGregor's solo turn was a bracing mini-recital, from the bluesy languor of Ravel's Oiseaux tristes to a surprisingly pastoral Oockooing Bird by Harrison Birtwistle. In between, Couperin's nightingale, nesting in Steinwayland, created its own lush bower.

Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques, a vibrant compendium of birdsong from the around the world, had given the evening its title. This 1956 score may sound like spontaneous outburst, but the sonic filigree is underpinned by tight structural wizardry. A whoop of horns, and we were let loose in the glittering aviary.

MacGregor mesmerised with her flamboyant cadenzas, the first flying from Indian mynah to American thrush. But there was a real sense of musical kinship between soloist and orchestra, especially in her interplay with Eric Renick's virtuoso xylophone.

After interval, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony was like visiting the countryside after the most invigorating spring shower.

Nelson brought his own carefully annotated orchestral parts with him, and the benefits were evident, right from the exquisitely nuanced opening phrase. The bold single-chord stretches in the development movement were never more thrilling, while the brook in the second movement babbled with such vivacity that a snatched full-scale dance was inevitable.

Beethoven's title for the third movement - Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute - is a mouthful for what is basically a rural hoedown, and this was just what Nelson and his musicians effortlessly conveyed.


What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall