As the applause faded on John Adams' Nixon in China, a heartfelt response drifted my way from the row behind.

"I'm going home and studying up so I know what tonight was all about," was the woman's comment, delivered in a tone of true Kiwi determination.

Perhaps she'd missed out on the panel discussion before the performance, an interesting alternative to the pre-event talks offered with most Town Hall concerts.

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has a reputation for putting on lively 7.15pm previews and occasional after-show Q+A sessions with soloists and conductors. It doesn't stop there.


This year sees a return of its popular Unwrap the Music, three early evening concerts where Australian conductor Richard Gill and the orchestra introduce pieces coming up in later programmes.

On Wednesday, concertgoers can learn just what makes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony click, but the charmingly avuncular Gill is cagey about pre-empting revelations.

Yet he does disclose his core philosophy in unwrapping masterpieces, which is "to make sure we talk about the music on its own terms as much as possible.

"If I were to say that Beethoven's Fifth sounds like victory and have my audience all listening for signs of victory, that would be very wrong," he warns.

"That immediately puts an idea into their heads that you don't want. You want them to form their own ideas about how the music sounds."

The basic issue for Gill is very much how the music works. He explores it in terms of horizontal and vertical blocks of sound, explaining how all that fits in with rhythm and, then, orchestral colour.

As one of Australia's most respected music educationalists, he has no time for people being afraid of music; in fact, this fear just might have been inculcated by the musical community itself. "We've turned people off because we've alienated ourselves," is his charge.

"A lot of them have the idea that music is only for the privileged; something that's difficult to understand. Yet it was written to be enjoyed by a wide and large audience which is how it should be."

This year's Unwrap the Music features fairly mainstream repertoire: Beethoven next week, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet in June and Dvorak's Eighth Symphony in September. Gill admits some composers are a little trickier to present; I proffer Bruckner as a major challenge.

"You've nailed that one," Gill laughs. "Schoenberg's difficult, too. His early music isn't too bad but the later stuff can be quite tough, although I have done it in concert with kids. It's seeing and hearing how it works with a live orchestra that makes it work but then not all music comes easily. With some you get it straight away, some almost straight away, but with other pieces you might have to do lots and lots yourself before you get it."

Watching Gill present Bruch's G minor Violin Concerto last year, with the APO concertmaster Andrew Beer as soloist, one felt the chemistry that has built up between conductor and musicians.

"I don't have a script but I do know what I'm doing," he explains. "This makes me flexible enough to change, if something isn't working or the audience doesn't get a point. I can modify my tactics. That's where the APO is absolutely amazing. They just move around with me, very, very freely."

Above all, conductor and musicians clearly enjoy imparting knowledge and that, for Gill, is utterly vital: "If humans can remain eternally inquisitive, they remain eternally young."



Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Unwrap the Music

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall; Wednesday, March 30 at 6.30pm