Sir Andrew Davis, who conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Illuminations concert, roars with laughter when I tell him how, decades ago, one of his LPs was almost a fixture in any Kiwi household professing a love of classical music.

He's still fond of that 1977 recording of Strauss' Four Last Songs with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, although it was a long time ago.

"Kiri and I were both babies," he chortles. "But it came out beautifully."

These days, the ebullient maestro is as happy in the opera house as the concert hall, and looks forward to returning to Chicago, where he's been Music Director of the city's Lyric Opera since 2000. In October, he tackles a new Ring cycle and director David Pountney's treatment of Das Rheingold will be "about people more than anything else."


"It'll be very theatrical and you'll see how things work behind the scenes," he adds. "Some of the time the Rhinemaidens will be going up and down on hoists."

Davis has been Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's Chief Conductor since 2013. Recently he scheduled Charles Ives' rarely-heard Fourth Symphony and a Mahler Sixth, the latest in a cycle of the composer's nine symphonies.

"The Sixth is an extraordinary work and a favourite," he enthuses. "It's a shattering piece, both to perform and listen to, but it's also the most classical of Mahler's symphonies in terms of structure and shape."

Olivier Messiaen is another composer who has expanded musical language and expectations in scores such as the two-hour Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jesus for solo piano and the 80-minute Turangalila Symphony, which the NZSO presented in 2003. Tonight's Eclairs sur l'Au-Dela, at a mere 75 minutes, was completed just months before Messiaen's death in 1992.

"It's not performed often but that's hardly surprising with an orchestra of 123 players," Davis explains. "And pieces calling for ten flutes and ten clarinets aren't exactly done every week."

"This is visionary music," he stresses. "And with a title like Illuminations of the Beyond it's bound to be."

With all 11 movements prefaced by Biblical quotation, Davis says Messiaen's religious faith is very apparent, but you don't have to be a subscriber to that faith to appreciate it.

He points out contemplative movements, in which "time itself seems to stand still," but also their polar opposites, including the frenzied unisons of the third movement that portray the Australian lyrebird.

"It moves so very fast," Davis says. "Musically, that's tricky enough with a small group, but when it's with a whole orchestra, it's fiendishly difficult. In fact, the orchestra becomes the bird, coruscating in its brilliance.

"Much of Messiaen's music is based on the singing of birds, God's most wonderful creation, as my ornithologist cousin would say," Davis continues, warning me that we won't be hearing any New Zealand birdsong tonight.

"There is a piece that didn't make it into Eclairs, based solely on the song of the tui," he says. "It was premiered recently at the BBC Proms but, when we asked if we could include it here, we were refused, and told that the piece is already the way that Messiaen intended."

In the final count, Eclairs sur l'Au-Dela dazzles with "an incredible range of colours and dynamics.

"Above all, don't expect the sort of musical development that Beethoven or Brahms do," Davis adds. "Messiaen uses repetition, finding different ways of juxtaposing different ideas - more like a musical kaleidoscope than any symphonic process."

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where: Aotea Centre