Rumon Gamba is enjoying a spring morning in Suffolk when I ring him.

"Just outside Benjamin Britten's house, so what could be better?," he laughs.

When the English conductor visited us in 2015, Enigma Variations was the highlight of his Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra concert. The Elgar work is a favourite but he confesses his absolute passion is for getting little-known British composers out there.

"If those Finnish conductors can promote their own Finnish repertoire, why can't I do the same?" he says.


But it's Russian composers who come to the fore in Gamba's upcoming APO concerts.
The first, with the 007 signage of From Russia with Love, puts Stravinsky alongside Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.

Stravinsky's Funeral Song is a great discovery, Gamba enthuses, and this will be its Australasian premiere. It was performed just once at St Petersburg in 1909 and, when its long-lost score was discovered last year, it quickly did the rounds of the international concert circuit.

"Funeral Song was composed just before The Firebird and it's unlike anything else that Stravinsky wrote," Gamba says, likening it to a cross between The Firebird and ceremonial Wagner, and praising its amazing orchestration.

"It creates its own atmosphere without tons and tons of instruments and speaks clearly and directly."

Who could resist asking the urbane Gamba how a seasoned conductor tackles such an uber-popular score as Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony? But my question finds him unfazed.

"As a student, you spend hours analysing the recordings of others before finding your own way. Now I just play it without trying to do any tricks and let the music speak for itself."

But he warns against becoming jaded with this work, as it's a fine piece of symphonic craftsmanship.

"Every movement is so individual, pursuing this journey from darkness to light. We travel from the tortured anguish of the first movement through the beautiful song of the second and the pizzicato third to an outrageous finale that almost glows with sunshine."

It is Russian music that promises a closing coup a week later, when Gamba launches the APO's mid-year series, Pushing Boundaries, with Mahler, Haydn and Stravinsky. This time it's one of Stravinsky's best-known works, the 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring, a watershed of 20th century music.

But Gamba doesn't feel that it's the huge, daunting mountain it used to be. He says the secret is to make it as fresh as the day it was written, however well you know all its tricky rhythms.

"I've heard performances where it's just been a slick machine showing what an orchestra can do," he warns. "It needs more bite and effort."

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, From Russia with Love
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Wednesday at 8pm; Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, Thursday at 7.30pm
What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Pushing Boundaries
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, May 11 at 8pm.