A distinctly French connection underlined the second of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Masterworks concerts, even to its newly commissioned piece from local composer Salina Fisher.

The young New Zealander's Tupaia looks to the Tahitian master navigator for inspiration — and a veritable ocean of orchestral hues could well evoke clusters of Pacific islands and the stars above them, most strikingly when alto flute rises above what sounds like a universe of bells.

Berlioz's Les Nuits d'Ete is one of the great Romantic song-cycles and a demanding work, for both singer and listener. This iconoclastic composer and master colourist doesn't offer an easy melodic flow in the German manner. Some songs, with their fragmented textures and continuity, can be testing to hold together.

American mezzo Sasha Cooke did so exquisitely, capturing the delicate meld of Gautier's poetry and Berlioz's music. This was superlative artistry; we heard vocal power and warmth with no strain whatsoever, coupled with a pure and flexible tone, bewitchingly lustrous in its lower register. Already, in April, this must be one of the standout performances of the concert year.


After interval, Edo de Waart, who had played no small part in the success of the Berlioz, laid out a marine wonderland in Debussy's La Mer. Austrian composer Hanns Eisler once wrote a short piece showing 14 ways to describe rain; de Waart demonstrated Debussy's seemingly limitless ingenuity in catching every surge and ripple, and not just, as its first movement might suggest, from dawn to midday.

De Waart laments in the programme booklet that too many people have never heard Ravel's Bolero in the flesh. If so, the finale must have been a baptism by frisson for them. This mesmerising masterpiece of manic rhythmical obsession certainly held all around me in thrall.

Halfway through, the woozy slip and slide of trombone was hinting perhaps that Ravel's cataclysmic closing pages would be the party to end all parties. We were not disappointed.

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewer: William Dart