Auckland Chamber Orchestra's Composer Portraits have always been major testaments of cultural faith. National in significance, they present the men and women who catch the heart and spirit of our country in their music.

Its tribute to Helen Bowater was introduced by the composer. Choosing her words carefully, she spoke of cultivated chaos and cryptic communication; sounds might interact in either harmonious or unruly fashion, initiating an immediate, restless flight, eventually set free by the performers.

Four piano pieces, dashingly delivered by Blas Gonzalez, were teasing tasters. The longest, The Ghost of Oedipus, investigated the hypnotic power of sleek chords. The three short scampers of Cottleston Pie, with Gonzalez whistling, pulling faces and treating his instrument like a drum kit, revealed the composer's uniquely sly humour.

The premiere of Bowater's 1996 Violin Concerto for Ten Players was the first of two substantial ensemble pieces, both of which benefited from some of the city's finest players, under the assured baton of Peter Scholes.

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Miranda Adams was a consummate soloist here, initiating the absorbing instrumental weave, deceptively lulling at first, with roving, finely gauged unisons. Compelling in its musical argument, it also had streaks of fiery flair, ignited by two percussionists.

Declination Zero is a 2005 sextet, first commissioned and performed by the sorely missed 175 East. This spellbinder pitted floating woodwind lines against darker, measured strings, with a resonant quote from Van Gogh — "the sight of stars makes me dream" — as an eloquent navigational guide.

One felt for the energetic mezzo Claire Scholes, almost bristling to take the surreal hi-jinx of Mervyn Peake's The Frivolous Cake into the realm of full-blown cabaret. However, the complexities of Bowater's 1990 setting required too much reading of lyrics for total relaxation.

By contrast, Beneath the Crumpled Stars, her 2014 take on poems by Wellington's Gregory O'Brien, was wonderfully welcoming. From the start, jazzy shifts on guitar and cello hinted at music beyond Symphony Hall, as did the infectious shuffle of a children's song. Elsewhere, the singer's evocative stretching of the word "ocean" could not help but remind us of the rush and swell of the Pacific that surrounds and protects us.

What: Auckland Chamber Orchestra
Where: Raye Freedman Arts Centre
Reviewer: William Dart