I'm unsure whether to tell Edo de Waart about my dislike of Mahler's Symphony No.7.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's music director, who conducts the work in Wellington on Friday, November 7, then Auckland on the Saturday, is famously unforgiving of journalists' stupidity and I prepare myself accordingly.

My nerve fails and instead we talk Beethoven, to whom de Waart turns later in November, with the composer's symphonic bookends, numbers one and nine. As far as de Waart is concerned, the Beethoven works represent, with Mahler and Mozart, the pinnacle of composers.

"As I get older, the more I realise what a genius [Beethoven] was," says the conductor.

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De Waart is pleased, then, to perform both symphonies again next year, as part of a complete Beethoven cycle. To play all nine symphonies in a row is a great artistic statement, one that you might think requires significant physical resources, too.
Not so, according to de Waart, who has presented the complete Beethoven symphonies several times.

"It is exhilarating. It's not as physically demanding as [Wagner's operatic] Ring cycle but it has the same magic, it feeds on itself. When you're inspired by the things you're doing, that doesn't wear you out. At the end I don't collapse and go on vacation, I would like to — if I still could — run around the block five times," says the 77-year-old.

De Waart's work with the NZSO restricts him mostly to the classical big-hitters but he is also famed as a champion of contemporary music. As music director of the San Francisco Symphony from 1977 to 1985, he did more than anyone to promote the work of arguably America's greatest living composer, John Adams, who was hired to advise the orchestra on new music.

The conductor presents fewer modern works these days, which, he says, makes him sad but there are extenuating circumstances.

"The last 10 years have been under the shadow of the financial crisis. All orchestras lost audiences. In America they lost endowment money; people didn't give as much and didn't go to concerts as much."

In Milwaukee, where de Waart was music director from 2009 to 2017, and remains conductor laureate, the orchestra was forced to shed players and play more of the classics.

"That has worked but it has not been a great five or six years for contemporary music," he says.

De Waart has managed to slip a few new works into his 2019 NZSO appearances, Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto is a notable inclusion. However, as the Herald recently noted, there's a shortage of New Zealand composers next year, just three of them in the main Podium Series, and no Kiwi women at all.

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De Waart, who conducted the world premiere of Salina Fisher's Tupaia earlier this year, strenuously denies the implication that the national orchestra seems not to feel a responsibility to play local music.

"No, no, no. We have to have responsibility [for playing New Zealand works] and we do. Maybe not in the big series. When we go to Auckland and it's not all Classical [era repertoire] there's two-thirds of an audience. I regret that."

De Waart will hope for a fuller Town Hall later this month for Mahler 7, an immense, 80-minute piece that occupies the whole concert. Finally plucking up the courage, I admit that Mahler 7 is a work I've never connected with. I hear bluster, bombast and self-conscious heroism. What does de Waart hear?

"Someone who has a very complicated view of life and religion and love and hate and lives very intensely. I love the variety; I love the incredible tenderness in the inner movements. The scherzo is spooky, all the quick triplets and sudden explosions, and then at the end that wild finale, with strange changes in metre. To try to follow the path Mahler takes through nature is the challenge and a tremendous inspiration [and so is] doing it in a way that doesn't leave the audience bewildered."

I don't get any of that; I am one of the bewildered. De Waart advises similarly confused listeners to relax into it.

"Some pieces give themselves very slowly. I always say don't worry, keep an open mind, don't try to judge it. We like to put things in boxes and name them but in life it's interesting to not to do that, to just say, 'Ah, I might not get it all but I like to listen to it.' I hope I'll succeed in that with the seventh, that the audience goes home thinking, 'I don't know what I heard but it's a great piece and I want to know more.' "

Lowdown
What: NZSO — Mahler Symphony No.7; Beethoven Symphonies 1 and 9.
Where and when: Michael Fowler Centre, Friday, November 9, Auckland Town Hall, Saturday November 10; Michael Fowler Centre, Friday, November 23, Auckland Town Hall, Saturday, November 24