Doubtlessly it was Holst's popular suite that filled the Auckland Town Hall for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's The Planets concert.

Punters would not have been disappointed; conductor Edo de Waart did the old warhorse proud.

First up was Mars, a "bringer of war" so belligerent that two nearby patrons covered ears during loud patches. Had they been alerted, I wondered, by references to rock bands, including a misspelt Led Zeppelin, in the uncredited programme notes?

Yet Mercury darted about with the zing of sprung steel and the serene Saturn floated by in the coolest flute tones. Holst's final coup for Neptune — mysterious wordless vocals wafting from off-stage — was magically achieved by the women of Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir.

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The evening had opened with three recent Abstractions by English-American composer Anna Clyne. While these were a virtuoso showcase for the orchestra, so much so that spontaneous applause broke out during the first, more questions were asked than were answered.

For starters, how could rigorously abstract visual art inspire such conservative musical responses? An initial rush of scales did catch the energetic momentum of artist Julie Mehretu's massive Auguries but why the lapse into melodramatic movie music?

What might Hector Berlioz have made of Clyne's challenge? This thought nagged me during the Frenchman's rarely heard cantata The Death of Cleopatra. Showing the same musical defiance and daring that would bloom just a year later in his Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz created a noble portrait of a woman resolutely facing the fate accorded her by history.

American mezzo Susan Graham, appropriately regal in shimmering gown and cape, transformed the tragic queen into a creature of flesh and blood, of fallibilities and strengths. It was a stellar performance by a world-class singer in her prime, soaring effortlessly to thrilling heights yet unlocking intimate vulnerabilities in recitative; an immense and unforgettable pleasure to have experienced on a New Zealand stage.

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – The Planets
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewed by: William Dart