Auckland Chamber Orchestra and conductor Peter Scholes have secured a niche for themselves, locally and nationally, through regular Composer Portrait concerts profiling established names too rarely heard on the wider public stage.
Most recently, it was time to salute David Hamilton with a generous selection of works covering 35 years of the Auckland composer's career.
Two chamber scores from the 1980s brushed up well. The minimalist sheen of 1985's Nix Olympica gleamed anew, with five players making the most of its cool sonorities. Flaring woodwind outbursts may have nodded to Philip Glass, although Sarah Watkins' breezy piano riffs seemed to hint at a Leroy Anderson sleighride. Hurdy Gurdy surged with 1989 vintage energy, fuelled by Scholes' klezmer-fired clarinet.
Mezzo Helen Acheson offered more recent vocal settings, including two from Hamilton's 2015 A Small Garden of Songs. Imaginatively accompanied by violin and harp, she brought a winning naturalness to Robert Louis Stevenson's texts. A powerful Canticle 5 found Acheson less at ease in high register, vying against some impressive instrumental fierceness from Watkins and oboist Bede Hanley.
The second half of the programme featured orchestral music, mostly written for young players in the course of Hamilton's associations with various Auckland schools. A sprightly oboe concerto, with a boisterous hand-clapping hoedown in its tail, allowed Hanley to relax against a backdrop of strings that occasionally wanted in niceties of intonation. The Ghosts of Wreck Bay, deftly weaving string trio and orchestra, offered more tonal reassurance.
Hamilton's skill at musical evocation came out in Kingston Flyer, a train journey propelled on a mix of minimalism and Villa-Lobos, framed by some ear-teasing steam effects.
The highlight was 2007's Hine Raukatauri, an international prize winner for Hamilton, inspired, like some of his best scores, by a Māori theme. Flautist Jennifer Mori was an expressive soloist, while Ingrid Bauer's harp and Steven Logan on percussion embedded jewel-like prisms of colour into rushing string textures that occasionally wandered a little too close to Bernard Herrmann's music for Hitchcock's Psycho.
What: Auckland Chamber Orchestra
Where: Raye Freedman Arts Centre
Reviewed by: William Dart