What: Auckland Arts Festival - In C; Turangalila-Symphonie
Where and When: Spiegeltent, Aotea Square, March 19; Town Hall, March 23
If ever I'm at an orchestral concert and unsure how to approach an unfamiliar piece of music, I watch the percussionists. It helps the work to coalesce; you get a greater sense of rhythms and see, hear and perhaps feel where the composer has underlined a musical point.
It's fun, too. Percussionists are the most athletic members of the orchestra, leaping from instrument to instrument in a single bound, musical superheroes thwacking a cowbell in the nick of time. The more instruments and the more percussionists, the better it is to watch.
That should make Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's performance of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie particularly enjoyable. The work, which the APO performs as part of Auckland Arts Festival, has a massive percussion section to match the similarly vast numbers on stage (around 100 musicians and two soloists).
APO principal percussionist Eric Renick, says it'll be great to play, too. It's the first time the 39-year-old has performed the piece.
"To be part of something so big with such mystique ... It's one of those pieces you talk about: Turangalila," he whispers. "Finally, I'm doing it. There's nothing like it; the magnitude, the size of it."
Musicians love Turangalila but what's in it for casual audiences? No one disagrees that it's an important work, one of the great 20th-century masterpieces, but is it music people want to hear? The fact it's so rarely programmed suggests there's something that turns crowds away.
That's probably not the music so much as the idea of it. Most people will never have heard Turangalila in concert, and despite Messiaen's reputation for complexity, the work contains many moments of tenderness and beauty. The composer, after all, conceived of it as a love song - the work was centred round the Tristan and Isolde myth - and two of the 10 movements are titled Chant d'amour.
"Some people might call it dissonant but I don't find that," says Renick. "It's creative and actually quite fun to listen to. It's thick in texture but it's not tuneless."
Indeed, Turangalila has plenty of tunes, not least in the dream-like sixth movement, Jardin du sommeil d'amour. The texture, meanwhile, comes from Messiaen's instrumentation. As well as an enlarged orchestra of more than 100 players, Turangalila requires a virtuoso pianist.
The APO has one in Joanna Macgregor, international soloist and head of piano at the Royal Academy of Music, and who, in 2014, gave a standout Auckland performance of the same composer's Oiseaux exotiques. There's also an electronic oddity in the form of an ondes martenot, which provides incongruous Star Trek-style sci-fi effects.
Renick's own section features 17 instruments, so the APO's team is bolstered by ring-ins from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), making for a total of 11 percussionists. That's a lot of people to corral, the largest percussion section Renick's led.
"You could get it done with eight [percussionists]," says Renick, "but for this project we wanted to bring over as many students as we could. We did it for the experience, so everyone could be a part of it. I know I'd have liked to have been part of something so big when I was a student."
The ANAM musicians also appear in Renick's other festival performance, of Terry Riley's minimalist landmark In C, which they perform in the Spiegeltent.
Given Renick's own background, it's easy to see why he's keen to offer young musicians a chance. He grew up in Indiana listening to Guns N' Roses and AC/DC, playing in the school marching band while his own group, Sinister Asylum, bashed out Metallica covers. Classical music meant nothing to him.
"It didn't exist for me. My friends were all doing music but not in the orchestral world. We were playing local community centres, festivals, nothing paid."
Renick didn't play in a symphony orchestra until university, which he attended thanks to a music scholarship. The kid clearly had talent but, he admits, he was overwhelmed and couldn't even read an orchestral percussion score. He recollects a particular harrowing experience with Debussy.
"I knew about rhythms but [Debussy's] La Mer is impressionistic while I was used to marching drumline stuff and rock bands. In La Mer there's a big bass drum part in the third movement, and the conductor was yelling at me, 'Bass drum!' I was like, is the bass drum here or here? I was lost and I needed a lot of extra help."
Turangalila and In C give him a chance to pay it forward.