While the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has maintained a laudable online presence during lockdown, it was sobering to realise that its Monumental concert was only its second visit to our city this year.
Hamish McKeich, who deputised for Vasily Petrenko in August, on Saturday night stood in for Edo de Waart, in a programme that very much reflected that maestro's love of mainstream masterworks.
Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen is the ultimate musical immersion — 25 minutes of sumptuous strings creating the autumnal sonorities associated with late Strauss.
Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppanen's soulful violin floated over the 22 other soloists, as McKeich unfurled the supreme balancing act, with Strauss' many lines criss-crossing through shimmering textures, set in the volatile harmonic world of the composer's Der Rosenkavalier.
The spirit of that opera resonates in the composer's Four Last Songs, performed by Emma Pearson, taking over from the originally scheduled Erin Wall. There was a hush in the hall when McKeich dedicated the night's performance to the Canadian soprano, who passed away earlier in the week.
A few indecisive moments of orchestral ensemble aside, this was a heartstopping farewell to both Wall and to a romanticism that Strauss, in 1948, saw as having gone forever.
Pearson confidently inhabited this Straussian world, coolly navigating some treacherous swirls and eddies. Shifting moods were beautifully caught, from hopes of spring to final irrevocable sleep.
In the second song, Hermann Hesse's summer garden slowly submitting to autumn, memorably sung, would have had even more impact with some had the programme featured the usual printed lyrics.
After interval, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony certainly fitted in with the evening's monumental theme and McKeich whipped it into spectacular shape.
The audience was swept away by Tchaikovsky's theatrics but, for me, Samuel Jacobs' elegiac horn solo in the second movement was the finest moment, a much-appreciated reminder of Straussian beauties already enjoyed.
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What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall