What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewer: William Dart
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's final concert for the year carried the well-deserved title of Spectacular.
What a coup it was to have conductor Gemma New back home, and feature Stephen De Pledge, one of our most versatile pianists, in a charming concerto by Dunedin composer Anthony Ritchie.
From the first imposing chords of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one was mesmerised by New's body language, moulding phrases as if in slow motion, with each harmony exquisitely finessed.
This is a visually dramatic work, with a smaller string ensemble positioned up high, away from the main orchestra, and New created an incandescent weave of shifting textures and intensities between them.
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Anthony Ritchie, interviewed on stage by the conductor, described his Third Piano Concerto as life-affirming, a quality that sat well with New's own descriptions of the night's energy and optimism.
This 2008 work, written for Manukau Symphony Orchestra, is modest in its demands but immediate in its impact. Its simplicity, however, is deceptive, from De Pledge's wistful opening solo, toughened up with jabs of dissonance and changing time signatures.
The spirit of Shostakovich may hover over it, with vivid and occasionally garish orchestral colouring, but the central slow movement delivered prime poetry in the night's delicately modulated dialogue between soloist and orchestra.
Ritchie's romp-like finale was followed by an unexpected change of mood — De Pledge's beautifully understated encore by the French composer Faure.
After the interval, New undertook an intrepid journey through the brooding, rugged landscape of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, letting its primal first movement unfold in its own time, magisterially and mysteriously.
The inner fire and momentum of the work were ably sustained, right through to its spectacular last movement. Not only did we thrill here to Sibelius' great tolling horn theme, but his final six thunderclap chords had us on seat's-edge, dispensed by New as if her baton had been transformed to a bullwhip.