Review: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Town Hall Auckland – 12 May 2012

The drawcard of the Elgar Cello Concerto performed by American cellist Lynn Harrell saw a very good turnout (for once) at the Auckland Town Hall on Saturday. And from the audience reception to the performances, everyone left happy. Well, mostly everyone.

This is a busy period for the NZSO which will culminate in a performance next weekend of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony under David Zinman. One of Zinman’s proteges, Andrew Grams led the orchestra in this concert. Grams comes highly recommended as one of the rising stars from the United States and he is doing the rounds guest conducting many of the leading orchestras around the world in order to raise his profile.

Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture” is fairly stock-standard repetoire and Grams conducted from memory even though the score was on the podium. Emphasising the legato phrasing in much of the piece, he coaxed out warm, rich sounds from the NZSO which made for a good start. One point though – perhaps I am getting too used to the fluid style of Pietari Inkinen and others – Grams “karate-chopping” the last few bars was quite amusing as was his habit of crouching down to emphasise pianissimos. For ‘ppp’, you almost expect him to duck under the podium just to make the point.

And so to the Elgar. Veteran American cellist Lynn Harrell needs little introduction to New Zealand audiences. However, it was notable that he did perform the same work the last time he was here in 2003. No matter, the audience were looking forward to a suitably powerful performance full of emotion and lyrical balance. Unfortunately, it didn’t arrive, at least to me, until the last movement. I have been wondering whether I need my ears checked but one could not ignore surprising issues of intonation and a somewhat reedy tone from a new instrument. No issues with the NZSO which sounded positively British in its accompaniment but for me, it was an overall disappointment after quite a bit of hype. Maybe the Wellington performance last week was better. (NZSO, take note – Andrew Joyce might be a good choice for soloist next time the Elgar is programmed). Harrell’s encore of Bach from the suite No. 1 was well received.

The NZSO’s former CEO Peter Walls gave an excellent pre-concert talk highlighting the transitions within Schumann’s 4th Symphony. Quite so. If you had any doubt about this, you should look at the videos on YouTube of Herbert von Karajan rehearsing the Weiner Symphoniker (for exapmle – while many believe Schumann to be an inferior symphonist to say Beethoven or Brahms, the 4th provides many challenges in both structure and performance. There is a lot of detail that needs to come through in order to deliver a good performance.

So, how was it ? Well, this was “big picture” Schumann – Grams clearly had the orchestra show us that the 4th is certainly a substantial symphony but at the cost of many thematic details and contrasts. Arguably, the Romanza could have been a touch slower in order to enjoy some of melodies such as the lead violin solo. The gamble did pay off partially in the Scherzo (3rd Movement) but again, the transitions in themselves are musical and textural contrasts which should be brought out, not glossed over. One good example are the melodic downward spiral melodies in the Scherzo played by the strings. The delicacy and complexity was completely lost in favour of speed.

The only word to describe the pace for the Allegro Vivace of the final movement was ‘barnstorming’ – it certainly was the fastest version I’ve ever heard. Again, speed makes for excitement but the dramatic nature of the final transition was somewhat lost as the pace was so fast to begin with, it almost threatened to fall over. Kudos to the orchestra for keeping up with the very demanding pace – it bodes well for next week’s Alpine Symphony.

PS – farewell to sub-principal bass Victoria Jones. It was a brilliant touch for the whole double bass section to don outrageous wigs in tribute to her colourful hairstyles. Concertmaster Emeritus Wilma Smith gave the tribute prior to the start of the concert…..which led to some people thinking that Vicki might be heading to Melbourne. Not so, I believe.

About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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