If the symphonic highlight of the NZSO’s 2011 season was Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”) under Vasily Petrenko, then Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony” under David Zinman was likely to be the 2012 equivalent. It certainly did not disappoint and the Auckland Town Hall was well attended on Saturday evening.
Strauss’ music is not for the faint hearted or those who want a good tune – this is dense, rich, thematic, textural stuff that tests not only the performer to the utmost but the listener as well. As the programme notes pointed out, the Alpine Symphony is a behemoth work – it is scored for over 120 musicians including 20 or more horns, Wagner tubas, a heckelphone (for those who don’t know what a heckelphone is, think a cross between a bassoon and a cor anglais), wind machine and cowbells. There was not a lot of room on the Auckland Town Hall Stage !
The work’s twenty-two movements (played as a continuous piece) cover a day’s climbing in the Bavarian Alps. The fact that it was written in about three months speaks volumes not only to the inspiration behind the work but also Strauss’ understanding of orchestration. I’ll never say it is one of my favourite works, but it is piece that I have come to admire not only due to its scale musically, but also thematically. It should be clear and yet thrilling.
And it was. The NZSO, at full strength plus, were magnificent from start to finish – renowned conductor David Zinman, on his first visit to New Zealand, carefully managed the task at hand and drew everything from the orchestra. The soundscape that he created was as vivid and as high and imposing as the mountains, yet subtly nuanced and delicate where necessary. You would have little difficulty following the passage of the mountain climb even if you had never heard the piece before.
As much as credit should go to Maestro Zinman, it should go in equal measure to the orchestra who seemed to enjoy the challenge as much as the conductor. New Zealanders should know that they have an orchestra as good as any of the world’s top-flight orchestras and they proved that again with this performance. Kudos in particular to Principal Oboe Robert Orr and Principal Horn Sam Jacobs who also participated in a very illuminating pre-concert talk along with Concertmaster Vessa-Matti Leppannen. (And yes Robert, I did hear the ‘sheep’ actually).
Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony was played in the first half of the concert. A brisk pace, yet elegant nonetheless. More an amuse bouche for the main course, than anything.
Footnote: Next month, I will have the chance to hear two of the best American orchestras – the San Francisco Symphony and the Seattle Symphony. Should be an interesting experience and I shall certainly jot down a few notes.