A well-attended Town Hall audience was indeed spellbound this evening after another very good concert from the NZSO. An enchanting mix of works which included Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto with soloist Olivier Latry and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”.
Latry, the main drawcard of the evening, is one of the organ world’s stars – currently one of the titulaires des grands orgues (chief organists) at the Notre Dame Cathedral Paris, he is also Professor at the Paris Conservatoire and an ambassador for French organ music. If you know your organists, you will have heard of him for sure.
It’s a fair bet that if you jump in surprise at the thunderous chords at the start of Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (technically, this is a concerto for organ, strings and timpani), it’s highly like that you have never heard the piece before. I was wondering how loud they would be and it did not disappoint – plenty of ‘prairie doggers’ in the theatre this evening. The concerto, written in 1939 on a commission from one of Poulenc’s patrons, may not be to everyone’s taste given its somewhat atonal nature in places. Completing it did not come easy for Poulenc, affected as he was by the death of a close friend during its composition and with a lot of the composer’s music, one wonder’s whether there is a spiritual dimension to the work reflected by the tonal and dynamic contrasts within it – the tensions are obvious to the ear in this concerto and Latry made the most of the power the Auckland Town Hall organ now has as well emphasising the delicacy of the instrument. Conductor Rossen Milanov equally ensured that the strings of the NZSO, particularly Principal Viola Julia Joyce, were an equal foil to Latry’s powerful playing and were not at all overwhelmed by the king of instruments.
Latry’s encore (I’m sorry, I don’t know what it was) was a chance to show off both his technical skill and the power of the Town Hall organ and was perhaps more impressive than the concerto itself.
Programming such popular works as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Scheherazade” either side of the Poulenc was a good idea, I thought. Of course, it only works when the orchestra doesn’t play like it’s going through the motions – no fear of that this evening.
It would be a cliché to say that the chief reason why the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is well known is thanks to the Disney movie “Fantasia”. While that’s true enough, the work has always been popular since its composition and the NZSO did not disappoint with a suitably ‘fantastic’ rendition telling to story as it were of the over-ambitious apprentice and his misguided enthusiasm to cast the same spells as his master and making a hash of it. Maestro Milanov, known to New Zealand audiences but making his debut with the NZSO, appeared to be looking to cast spells on the orchestra with his baton as well – the parallel was quite appropriate.
Scheherazade, based as it is on the Thousand and One Nights, is a tonefully colourful oriental fantasy and Rimsky’s best known work. Although ostensibly in four distinct movements the composer was quite clear that he intended it to be a melange of fairy tales much like the original stories. Were we going to be ‘spellbound’ by the NZSO this evening ? The short answer was that we were – Milanov, very much a veteran who has cut his teeth with many of the leading orchestras around the world, conducts with assuredness, fluidity and flexibility. The Dukas and Rimsky-Korakov were both from memory and the direction was always clear. The NZSO responded accordingly, especially in Scheherazade, with the rich, elegant sounds from the strings and solid contributions from, amongst others, concertmaster Vessa-Matti Leppanen, Principal Clarinet Philip Green and Principal Cello Andrew Joyce.
Both conductor and orchestra seemed delighted with the performance. I think everyone was as well.