On Saturday evening, an enchanting musical wizard came to town. He brought with him no less than nine various instruments which he used to incredible effect. He left his audience amazed, spellbound and enthralled, not only by his technical virtuosity, but also by his energy and musicianship.
But more of that in a minute. We need to set the context first.
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s just-completed tour was subtitled “Bold Worlds”. Very apt given a challenging programme.
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten is a highly emotive work for strings. Inspired by the passing of the English composer, Pärt scored the piece for strings accompanied by a bell which tolls throughout as the music gradually swirls and wraps around itself. It might be a little controversial to say, but to my ear it is more moving than Barber’s Adagio for Strings mainly due to its simplicity. It should be played more often, but perhaps its direct link to and inspiration from the passing of Benjamin Britten might render that impossible. The renowned Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, making his debut with the NZSO, carefully directed the orchestra – a firm hand here, a broad sweep for phrasing there, clear and respectful.
And so to the magician. His name is Colin Currie and he is one of the best percussionists in the world today. The evening’s highlight work, Sieidi: Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra composed by Kalevi Aho, one of Finland’s best contemporary composers, was written specially for Currie. Premiered last year in London with Maestro Vänskä, it showcases Currie’s varied talents.
From the opening solo at one end of the stage on the African djembe drum, you are lured in to a unique sound world. It evolves through use of an Arabic darabuka, through to a snare drum and then to an extended passage on the marimba with contrasts in timbre created by the use of various mallets. Wood blocks and temple blocks are followed by the vibraphone and what can only be called an attack on the tam tam at the other end of the stage before retracing steps. I had been wondering why there were two double bass bows at the ready and these were used on the vibraphone on the return journey, creating a theremin-like effect. Aho does not spare the orchestra either, especially the percussion section – kudos to Principal Timpani Larry Reese, Principal Percussionist Lenny Sakofsky, Thomas Guldborg and Bruce Mckinnon whose contributions were essential to the piece.
I have no doubt everyone was captivated by the intense energy from Currie and the various instruments as well as the orchestra. Listening to this concerto is fascinating enough. Watching Currie perform and switch from instrument to instrument was memorably mesmerising and added a completely new dimension. Could this concert get any better ?
It could and it did. Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony was a perfect choice for the second half of the concert. Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony is known as the ‘Inextinguishable’ and the Fifth could easily be called the “Disruptive” even though it was written without subtext. There can be little doubt that the First World War must have had some influence on the composer’s thinking – you can hear dark military marches, a sense of inevitable darkness but these are quickly offset by harmony and light. But neither of two movements never settle into anything for long, especially in the first movement. Here, Lenny Sakofsky’s snare drum, made its presence known loudly and rudely trying to take over the music and dominate the orchestra which it does. The second movement starts harmoniously enough but again the storm clouds are never far away and intrude in the form of tonal and dynamic changes. The ending too is slightly unexpected but when it does come, is triumphant.
With deft guidance from Maestro Vänskä urging on the various sections, the NZSO gave us an exemplary performance of this challenging work. Despite its constant contrasts, it seemed to make sense in a way. Overall, this was an entrancing and fascinating evening of music. Bold Worlds indeed.