Think French classical music and names such as Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz, Bizet and Franck will come to mind. So a programme of Ravel, Pierre Dubois and Dukas is not your standard fare by any means. Indeed, the novelty of the programme had a couple of people leafing through scores as the concert went along.
We started in familiar territory with Ravel’s Mother Goose suite. These five pieces originally written for piano duet and then later orchestrated show Ravel’s understanding of orchestral form and being “pieces enfantines” should be charming and have a touch of childish magic about them. While there was fundamentally nothing wrong with the orchestral performance, something seemed to be missing, particularly in the third and fourth pieces, Laidronnette, Empress of the Pagodas and the Conversations with Beauty and Beast. There is an ebb and flow in the music that makes it magical and gives it character. It seemed a little bit literal.
This was puzzling given that conductor Jean Deroyer came with a strong reputation for contemporary music and is a regular guest with specialist orchestras such as the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Klangforum Wein. But perhaps the Ravel was not as contemporary as the next work of the evening.
Think saxophone concertos and one has to think for a bit and scratch the head. After some puzzlement and pondering, I could only think of the Glazunov concerto which I have heard a couple of times so the Pierre Dubois concerto was completely new territory for me. Performed by Australian soloist Amy Dickson, it is a distinctive work in many ways. Dubois was clearly influenced by one of his teachers, the composer Darius Milhaud and there are certain parts of the concerto that are very written in Milhaud’s style. But the aim of the concerto is to show the range of the instrument and given the limited classical repetoire, you do wonder why other classical composers didn’t take up the opportunity to write more music for the saxophone. Dickson clearly has an affinity for this piece showing technical dexterity and sensitive colouring and the strings of the Auckland Philharmonia provided a carefully weighted accompaniment to her playing. This was definitely the highlight of the evening.
The second half was occupied by Dukas’ Symphony in C major. Mention Paul Dukas and it’s highly likely that you would only be able to name The Sorcerer’s Apprentice if asked. His only symphony is colourful and vibrant in parts but is not something that is as striking as say the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz or Franck’s Symphony in d minor. In some respects it seems a little stuck in no-man’s land being neither truly Romantic in nature nor modern. The second movement has some Wagnerian-like sections, for example which then morphs into something a touch Mahlerian. In that sense, it is a bit hard to listen to. Maestro Deroyer was more comfortable in this repetoire directing the Auckland Philharmonia energetically. The orchestra in turn played well given the limitations inherent in the piece.
Overall, another challenging concert from the Auckland Philharmonia, but not as memorable as other ones we’ve heard this year.