A full Auckland Town Hall on Thursday night for the Auckland Philharmonia’s last concert of the 2013 subscription season were treated to a brilliant evening of music.
The first half was sonorous, colourful and tonal. Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was a piece originally written for string sextet. This almost Mahlerian work was inspired by a poem of the same name. The poem describes a man and a woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night, wherein the woman shares a dark secret with her new lover: she is pregnant with the child of another man. The music, like the poem, is therefore highly emotive and textural as the themes of confession, reflection and acceptance are played out. Under Music Director Eckehard Stier, the APO’s entire string section were in particularly good form produced some appropriately rich playing, dark and brooding. A particular highlight was the interplay between Concertmaster Dimitri Atanassov and Principal Violist Robert Ashworth, absolutely critical to the piece and carefully nuanced and balanced.
Manuel De Falla’s nocturnes for piano and orchestra is titled In The Gardens of Spain. There is no mistaking the Iberian tonal palette from the very beginning as De Falla made ample use of folk melodies from Andalucia. Scottish Pianist Steven Osbourne navigated the three gardens portrayed in the work well alongside the orchestra. In so far as one can make the most of the piano solo part in this piece, he made his presence known adding colour and brilliance. But it is the orchestra that is dominant and prominent and with Maestro Stier’s enthusiastic guidance, this performance was suitably colourful and elegant.
But all of the first half was a teaser for the second half. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Le Sacred du Printemps) was incredibly controversial when it was premiered a full century ago. It still polarizes audiences today. What you cannot disagree about, however, is that it was a revolutionary and highly distinctive piece of music. One commentator remarked that the music pounded with the rhythm of engines, whirls and spirals like screws and fly-wheels, grinds and shrieks like laboring metal.
The APO was suitably augmented for the occasion, particularly in the woodwind and brass sections – Wagner Tubas appeared from nowhere amongst the horns as did an alto flute. B-flat and e-flat clarinets were seen and an extra set of timpani were on stage also.
The first notes of the introduction on the solo bassoon set the pace and mood – this was not going to be a performance that wallowed or was held back. The worry is that the complex and demanding score overwhelms a less-than-prepared orchestra and conductor leading to a very rapid, very noisy shipwreck.
Not a chance of disaster this evening. “Sacre” is, after all, a ballet at its core. Close your eyes and you can picture the elemental, primeval nature of the dances, especially in the second part which describes the sacrifice of the Chosen One. It is not difficult to imagine the riots that occurred at its first performance in Paris. Open your eyes last evening and you would have seen Maestro Stier at times dancing on the podium, shaking and gesticulating in a manner not entirely out of character with some productions of the ballet.
Those familiar with the details of the piece could, pedantically, quibble about some of the details here and there. But not me. To do so would ignore the outpouring of energy from the entire orchestra in what was an electrifying performance. A thrilling way to end the 2013 season. Bring on 2014 !