Review: “Schirmer & Shostakovich” – Auckland Philharmonia – 20 November 2014

Can it really be the end of the 2014 concert season already ? As Beethoven once said, “Must it be ? It must be !”.

The Auckland Philharmonia wrapped up its year with a performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony at the Auckland Town Hall last Thursday. Subtitled “The Year of 1917”, this symphony is probably best described as a sort of “obligatory commission” from the Communist Party of the USSR to Shostakovich as part of the celebrations at the 22nd Party Congress. Ostensibly dedicated to Lenin and comprising four movements played as a unitary piece, some writers have dismissed the work as being akin to nothing more than glorified film music. This is understandable as Shostakovich wrote a lot of film scores and the work is most certainly programmatic, but ultimately that view is surely wrong.

Because it depicts the Russian Revolution and some of its iconic places as well as the battleship Aurora, the piece is written to capture the events and the revolutionary emotions of that time. It is, in places, very evocative and dramatic music and the Auckland Philharmonia’s Music Director Eckehard Stier and the entire orchestra made sure we all understood this.

This was a exceptional performance of searing intensity from the very start. Maestro Stier is seemingly in his element with Shostakovich and here again he coaxed and cajoled all of the orchestra into delivering one of the best performances from the orchestra this year. All sections of the orchestra performed magnificently – it was impossible to single any particular section or player out.

Earlier, German pianist Ragna Schirmer performed both Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for piano and string orchestra and Mozart’s C major concerto No. 21 in the first half. The Schnittke was notable for starting and finishing in pitch darkness with all sorts of thematic and structural motifs as one would expect from this composer. This concerto is not often played so was interesting to hear. Ms. Schirmer’s Mozart on the other hand was notable for its clarity as well as the somewhat unusual cadenzas which must have been her own – the one for the final movement was unexpected and in fact quite jazzy and while perhaps a touch too long, was well received by the Town Hall audience.

The unexpected highlight actually came in the form of the encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 in the version for four hands with Ms. Schirmer playing the primo part and Maestro Stier performing the secondo part. We forget that Maestro Stier is a very good pianist and the two of them were very well suited to this.

But there was no question that the Shostakovich was the true stand out performance of the evening, A great way to conclude another high quality and very interesting classical music year in Auckland.

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Review: Borodin Quartet, Auckland Town Hall – 22 October 2014

The Borodin Quartet is one of the world’s great chamber music groups. Formed in 1945 by students at the Moscow Conservatoire its members have included the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich, Rostislav Dubinsky, Rudolf and Nina Barshai, Mikhail Kopelman and a handful of others. While its repetoire has always included the core of the works composed for string quartet, it became synonymous with the works of Alexander Borodin and Dmitri Shostakovich.

In some ways too, it is a time capsule of Soviet history. They were required to play at Stalin’s funeral and various members defected to the West. But with the late cellist Valentin Berlinsky in particular holding the fort from the very beginning, the quartet has, for nearly seventy years, sought to maintain and deliver nothing but the highest standards of chamber musicianship. And they did so emphatically to the Auckland Town Hall audience on Thursday evening in an intriguing and challenging programme of Myaskovsky, Shostakovich and Beethoven.

Nikolai Myaskovsky might not be a name that would come to mind when listing famous Russian composers but before World War 2, his music was admired and appreciated around the world. Like his contemporaries and friends Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachachurian, he was affected the political climate of the Stalin era but unlike them, his reputation since his death in 1950 steadily declined. His 13th string quartet, composed in the year before his death is a musically nostalgic work, more late Romantic and closer to someone like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff than modernist. Conventionally structured, it is not particularly inspiring, but it did give us the opportunity to appreciate the Borodin Quartet’s exceptional ensemble playing and intonation. First violin Ruben Aharonian’s playing in particular was a highlight here.

Jump ahead some fifteen years or so and we get to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eleventh String Quartet. This mysterious, yet elegiac work has absolutely no trace of throwback to the musical traditions of the past. Firmly embedded in the tonal language of the composer and of the time, it is an unusual and demanding seven movement work played without a break. In part, it is a tribute to Vassily Shirinsky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet who premiered nearly all of Shostakovich’s string quartets.

Not taking away anything from any other part of the evening, but this is where the Borodin Quartet excelled. In a work with so many textures ranging from mechanical repetition to hints of Caucasian rhythms and with harmony contrasted against deliberate dissonance, not unlike a troubled mind asking questions all the time, there was absolute clarity throughout. So good was this performance, I was still totally absorbed by it throughout the interval.

Late Beethoven works are always intimidating to the performer and listener given their complexity. His 13th String Quartet Op. 130 is no exception. Originally containing what became the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge, Beethoven was not happy when told that the second and fourth movements had been encored. “And why didn’t [the audience want] the Fugue?”, he growled. “That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!” Somehow, he was persuaded to write a new final movement which, thankfully, is a lot more optimistic.

The Borodin Quartet again showed exceptional attention to detail throughout, particularly to harmony and balance, dynamic contrasts and phrasing, never losing their concentration for a second. The fourth (German Dance), fifth (Cavatina) and sixth movements were standout performances. Music making does not get better than that.

We did not leave without an encore – what else could it be than the Nocturne from Borodin’s Second String Quartet. Dedicated to a friend who had specially flown in for this concert, it was magically played. The perfect encore to this perfect concert.

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Review: “Concert for Horns”, Auckland Philharmonia (9 October 2014)

The French Horn is an intriguing instrument. On the one hand, it looks like something that a master plumber or heating engineer with a vague interest in music might have come up with. Way back when, there was a time when horns weren’t that complicated and they looked as if some brass pipe had been wound around a few times. But the sound generated wasn’t always reliable or indeed tuneful. So it gradually evolved into the valved instrument it is now.

Not surprisingly, it is not an easy thing to play. I’ve tried and got a sort of hissing sound. When played well, it produces a magnificent golden and rounded sound which is quite unique and therefore essential to an orchestra.

This then might have something to do with the lack of concertos for the horn. Robert Schumann sought to address that defect in part when he composed his Konzertstuck (Concert Piece) for a quartet of them.

To perform this, the Auckland Philharmonia’s entire horn section, principal Nicola Baker with her colleagues Emma Richards, Carl Wells and Simon Williams, were the star soloists of the evening. Pre-concert gossip had created a good deal of anticipation for a quality performance of this tricky, but relatively short three-movement work.

While the performance was not note perfect, that was not the point. The lively spirit of the piece was captured well and the ensemble playing in particular was solid and showed off the positive qualities of these brass instruments. The non-horn sections of the Auckland Philharmonia provided a suitably bold accompaniment which did not overwhelm the soloists. Naturally, the substantial Town Hall audience loved it.

British conductor Paul Goodwin is a man who knows what he wants from an orchestra and if you can’t understand what he is communicating, then you probably need to get your eyes checked. Dynamics and phrasing in particular were clearly emphasised with a wide range of gestures and the performance of Haydn’s Military Symphony which commenced proceedings had plenty of energy and character as a result. Its grand and loud military themes, designed to surprise and delight also, were clear for all to hear. The lady sitting next to me summed up things very well to her friend. She said it was fun. Very well put.

I wonder if anyone else noticed the subtle change made in the second half for the Poulenc Sinfonietta. The second violins were seated next to the firsts and this showed a keen awareness of how the piece was written. To my ear, it made a real difference and Maestro Goodwin’s insistence on clarity ensured a memorable performance. (Radio New Zealand Concert take note – please make this performance available on Podcast Classics at some stage !)

The Poulenc was not the end of this excellent concert. I was wondering why Principal Flute Katie Zagorski was waiting in the wings. Maestro Goodwin had in mind an encore in the form of the last movement of the Haydn but without the repeats to show how surprising and exciting it was. Once again it fizzed with a vibrant energy that was positively infectious. A great way to complete a delightful evening of musical fun.

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Review: Auckland Philharmonia, “Czechmate” – 2 October 2014

While the audience numbers might have been affected a little by traffic on a wet evening, nevertheless it was a solid turnout at the Auckland Town Hall for the Auckland Philharmonia’s final “Great Classics” mini-series concert. The evening’s theme was Czechmate – a nod to the great Czech composers Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana.

Smetana’s symphonic poem The Moldau is well known for its sweeping main melody, depicting one of the Czech Republic’s longest rivers the Vltava. In the composer’s own words, the music depicts the coming together of two currents, woods and meadows, a country wedding, castles and ruins and the river’s swirls as it heads off into the distance. All of these pictorial details were conveyed succinctly by the orchestra under British conductor Christopher Seaman.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto does not have the emotional drama that the Dvorak or the Elgar concertos do and this probably explains why it is not played that often nowadays. Schumann himself once said that he could not write concerti for virtuoso performers and would have to try “something else”. In this case that “something else” is a display of lyricism and melodic line which is carried through all three movements, played without interruption.

Soloist for the evening was Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen who is no stranger to the Auckland Town Hall. Totally secure in his intonation and phrasing, Thedéen  performed with his trademark elegance and without overdramatising the music. While one could criticise the piece itself, you could not criticise this performance. The Auckland Philharmonia and Maestro Seaman provided a carefully weighted and dynamically sensitive accompaniment in tune with the soloist. A nod also to APO Principal Cellist Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismarck in the second movement duet which was duly acknowledged by soloist and audience alike.

An encore of Bach’s c minor Sarabande from the Cello Suite No. 5 was an atmospheric contrast to the Schumann and also well received.

My sense is that Antonin Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony is not programmed as much as it ought to be compared to the Eighth or the Ninth. Perhaps it is a bit darker emotionally, reflecting challenging times for its composer when he wrote it. While there are obvious parallels to symphonies of Schubert and Brahms in its orchestration, it still has a Bohemian voice through some elements of folk elements that populate Dvorak’s works.

Maestro Seaman’s uncomplicated conducting style was well suited to this symphony. Perhaps at times it may have lacked a true Bohemian flavour, but the second and final movements were respectively rich and triumphant. One particular highlight was the exceptional quality of the wind playing which was a notable feature throughout the evening. All of which seemed to please the audience. Isn’t that what matters at the end of the day ?

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Review: New Zealand Opera – “Don Giovanni” – 18 September 2014

New Zealand Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni opened its Auckland season on Thursday and had already courted a little bit of controversy as to its staging. Not the stuffy, fusty 18th Century costumes and street scenes for this production directed by Sara Brodie. Rather, the setting is in a seedy, dingy Spanish nightclub, completely devoid of any sophistication whatsoever. There are poledancers and a DJ in residence and smartphones and selfies are taken. Apparently, there’s some substance abuse as well although I have to say I missed that. But you get the idea.

Not surprisingly, this has detracted from the other, arguably more important elements. How’s the music, for starters? Were there any sacrifices made to the plot or libretto to accommodate the setting? And was it any good at all ?

The good news is that the music is good and it is a pretty decent production. While some might argue that some of the traditional elements to the story are reworked to suit the setting, the sets, created by designer John Verryt, are dynamic and up to the usual high standard we have become accustomed to with a New Zealand Opera production. NZO’s Music Director Wyn Davies and the Auckland Philharmonia give their customary quality performance. And, most importantly, the cast is vocally strong.

The two standouts in the cast have to be New Zealand soprano Anna Leese as Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni’s victims, and Australian bass baritone Warwick Fyfe as Giovanni’s long-suffering manservant Leporello. Leese’s vocal power and clear diction were evident from the first notes of the Act 1 aria “ Ah, chi mi dice mai”, when she arrives looking for Don Giovanni and both were sustained throughout the evening to great effect. The mixture of anguish and being deceived by her ex-lover was captured effectively in the Act 2 aria “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” which was a highlight.

Fyfe, who’s last Auckland appearance was in NZO’s excellent production of Rigoletto, not only excels vocally, notably in the “Catalogue” aria but also in his interactions with Giovanni and Donna Elvira, but he also inhabits the comicly awkward, fearful and subservient characteristics of his role superbly and this is vital to the success of any production.

That’s not to take away from any of the other members of the cast. Mark Stone is the overtly self-confident Don Giovanni, with his seemingly endless appetite for women who eventually gets his comeuppance. The “Champagne” aria was only one of many chances to demonstrate his excellent vocal technique. Jaewoo Kim’s tenor voice is the role of Don Ottavio is thoroughly clear and melodious, Lisa Harper-Brown is a suitably anguished Donna Anna and Amelia Barry and Robert Tucker as Zerlina and Masetto make a great couple both vocally and stage-wise. Barry’s “Vedrai carino” in Act 2 is particularly good. Jud Arthur, who has also been performing the Commendatore role for Opera Australia this year, is in fine voice and has an acting challenge as well, although I won’t spoil that part of it.

Personally, I’m not sure whether this production visually would be a good introduction to opera for the novice. But that could be because I am used to seeing more traditional productions. That aside, this NZO production is musically effective and does work theatrically and is therefore worth seeing, not only just by fans of opera.

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Review: Auckland Phillharmonia “Glennie At Olympus” – 4 September 2014

Thursday’s Auckland Philharmonia concert was always going to be one of most sought-after concerts in 2014. If you’ve heard of Dame Evelyn Glennie or better yet seen her in action, you will know that she is a world-renowned, exceptionally brilliant percussionist. Possibly in anticipation of the near full-house, the APO generously made the concert available via live streaming so you could see as well as hear this fantastic musician in action. But there’s really no substitute to seeing her live.

The piece chosen was New Zealand composer John Psathas’ work “View from Olympus”. Composed with Dame Evelyn in mind and premiered by her, it is officially described as a double concerto for percussion, piano and orchestra. In terms of the percussion, the work requires, nay demands, a veritable swathe of instruments and the score itself spells out what is needed: vibraphone, marimba, simtak, dulcimer, bass steel drums, wind chimes (2 or 3 sets – she used three), bell tree, mark tree, triangle, finger cymbals, drum station (comprising 4 octobans, 4 tom toms, 3 paddle drums, cymbals (trash, splash, medium crash, china crash, plus a cluster of smallest-possible splash cymbals) and a hi-hat. The orchestra itself are not left out as they also require two percussionists playing a triangle, snare drum, mark tree, glockenspiel, tubular bells, marimba,cowbell, vibraphone, cymbals (splash, medium crash, china crash), bass drum, tambourine, 3 high tom toms (of different pitches) and finger cymbals. No ordinary piece of music by any definition.

Psathas makes musicians work hard. “Olympus” has three challenging movements and The Furies are venging spirits of retributive justice and their firey nature is evident from the very first notes. The co-ordination between percussion and piano, to say nothing of the interaction with the orchestra was incredible. Nothing seemed to be missed even though, as Dame Evelyn revealed later, the monitors used by her and pianist Stephen De Pledge had failed part way through the first movement. Transitions were seamless as Dame Evelyn transitioned from instrument to instrument. The textural, dynamic and harmonic contrasts created by the different instruments were clearly defined by both soloists and orchestra under the clear direction of conductor Hans Graf

To Yelasto Paithi (“The Smiling Child”) was inspired by the composer’s two children and is a dream-like, atmospheric movement making good use of the wind chimes and other bell elements in the percussion suite. Here was a chance for Dame Evelyn to perform extended solos and mesmerise the audience which she most certainly did.

The final Dance of the Maenads is volcanic in temperament depicting Dionysiac ecstasy and its potentially destructive tendencies. Again, highly textural with repetitive measures at a pace and pitch that test the performer and listener, it is a high-energy, high-intensity movement requiring exceptional concentration from all concerned. Visually as well as aurally, it is a spectacle. Needless to say that the Town Hall audience enjoyed it immensely.

An encore of the Fragment originally scored for vibraphone and piano and part of the work with both Dame Evelyn and Stephen De Pledge on the piano was a lovely way to round off this fantastic and memorable performance.

It would be slightly remiss of me to mention that there was a second half to the concert consisting of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. A rather-too-brisk interpretation from Maestro Graf with some issues, I felt. But it was always going to be overshadowed by Dame Evelyn (with all due respect !). Fair enough, too.

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Review: Jonas Kaufmann, Sydney Opera House – 10 August 2014

To opera fans, Jonas Kaufmann needs little or no introduction. The mere mention of his name sends critics to their dictionaries to look up superlatives and then some. So when Opera Australia announced that he would be giving a recital in Sydney, that automatically became one of the hottest tickets of 2014. And it would be somewhat trite to say that it was a huge success.

If you are not impressed by his voice, then chances are that you will be impressed by his movie star looks. Little wonder therefore that he has garnered so much attention both within opera circles and outside the classical music world.

Kaufmann’s voice has been described in various ways. What is undeniable is that it has an amazing range from the high true tenor register to the baritonal depths. And he sings powerfully, not forcefully, with clarity both musically and in his diction.

The fact that there was no Wagner on the programme may have been a small surprise but on closer inspection, there was a sensible logic to it.

After the overture from I vespri siciliani to start proceedings, Puccini’s Recondita Armonia from Tosca gave the audience the first chance to hear that amazing voice. Any acoustic flaws from the venue were simply forgotten as he showed both vocal quality and power in equal measure. No prizes for guessing that the applause and cheering was sustained.

Improvviso from Andrea Chenier gave Kaufmann to show his delicate side. It brought to mind a recent interview in which he noted that one critic said that he could only sing loudly. Had that critic hear that, he would likely have had to eat his words as Kaufmann more than sufficiently exhibited dynamic and dramatic control.

Don Alvaro’s La vita e inferno from Act III of La Forza del destino was keenly anticipated, more so as the overture was performed immediately beforehand. Was there drama ? Yes. Was there power ? Of course. We were utterly captivated ? Absolutely. Many in the audience thought that this was his finest piece of the evening and it was not difficult to agree.

To end the first half, appropriately, Kaufmann’s rendition of Vesti la giubba from the end of Act I of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci conveyed all the emotion of the betrayed clown. It’s a piece that we’ve all heard sung well and sung badly but this was exceptional in its clarity

For the second half, primarily in French and this was started very well with the vigorous Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ Sampson et Dalila.

La fleur que tu m’avai jetee from Bizet’s Carmen was a chance to see and hear the reflective and subdued side of an artist at the height of his powers. But no less passionate in contrast to the first half.

If, like me, you had read the reviews from his performances at the Met in New York, you would have been looking forward to Pourquoi me reveiller from Massenet’s Werther. Kaufmann did not disappoint again exhibiting emotional and dynamic control.

He finished the first half with Pag and to close the printed programme, how appropriate to have some Cav, specifically Mamma, quel vino e generoso. Again, an emotionally captivating performance which was greeted rapturously by the full house.

Of course, the audience would never be satisfied without an encore (or three) which included ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca and two songs in German, each sung with as much energy as every other aria on the programme and which were each met with standing ovations and thunderous applause. How could you not ?

The Opera Australia orchestra responded very well to their star guest throughout the evening under the clear direction of Jochen Rieder. If anything, the musical interludes in between arias served to heighten the anticipation of the next piece. A truly stunning evening. How lucky was I to have been there !

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Review: “Allegro” – Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, 30 July 2014

Over recent years, the Royal New Zealand Ballet have had good success with their mixed-bill programmes and if opening night audience reaction was anything to go by, they have another winner with their most recent programme Allegro.

That headline title comes from the opening Allegro Brillante choreographed by the master George Balanchine and set to part of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s 3rd piano concerto. Staged by Balanchine Trust and Australian Ballet repetiteur and ballet mistress Eve Lawson, it is everything you would expect to see – grace, symmetry, and flashes of Russian romanticism on top of classical technique. Add Principal Guest Artist Gillian Murphy with her trademark precision and stage presence accompanied by the RNZB’s Kohei Iwamoto together with four well-drilled pairs and you have an excellent start to a evening of ballet.

Les Lutins (The Goblins) is, as the programme notes state, a light-hearted game for a trio of dancers accompanied by a violinist and pianist. Again, the title is taken from one of the pieces accompanying the dancers by Antonio Bazzini and the accompaniment was provided live by violinist Benjamin Baker and pianist Michael Pansters. This was a delightfully charming performance by Lucy Green, Rory Fairweather-Neyland and Arata Miyagawa. Choreographer Johan Kobborg’s usual attention to structural and muscial details again showed through and we were left wanting more.

Satellites was the first of the two longest works in this programme and was a commissioned work from New Zealand visual artist Daniel Belton with kinetic sculpture from Jim Murphy, costumes from Donnine Harrison and music by Dutch composer and sound designer Jan-Bas Bollen. The combination of dance, the electronic score and the lighting effects all serve to project element of space and the various synchronous and asynchronous orbits of satellites and other spatial matter not only around Earth but around other planets as well. Whether one likes it or not is definitely a matter of personal taste. As a multimedia experience on a number of different levels, it does work and the RNZB deserve credit for commissioning a very interesting work.

The second half comprised two pieces from by leading New York-based contemporary dance choreographer Larry Keigwin. The first, Mattress Suite, is a set of six short vignettes taking place on or around a mattress. Without wanting to spoil what is involved, it is easy to see why this signature work of Keigwin’s company is popular and the RNZB are apparently the first company outside the United States to perform it. Alana Ng and Shane Urton together with William Fitzgerald and Paul Matthews acquit themselves well and are suitably endowed for their respective roles.

Critics have called Megalopolis a cross between formalism and club culture and it is certainly that. The formalism comes musically from Steve Reich’s Six Marimbas and initially the atmosphere is reminiscent of the 1920’s movies portraying a very stylised future. The repetitive, yet highly structural patterned music and energetic movements are perfectly aligned but we are abruptly brought to earth through the club dimension which comes from MIA’s World Town and XR2. Balletic style meets and meshes with street funk and hip-hop. Little wonder that this got the biggest cheers from the audience.

All in all, Allegro is a quintuple set of high class delights. Definitely worth seeing.

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REVIEW : NZSO “Beethoven – The Symphonies – Auckland Town Hall, 19-22 June 2014

Mention Ludwig van Beethoven to someone on the street and it is highly likely that the response back will be “da-da-da-dum”, those four notes from the start of the Fifth Symphony. Ask someone with a bit of musical knowledge to describe him and you are likely to be told that he was a genius, a master composer who became profoundly deaf but who revolutionised the symphony and set the bar for everyone that followed. Beethoven himself said on one occasion, “what I am, I am myself. There are will be a thousand princes; there is one Beethoven”.

But that one Beethoven did not leave just one symphony to showcase his talents. His nine symphonies are probably better known than any other composer’s similar works and even if you don’t know classical music that well, you will likely have heard something of them at some point. The Ode to Joy from the Ninth for example, parts of the Pastoral (Sixth) from some television ad or maybe the second movement of the Seventh which sets the scene at the end of The King’s Speech. You might not be able to say what the work is, but you know who wrote it.

With that in mind, a chance to hear all nine symphonies performed live is a rare thing – this year, both Wellington and Auckland audiences got the chance.  No wonder that the last four days have seen full houses at the Auckland Town Hall as the NZSO under its Music Director Pietari Inkinen took us on a fascinating journey from First to Ninth. The NZSO has in fact done a Beethoven cycle before in the mid-1990s under the late Hungarian conductor Janos Furst. But this 2014 cycle was done in numerical order over four marvellous concerts which allowed us to hear how Beethoven’s musical style developed over his lifetime.


Day 1: Symphonies 1 and 2 in the first half with the massive Eroica in the second half.

Tracing Beethoven’s development as a symphonic composer is an interesting exercise. If you looked at who else was around in his early days, Haydn was still alive and Mozart had only recently passed on.  Beethoven’s first two symphonies were definitely influenced by his predecessors and teachers but they are not timid works.  They are the voice of a confident young composer. 

There are similarities between the First and the Second. They start quietly with one note before settling in to the main themes proper, something that might have puzzled audiences of the time.  Beethoven did not hold back with his new ideas and challenges for the orchestra and one contemporary critic said of the Second that it was a ‘hideously writhing, wounded dragon which refuses to die’.  Goodness knows what he would have thought of Wagner or Mahler.

With a good tempo, clarity and excellent dynamic shading, the NZSO’s performances of the first two symphonies were an excellent start to the cycle.   With a full complement of string players on stage, it seemed clear that Maestro Inkinen’s interpretations called for depth of sound.  He also achieved the critical balance of sound between the strings and winds and woodwind which give the symphonies colour and character.

The Third Symphony, more commonly known as the Eroica, marks the start of Beethoven’s “middle” period.  No-one else could have written this revolutionary symphony, a grand work with the first movement alone longer than most other symphonies of the time.  Popular opinion on the work at its premiere was divided – some loved it, others didn’t think it worked.  Originally dedicated to Napoleon when he was First Prefect, Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication on hearing that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor and simply put ‘to the memory of a great man’.

Quickly putting a less-than-perfect start aside, the orchestra settled into its work with gusto.  The second movement funeral march was perfectly weighted between the emotional tensions of grief, past reflections and solemnity.  Throughout, the exceptional quality of the wind and woodwind playing in particular was a standout highlight, not only of this concert but throughout the cycle.  By the end of the finale, that coruscating energy that is so characteristic of Beethoven shines through and we are reminded once again how great that symphony dedicated to a great man really is.  The audience chatter leaving the Town Hall is animated and we all look forward to the next day.


Day 2: Da-da-da-dum ! No mucking around from Maestro Inkinen at the start of the Fifth, on to the podium, quick nod to the audience and an immediate downbeat.  

Much ink has been used to speculate as to the meaning of the four notes – fate knocks at the door, the song of a yellowhammer and so on.  To my mind, the meaning behind the notes is not as important as how those notes are played.  This performance lived up to expectations –  dark, dramatic and brooding where it needed to be but not forgetting those passages which are light and graceful (yes, they do exist).  

Perhaps we had some first-time concert goers in the audience this evening.  Their applause punctuated every movement.  Conductor and orchestra remained unflappable and completely focused.  It was thrilling. Maestro Inkinen’s conducting was secure as well as energetic.  In both the Fourth and the Fifth, the power and dynamism that are critical to both were conveyed with elegance and attention to detail, particularly dynamically.

If I have one favourite Beethoven symphony, it has to be the Fourth and as the symphonies are being played in sequence, this came first.  An interesting fact, one I was not aware of until now, was that it is the least performed of all nine symphonies.  Schumann famously described the Fourth as a slender Grecian maiden between two Norse gods.  I think that description is somewhat unfair as the Fourth stands by itself as a well-written, if slightly less dramatic, work.

Leonard Bernstein described the beginning of the symphony best by referring to its “mysterious introduction which hovers around minor modes, tip-toeing its tenuous weight through ambiguous unrelated keys [with reluctance] to settle down into its final B-flat major.” When it does settle down, there is a burst of positive energy, rumbunctious in fact.  While not as awe-inspiring as the Third, there is drama interwoven in the Fourth with a distinct sense of fun throughout the piece.  All of this was conveyed very well by conductor and orchestra and made for a very satisfying first half.


Day 3: After the drama of the Fifth, the pleasant landscapes of the countryside in the Pastoral Symphony (6th) and the emotional tension in the Seventh.

In an illuminating pre-concert talk by Associate Professor Allan Badley from the University of Auckland’s School of Music, he put the viewpoint that Beethoven’s aim in the Sixth might have been to demonstrate his understanding of the ‘pastorale’ setting in music, a vehicle employed by several composers in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Given that Beethoven loved nature and walking around the countryside, perhaps it was inevitable that he would take this vehicle and make it his own.   

The five moments all have specific titles which could easily have been paintings or reflections of travel to or a journey to the country.  Beethoven himself cautioned against the painting motif and remarked that the music was more an expression of feeling than painting and certainly that last movement and the subtitles of cheerful feelings in the first and last movements were likely specific references. 

A distraction by one errant cellphone at the very end of the second movement aside, these feelings of nature were conveyed gracefully and delicately, a pleasure in every respect.  

In the second half, Maestro Inkinen and the NZSO were in familiar territory in the Seventh, having performed this as part of the subscription season a couple of years ago.

In some respects, Beethoven reverts to some of his earlier ideas with the start of the Seventh but takes the huge sounds of the Fifth along with it.  One composer who attended the premiere of the Seventh was Louis Spohr.  Spohr reported that Beethoven conducted the orchestra at time aggressively, tearing his arms with a great vehemence at one point and jumping in the air at another.  No such theatrics from Maestro Inkinen on this occasion but firm direction nevertheless.  The last movement in particular was taken at a cracking pace but was never out of Inkinen’s firm control.   

Such a barnstorming performance had many on their feet.  But there’s one more concert to go yet.


Day 4: All good things must come to an end and that they did with the Eighth and Ninth on Sunday afternoon.

Ever since it was premiered, there has been debate as to whether Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is better than the Seventh.  Beethoven himself once remarked to his student Carl Czerny that the Eighth was so much better than its predecessor and was consequently less popular.  Don’t examine that logic too closely.  Tchaikovsky also thought that the Eight’s last movement was one of Beethoven’s best symphonic works. 

No signs of fatigue within the orchestra at all, I note.  We heard energetic and happy playing of what is an optimistic piece – remarkable given that Beethoven’s non-musical life at the time was not happy.  But that’s not what everyone came to hear.

I must admit having heard enough performances of the Ninth over the years, I am somewhat jaded about the work, brilliant in scope though it is.  Most people would probably give me a very nasty look at this point.  In fairness, I should probably look at what he wrote around the same time– the last piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis and the last string quartets, all incredibly challenging works – to appreciate the Ninth better.   Verdi was right to say that the first three movements are marvelous.   Most people would, however, disagree with him on the last movement – it is triumphant and joyous.

Soprano Tiffany Speight, mezzo Annely Peebo, New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Peter Coleman-Wright all performed strongly together with a fired-up Auckland Choral.  But really, the heroes of the piece were the orchestra who never let their guard down for a minute and their seemingly tireless Music Director Maestro Inkinen. You have to take your hat off to everyone for showing incredible stamina over an incredible four days of intense music.

 Not surprisingly, the response from the audience was ecstatic.  After such a well-executed marathon, how could you not be on your feet and applaud ?  Certainly everyone in the Auckland Town Hall on Sunday afternoon agreed.

So, at the end of over 346 minutes of music, what is left to say ?  I think that this was an excellent cycle of some of the best-loved and most important works in the classical repertory.   Congratulations to both the NZSO and Maestro Inkinen for some of the most memorable orchestral concerts seen and heard in recent memory.  Bravo !


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Review: Coppelia, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Aotea Centre, Auckland – 28 & 29 May 2014

Much has already been written about the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2014 production of Coppelia and all of it has been universally positive. The production ends its all-too-brief season on Saturday but it was good to see good-sized audiences at the Aotea Centre this week.

The trouble with Coppelia as a ballet is that it’s a bit lightweight – compared to say Swan Lake or Giselle or Romeo and Juliet, it doesn’t really have a gutsy story line or stirring music or really soulful characters. Set in a Hungarian village, the main characters are Swanhilda and her boyfriend Franz. Both are mystfied about a strange girl sitting in the window of the house of the slightly sinister Dr. Coppelius. This girl just stays there, unmoving and, for different reasons, both are intrigued to find out more about her. They discover that in fact the Doctor is the creator of life-size automatons and his favourite one is the girl Coppelia who he would love to see come to life. You know how the rest of it goes.

RNZB’s Ballet Master Martin Vedel, has seized on these deficiencies to rework and update the ballet into something quite charming and more tightly character driven. Vedel’s choreography is inspired and inspiring. Movement is not wasted, as in some productions, so the principals and ensemble cast don’t just dance somewhat aimlessly around the stage. The choreography is also truly respectful to the music and it does not forget the comic nature of the ballet. Two of the best examples are in Act 2 where you see the girls peering at Coppelia quizzically as they try to work out what she is and also in the Scottish dance in Act II, when Swanhilda, now dressed up as Coppelia, delivers some well-timed kicks to the nose of Dr. Coppelius.

Because the RNZB rotates its lead dancers, there are actually two sets of principals for this production who appear on alternate nights. Most reviews have not highlighted this which is a bit of a pity as both casts are strong. Having seen both, I think it only fair to give credit where credit is due.

Lucy Green is a complete Swanhilda both in terms of balletic skills but also in terms of her portrayal of character. This Swanhilda is a strong, independent sort of girl, wanting to make sure that Franz really does love her in Act 1 and happy to take the lead from her friends to explore Dr. Coppelius’ house in Act 2. When she ‘transforms’ into Coppelia, her mechanical movements are utterly convincing and a joy to watch. Her Act 3 solos are icing on the cake.

Mayu Tanigaito’s Swanhilda on the other hand has a fantastic exuberance and a wonderful lightness of spirit in her solos in Acts 1 and 3. Her comedic timing is the highlight of her character and this is particularly evident in Act 2. Coppelia is, after all, supposed to be a comic ballet and she makes sure we don’t forget this.

Kohei Iwamoto’s Franz is a good pairing with Green and the two were the alternate principals for the last year’s production of Swan Lake so they know each other well. Iwamoto’s clear and elegant movement give Franz a touch of class and brains that he might not otherwise deserve.

Alexander Idaszak’s Franz reminds us that he is a bit of a lad from time to time, stringing Swahilda along a bit and staying more to the character we come to expect.

Paul Mathews is an outstanding Limbless and steals the show somewhat whenever he moves around the stage in Act 2. You would be convinced that all of his joints move around in 360 degrees. Maclean Hopper has a tough act to follow but is very good, particularly with his interactions with Dr. Coppelius.

I have to admit that I couldn’t tell the difference between Team Czardas (if I can call them that). Abigail Boyle, Clytie Campbell, Hayley Donnison and Bryn Watkins are matched step for step by Madison Geogehgan, Lori Gilchrist, Laura Jones and Kirby Selchow. Both are equally disciplined, elegant and gypsy-like which is exactly what you want to see.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an RNZB production without Sir Jon Trimmer and there is no-one like him for the role of Dr. Coppelius. Loughlan Prior makes the character younger and slightly a little more mad and while his overall charaterisation is fine, a little more grey to the hair and a pince-nez would not have gone amiss.

The sets, borrowed from the Australian Ballet and which remarkably are about twenty-five years old are seemingly timeless, especially those for Dr. Coppelius’ house workshop. The costumes are elegant too and are beautifully weighted, testament to the wonderful work of the late Kristian Fredrickson. The ever-reliable Auckland Philharmonia under RNZB’s Music Director Nigel Gaynor make sure that the music of Leo Delibes’ is as charming and colourful as the dancing on the stage at all times.

In every sense, this is an excellent and memorable production which leaves the audience smiling and happy. Full credit to the RNZB !


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