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Review: The NZSO and Nature - By Max Rashbrooke

Review: The NZSO and Nature

By Max Rashbrooke

Elgar and Strauss
Performer: NZSO
Saturday, March 25

There was a great moment at the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's concert on Saturday night when the announcer suggested to the audience that they might want to take photos and share them on social media, and there was an audible roll of laughter in response. As if that was something they would do! Ah, the classical music audience, where 'social media' is a witticism rather than a real-world thing.

Unintended jokes aside, this was a lovely, varied concert with an obvious theme based on the natural world. It kicked off with Mendelssohn's sparkling Hebrides Overture, which had a wonderfully taut spring right from the start, and great colour from the woodwinds, especially the clarinets.

Next up was Elgar's Sea Pictures, a piece I barely knew but rather enjoyed. It was very much a showcase for American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who has a warm, appealing voice, albeit without exceptional beauty, and perhaps a little underpowered on the lower notes.

Undoubtedly the main event, however, was Strauss's Alpine Symphony, a massive exercise in musical painting that depicts a day spent climbing a Bavarian mountain, complete with an ascent, an alpine meadow, a view from the summit, a storm, and a final descent.

I've occasionally found Edo de Waart's conducting to be on the conservative side, but tonight it was just about perfect. The symphony's 22 mini-movements were made into a coherent whole, shaped with a clear vision, a wonderful balance between each distinct colour, and total control of the enormous (120-strong) orchestra.

It was conducting – and playing – that showed a deep understanding of the symphony, which is not just an exercise in imitating sounds and images from the natural world (though it does that superbly well), but also is about some profoundly human experiences – of being in and reverencing nature, of striving for goals, of dealing with emotional storms.

For me, a stand-out moment was Robert Orr's oboe solo in 'On the summit': its faltering but happy steps conveyed a moment of someone being caught between triumph, exhaustion and awe at the power of nature. It takes a deeply humane and caring vision to bring off this kind of music, and that was exactly what we got on Saturday night.

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