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Bella Bela - Alexander Shelley Returns

Bella Bela

Alexander Shelley Returns
NZSO
Friday 29 July, 2017
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

In classical music reviews, as in life, I’ve noticed that women’s fashion choices tend to get far more scrutiny than men’s. So to help redress this balance, I’d like to note that I thought conductor Alexander Shelley was wearing a particularly nice tailcoat on Friday evening – cut long and slim – with a white pocket square and hair slicked back. All very Errol Flynn, and very well done.

Perhaps more to the point, he’s a rather good conductor, too. You could see this straight off in the rendition of New Zealand composer Leonie Holmes’s ‘Frond’, one part of her longer Three Landscapes for Orchestra. I can imagine the work going to pieces at a slower tempo, becoming indulgent and wandering, but Shelley pushed it along at just the right speed – in fact, the maximum tempo I can imagine for the piece. It kept things taut and mysterious while allowing a certain lushness to creep through in its summoning up of a half-remembered bush idyll.

Rivalling Shelley for star power was the Spanish guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas, playing Joaquin Rodrigo’s much-loved Concierto de Aranjuez. Sainz Villegas turned in a wonderful performance, charming the audience with the power of his playing – no problems hearing that instrument above the orchestra – as well as his subtlety and his ability to wring extraordinary amounts of emotion from even the quietest note. I find the Concierto flirts dangerously with melodrama in the second act, but Shelley kept that reasonably well under control, and I was completely taken by the way both he and Sainz Villegas made room for the humour and silliness that balances out the intense feeling, in the first movement in particular.

As a bonus we got an encore piece from the guitarist’s native Rioja, a further chance for him to show off his technique, almost incredibly flowing and liquid even in the most demanding of passages. (He was also keeping up the sartorial standard with a tres chic dinner jacket, in the modern manner, with black tie.)

After the interval came Bela Bartok’s moving and life-affirming Concerto for Orchestra. Apart from the in-joke satire on Shostakovich, which I could do without, it’s a great piece, brimming with ideas and energy. The brooding opening was especially good, and Shelley’s conducting again was excellent, combining a certain flowing sensuality with a strict sense of tempo and control. All in all, a triumphant return.

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