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Positive Responses

Shed Series – Responses
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Friday, May 10
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

I was delighted with the one Shed Series concert – gig? – I attended last year: it brought a different kind of energy, and, crucially, audience. Accordingly I had high hopes this time round.

I didn’t, first up, enjoy the layout quite as much as last time. Then, the orchestra had been situated along the long wall, right in the heart of the audience; this time they were largely located at one end, switching later on to the other end. It felt slightly less intimate, slightly less innovative.

But the opening work, Hadyn’s Symphony No 38, was spot on: a charming, cosmopolitan, sprightly work with just the right amount of (in)formality for the setting and an almost chamber music style feel. During some of the lovely hushed moments in the second movement, I looked to one side of me and saw couples standing with their arms around each other – a fine way to enjoy such fine music.

In the Hadyn, the string sounds – tiny, delicate, almost hesitant – were especially good, as were Robert Orr’s oboe solos. Not everything was perfect, though: some of the horn notes didn’t sound quite right in the third movement, and as was the case last year, the sound of doors opening and shutting was still distracting.

The second work was Elegy by Leonie Holmes, an Aucklander rapidly becoming my favourite contemporary New Zealand composer. This was a finely crafted thing, made of alternately gentle and harsh sounds above an insistent beat. Though tonally very different, it reminded me in some way of Arvo Part’s work, especially in its ability to stoke tension while remaining meditative and beautiful.

Less convincing, as a whole, was the next piece, Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca by Silvestre Revueltas. The orchestra performed it with great skill and no little gusto, and individually the movements were enormously entertaining, especially the first, the borderline-discordant energy of which reminded one of a cartoon chase scene constantly threatening to get out of hand.

But it was hard to trace a coherent story or even a consistent musical thread through the three disjointed movements. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, meanwhile, wasn’t for me a complete success, feeling perhaps a fraction too stately and graceful in its opening movements, although later on it enjoyed a greater dynamic range.

No one, though, could complain about a lack of drama in Krzysztof Penderecki’s extraordinary Polymorphia. Menacing and disturbing, its scratchy sounds suggestive of ‘things’ trying to break through from another world, it was handled perfectly by conductor Hamish McKeich and the players.

Its wild energy was so unsettling, in fact, that it’s hard to think what could have adequately followed it. Even though Jonny Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia was, obviously, written in reaction, it didn’t have the same impact. Full of ideas, it failed – to my ears – to develop them convincingly. Fortunately, the NZSO seems to be pretty good at developing its ideas, the Shed Series in particular. More, please!

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