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Arts Festival Review: Resonances

Arts Festival Review: Resonances

Review by Tyler Hersey

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Jonathan Stockhammer
Saturday March 1, 2008

Adams - Shaker Loops
Dean - Ceremonial
Adams - Doctor Atomic Symphony
Prokofiev - Symphony No 5

In the first commercial misstep I have encountered this festival, a sparse crowd witnessed the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and visiting conductor Jonathan Stockhammer salvage a concert in the wake of late cancellation by violin soloist Chloe Hanslip. Having no choice but to replace Hanslip’s vehicles at the last minute, Stockhammer chose Prokofiev’s WWII-era Symphony No 5 as a serious addition to a program which already featured ruminations on war and violence by American master John Adams and Australian composer Brett Dean. Carried by an inspired take on the minimalist Adams composition Shaker Loops and a confident turn on the Prokofiev, the concert lacked leadership and focus in spite of fine ensemble playing by the orchestra.

The evening opened with an arrangement of Shaker Loops for string orchestra, which proved to be the night’s most challenging piece. A twenty minute homage to the sounds produced by early electronic composers in the 1960's, Adams imbued the piece with a retro analog flavour which perfectly captured the idiosyncracies of mid 20th century technology. Full of metallic overtones and mechanical hits, at times the strings sounded like the whistle of wind through pipes, at others like a lone rubber ball bouncing to a stop on the floor. The playing was evocative and sensual for such a modern composition, and the overtones created by high pitched harmonics washed through the hall in a rich blanket of sound. The piece was almost mathematical in its use of short repeated phrases and sound frequencies, which piled on top of one another to form completely new notes and rhythms in the air above the orchestra, with sound waves so palpable they could be felt pulsing across the stage.

The rest of the concert was devoted to conflict, beginning with Dean’s 2003 response to the previous year’s Bali bombings and nascent war in Iraq, through Adams’s symphonic arrangement of his nuclear energy opera Doctor Atomic, and finishing with the ever popular Prokofiev symphony written as Allied forces swept to victory in 1945. All of these pieces exploited the divide between quaint ethnic musical influences (Gamelan for Dean, jazz for Adams, and Eastern European folk for Prokofiev) and the Romantic fire and brimstone summoned by a full western orchestra. Excellent uses of gongs and plucked/struck strings evoked vivid images of non-western life and celebration, only to be buried by cresting horns, thunderous tympani, and sweeping, ominous strings.

Special mention should go to the woodwind and brass sections, which showed remarkable poise and elegance throughout the weighty surges of Doctor Atomic and Prokofiev’s 5th. During the former, which traced the life of scientist Robert Oppenheimer through his invention of the atomic bomb and personal challenges, interweaving flute and clarinet lines alternated with pure swells from the horns and wonderful trombone slides. On the percussion side, in a concert depicting military conflict one would also expect rousing tympani work, and it was present in spades during the last two selections.

While each piece ultimately succeeded in its own right, they were perhaps too similar to be played back to back. And although Stockhammer played up his own conducting role to fill the void left by the absences of a soloist, he kept a tight reign on the dynamics of the orchestra. The Prokofiev symphony offered more of a slow burn than its usual all-out triumph, while the dual nature of the Dean and second Adams piece never quite let them leave the ground.


Arts Festival: Star Violinist Withdraws Due to Illness
Arts Festival: Resonances
NZSO - Festival Guest: Chloë Hanslip
Full Scoop Coverage: Arts Festival 2008

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