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The NZSO goes to the Proms

The NZSO goes to the Proms

Lands of Hope + Glory
NZSO
Friday, 30 June
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

It was a good idea, a concert bringing together music from New Zealand and the British Isles in honour of the Lions tour. Did it work? At times, absolutely. At other times it felt a bit like a panto grafted onto unwilling stock.

Very much centre stage was mezzo-soprano Helen Medlyn in the role of the panto dame (or, more formally, ‘presenter’), introducing both the music and a touch of forced gaiety to proceedings. I half-expected someone to shout, ‘Look behind you!’ Behind her, in point of fact, was a part-strength NZSO, some of whom didn’t honestly look very excited about the whole thing. A sparse audience conveyed the message that much of the public felt the same way – though those who did come were well entertained.

The music itself was, admittedly, a mixed bag. Elgar’s ‘Cockaigne’ was fun, nothing more, with some lovely quiet string playing a few minutes in but a stodgy middle section. Some unexpected gems, however, were to be found, especially Arnold Bax’s ‘Irish Landscape’, which I hadn’t heard before but was enchanted by. It sounded a bit like Rachmaninov – in fact, I thought it was about to break into the second piano concerto at one point – but as if transported to the emerald hills of Ireland. It was sweet, touching, and beautifully played (especially the oboe work).

On a much more manic note, Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise’ was exactly what it should have been, a total hoot, with some very good ‘drunken band’ playing and even a bit of what in the theatre they call comic business, involving a whiskey bottle. Throughout all this Medlyn looked on indulgently, like a fairy godmother.

After the break, Medlyn swapped her red gown for a white one; conductor, Hamish McKeich had already marked the occasion with a bow tie. The music was again mixed. On the one hand, Douglas Lilburn’s ‘Aotearoa Overture’ was a wonderful way to introduce visiting fans – and there were a few in the audience – to New Zealand classical music. (Though I would also have liked to shake them up with some Gareth Farr or similar.) With Lilburn it always takes a special sound – sparse, but with a hint of romanticism – to make the music work, and the orchestra had it spot on.

On the other hand, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Lark Ascending’ is a superb bit of music, and the NZSO again played it very well, but Vesa-Matti Lippanen’s violin solo was several shades too cold and didn’t pull me into the piece at all.

Next was a medley of British, Irish and Kiwi folk songs. I’ve always been ambivalent about the merits of giving folk songs the full classical treatment, and remain ambivalent after this rendition. But Medlyn’s rich voice did work well for songs like ‘Danny Boy’, and the audience joined in with better than expected gusto. After ‘Pokarekare Ana’ ended, a woman behind me in the audience croaked, ‘bee-you-da-full’, and I thought that was about right.

Things finished off with that Last Night of the Proms warhorse, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, which I do enjoy, and which even had the audience standing, twirling their hats and unfurling one sole, desultory St George’s Cross.

In the end, I suppose the visiting fans got to see a quintessentially Kiwi event – that is, one in which the organisers desperately want to get the emotion flowing but don’t quite know how, and no-one wants to commit to it whole-heartedly. If everyone had been a lot drunker it would have been different, of course.

If all that sounds harsh, it isn’t meant that way. The concert was, as above, a good idea, with some lovely moments – it’s just that it was also, to use a classically British phrase, a bit of a curate’s egg.

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