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A Closing Kabarett

Shed Series – Kabarett

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Friday, 13 November

When you’re designing a themed concert, it’s always a tricky question: how thoroughly do you commit to the bit? Do you – in this case – play actual cabaret music, or just pieces that reference that 1920s and 30s sound world?

Some audience members for the final Shed Series concert of the year clearly expected the former, and I too would have welcomed some more ‘overtly’ cabaret numbers. (Especially if there were singers involved.) But that could also have descended into pastiche – ‘the NZSO does jazz’ – and the more tangential approach taken here ensured that musical standards remained high.

The opening number, Hanns Eisler’s Kleine Sinfonie, had the air of a parody of a Romantic symphony. Immensely varied, its soundscape ranged across wistful flute passages, blasts of growling brass, and muted, jazzy tones that summoned up images of gangsters slinking onstage. It evoked nightclub music without being nightclub music, the whole piece animated by a half-serious, half-playful mood.

Simon Eastwood’s Quanta, by contrast, conjured up the world of what physicists call quantum indeterminacy, where subatomic particles behave in unpredictable ways and the method of measurement changes the object measured. This was beautifully captured in the opening passages, which were full of sounds bouncing and cutting across each other, noises like cables humming. I wasn’t convinced by the middle sections, which didn’t adequately develop the opening ideas, but my faith was restored by the final section and its thrilling, chiming climax.

Next up was the Kammersymphonie by Franz Schreker, an immensely popular Weimar-era composer whose reputation has until recently fallen into disrepair. It was a wonderful work to be introduced to – Romantic in much of its temperament but with sudden eruptions of more modernistic motifs. Again, its thematic development wasn’t everything it might have been, but it still had a brilliant range of colours, beautifully brought out by the orchestra.

Conductor Hamish McKeich’s canny selections continued with Claude Debussy’s arrangement of two of Eric Satie’s Gymnopedies, Nos. 1 and 3. The first in particular was superbly conducted, with exquisite gentleness and restraint, and a sensitive solo from oboist Robert Orr. The second, though, lacked the sad, balloon-floating-away lightness of the original.

Finally, under asymmetric stage lighting, came Kurt Weill’s Suite from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, arranged by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg. This too was beautifully played, the orchestra retaining all the subtleties of a finely crafted work while also capturing something of the jolly, big-band sound of the era. Orchestrally unusual elements – including a banjo and a bass guitar – were seamlessly integrated, and there were even some young folk dancing down the back. Not a bad way to end the Shed year.

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