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Bold Worlds: New Frontiers

Bold Worlds: New Frontiers
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Friday, 7 October
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

Sometimes classical music programming is so transparent as to be amusing. Looking at the programme for Friday night’s Bold Worlds concert, with Dvorak’s ‘From the New World’ Symphony lodged in the second half after two modernist pieces before the interval, one sensed a clear belief among the devisers of the concert that only by forcing people to stick around for the big blockbuster piece could you guarantee that they’d listen to anything composed last century, let alone this one.

As a strategy, it was only partially successful: the Michael Fowler Centre wasn’t empty, but it was a long way from being full. Those who did turn up seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves; I did, too, but only in parts. I loved the opening work, Steve Reich’s Three Movements, a big, shimmering, pulsating piece that was fiercely rhythmic but had enough variation to keep edging relentlessly forward.

The guest conductor, Fawzi Haimor, seemed supremely comfortable with the work, and extracted a sharp, precise rendition from the NZSO. I also enjoyed his spiel to the audience during the setting up for the next work, Mason Bates’s Violin Concerto. I’m all for the growing trend for concerts to become a bit more interactive. It’d be nice if the conductors didn’t say the word “fantastic” roughly every other sentence, but I guess Americans have a higher tolerance for effusion than we do.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the Violin Concerto, not that that was due to any failing on the part of Haimor or the soloist, Anne Akiko Meyers. The latter is clearly an excellent technician and I suspect both were performing the work as well as it can be done; I just didn’t like it. It’s the sort of piece that neither moves my heart nor engages my brain: a lot of the gestures feel forced, like impressive bits of sound that aren’t really rooted in anything, and I don’t particularly enjoy the electronica influences or the half-hearted lyricism.

Both the Bates and the Reich got solid applause, though, so I may have been in a minority on that point. I was probably more in line with others when it came to the Dvorak, which was well if not rapturously received. It’s not the most challenging of symphonies, with a fair few themes that could be developed further than they are.

Still, it’s a work with moments of real beauty and a sunny, unshakeable optimism that’s both rare and delightful. I thought the opening movement sounded – unusually for the NZSO – a little muddy somehow, but the rest of it was beautifully played. There’s a lot of lovely moments for the woodwinds, and not just in the famous second movement cor anglais solo; I particularly enjoyed the passages with Bridget Douglas’s flute and Robert Orr’s oboe in close conjunction, and the clarinet playing was also particularly good.

Hearing ‘From the New World’ also resolved something that had been nagging at me. I’d recently heard Serge Gainsbourg’s 1960s hit ‘Les Initiales B.B.’ – Brigitte Bardot being the possessor of said initials – and couldn’t quite place the main melody, but it is of course just a straight rip-off of the main theme from Dvorak’s first movement, as I realised the moment I heard it on Friday night. Now there’s something to bring old and new together.

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