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Sinfonietta Fantastica

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Friday, 9 August
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

Friday night’s Sinfonietta, the latest offering in the Shed Series concerts, continued its (newly forged) tradition of innovative ideas. If the positioning of the orchestra in the room was, regrettably, a little more traditional than in past outings, the music itself kept on brilliantly pushing boundaries.

The concert opened with Astor Piazzolla’s eponymous Sinfonietta. The first movement was a beautiful study in contrasts between languid, world-weary passages for the strings, where the violas were especially strong, and sharp, spiky horns and woodwinds. In the second movement I’d have liked greater sharpness in the opening string lines, and without a strong underlying rhythm things felt a fraction unanchored. But in the third movement the orchestra seem to find another gear, encouraged along by the manic energy of the piano.

Next up, Eve de Castro-Robinson’s Cyprian’s Dance was delightful, managing to be simultaneously taut but also intimate, and a great example of how ingenious writing can keep the listener’s interest despite little dynamic variation. Ranging widely, the concert then shifted into the Classical era, courtesy of Mozart’s Symphony No. 32. The first movement was fantastically urgent, borderline discordant even, while the second movement exhibited a caressing softness and an almost irresistible richness and fullness of sound.

Continuing the exquisite playing, the third movement felt like it was studded with dozens of little stories, all beautifully articulated. Such playing, in so intimate a setting, was something to be treasured. Sadly at least one audience member near me passed up this experience in favour of checking Twitter on his phone. Normally such behaviour at a classical concert gets you disembowelled, more or less, but this had to be tolerated; I suppose that’s one of the defects of a more relaxed setting.

Anyway, back to the music – and back to Piazzolla, whose Histoire du Tango – or at least its third movement, Nightclub 1960 – was a relatively late addition to the lineup. Performed by Bridget Douglas and Thomas Guldborg, it had an unexpectedly ethereal feeling that once again alternated with spiky, heavily accented passages. Quite apart from the excellent understanding between the two soloists, it was a demonstration of how to deal with works slightly outside the Western mainstream: the performers’ technique and approach felt totally tango, as it were, while remaining resolutely classical.

Next up was a pleasantly eccentric Anton Webern double act – or rather a one-and-a-half act, since the first piece was his arrangement of the Ricercare from Bach’s A Musical Offering. The first part featured some wonderful tone-painting, with a sense of softness, of emerging from a chrysalis, enhanced by occasional moments of sadness. Throughout there was an exquisite range of colours but also a careful formality generated by close attention to the repeated passages. The tension sagged slightly near the end, I felt, but the finale itself was superb.

Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21, I found hard to pin down; it didn’t help that its immense stillness made some hitherto concealed noise in the background – the air conditioning, I think – seem almost oppressive. But again, there was a strong sense of stories being told – and each emerging gracefully from the other.

Closing the set, as it were, was John Adams’s Chamber Symphony. The first movement was all about the swing, the notes of good humour, the joyous syncopation; it was enough to make one want to get up and dance. (Maybe that’s the Shed Series’s next frontier.) The second movement opening’s was something straight out of film noir, again with swaying energy underneath long lines from the horn section, while the third movement was all crackling, woodblocking tumult – a fitting tribute, indeed, to a cartoon character, and an absolutely correct way to round off a richly varied evening.


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