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Unusual Symmetries


Shed Series: Symmetries

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Friday 31 January

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

The NZSO’s expanding Shed Series – this year taking in Auckland as well as Wellington – kicked off the classical music year with an intriguing mix of styles and textures. As ever, the orchestra made good use of the Shed 5 space, switching from end to end across the three sets, as conductor Hamish McKeich tends to call them. (Though I still liked it best when they were right in the middle with the audience shaped around them, almost like a stage play being performed in the round.)

The Shed concerts are evolving a tradition of deliberate contrasts across short pieces, giving a (partially) new audience a taste – a degustation menu, if you will – of what classical music has to offer. This was never more evident than in the Symmetries concert, which began with two of the Brahms Hungarian Dances (nos 1 and 3). In the first I especially enjoyed the contrasts between the martial strings playing the main theme and the more languid passages.

Then, as Monty Python used to say, it was a case of ‘now for something completely different’: Tuning the head of a pin, by contemporary New Zealand composer Lissa Meridan. Not being familiar with the piece, I couldn’t exactly give chapter and verse on the quality of the interpretation. But it was undeniably beautiful, full of shimmering, otherworldly textures and sharp dynamic changes that suddenly exposed single notes. Reminiscent of Estonian composer Arvo Part’s work, it juxtaposed jokey moments with plaintive flutes; you could have just about drawn a jagged line-graph of the stark ups and downs in intensity. Even someone in the audience accidentally smashing a glass didn’t break the mood, in fact somehow seemed to add to it.

Providing a very different kind of contrast was the Rondo from Mozart’s Divertimento No 11. A sunny, dancing interlude, it struck me – perhaps unkindly – as a familiar example of Mozart on autopilot, but again, it gained its impact from its delicate balance with the preceding pieces.

After the first interval we were treated to what you might call a Measure Sandwich: a few of Harrison Birstwhistle’s Bach Measures played either side of the Allegro from Russell Peck’s Drastic Measures. All seems to be enthusiastically received by the large audience; the people sitting next to me on a bench even stood up to get a better view.

Birtwhistle’s reworkings of Bach cantatas were thoughtful and exploratory, an interesting change from, as McKeich put it, the more aggressive nature of much of his work. Not all the Measures sounded quite right: the first, for instance, had moments of reverential beauty, but many of the entries didn’t feel well integrated, and the overall effect was slightly jerky. The same could be said of the second measure, although nos 3-5 were much better, their punchier moments contrasting with fluttering woodwind lines.

For the Peck, a saxophone quartet took (a small) centre stage in the Shed, and gave us a brisk, exuberant and well-integrated rendition of a piece that draws delightfully on the 12-bar blues tradition without ever feeling like pastiche. Then it was back to Birtwhistle for more Bach Measures; the seventh was an especial delight, both graceful and stately, distinctly modern but also baroque.

Finally, after the second break, the third set was taken up with John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries. As ever with Adams, it was filled with driving, dancing motifs; dancing, in fact, seemed like a second, submerged theme for the whole evening, given the way it carried through almost all the pieces. The Adams was all powerfully done: there was so much to enjoy in the juxtaposition of rhythms and intensities; the hints of rock ‘n’ roll (and even the Peter Gunn theme) were well handled; and McKeich conjured up a full, rich sound despite the inherent percussiveness of the piece.

He also exercised superb control over the structure, including the moments when the rhythm almost threatens to collapse. My final scribbled notes read, ‘Seamless transitions, seamless whole’ – a remark that could have stood for the whole evening.

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