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The NZSO Goes To The Disco



Sunday 23 February

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

In the endless, anguished debates about how to make classical music more relevant to new audiences, proposals are often put forward to strip away certain elements – reduce the formality, get the players out of their dinner suits, and so on. That has mostly seemed to me like a dead end: after all, people go to an orchestra concert, and are likely to continue going, because they want something a bit special, a heightened night out.

More promising, I think, is the approach of Estonian conductor Kristjan Jarvi, who likes to add things in. His programming for this concert began with the contemporary composer Max Richter’s Infra, whose accessible, cinematic modernism is a useful addition to the canon.

Jarvi also likes to augment the music with light shows. If other things can be multimedia, he seems to ask, why not classical music? (And, after all, if you don’t like it, you can just close your eyes, as some people do anyway.) So the performance of Infra began with a circle of spotlights throwing their white beans into a kind of cross above the orchestra’s head. Later, they mutated into disco lights, swirling patterns that suggested the bottom of the sea, and eventually near-darkness.

I’m not sure this approach would work for all music, but it seemed entirely appropriate to Richter’s ultra-contemporary sound, which draws on found noise, on electronic bleeps and tinny echoes, just as much as the conventional weapons of the classical orchestra. (The arrangement that had strobe lights shining into the audience’s eyes, though, was a bit much.)

The danger of Richter’s approach is that, by combining the repetitiveness of minimalism with a greater emphasis on melody, it can end up sounding like one of the less demanding film scores. And Infra had such moments, notably in a rather schmaltzy piano-based episode. But it was also at times tender and affecting; brief, aborted lines in the cello parts were especially moving, and early on the repeated three-note rising phrase was beautifully outlined.

In the end, though, Infra was somewhat put into the shade by the second piece, Philip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia, a ten-movement tribute to the watercourses that feed into the Amazon and to the mighty river itself. It was hard to believe the work had originally been composed for small forces, such was its pulsating movement and the extraordinary sense of adventure it conjured up. It was as if we were carried along irresistibly by the vast energy of a river in full flood.

Even in the Richter, Jarvi had made it clear he was a different kind of conductor. Not limiting himself to the finger-pointing, nods and baton flicks of most of his kind, he was swaying and karate chopping the air. By the time the Glass rolled around, he was positively boogying. You could easily imagine him in a nightclub, probably conducting the DJ. And in those signature Glass moments – the jagged ostinatos, the thunderclap drum rolls – he was like a man possessed.

One thunderous climax had the audience applauding and on their feet – too early, as it turned out, since there was plenty more to come; but when the ultimate moment arrived, Jarvi and the musicians, including members of his own Absolute Ensemble, received a deserved standing ovation.

What happened next, as the clickbait headlines used to promise, would astound you, at least in the context of the classical world. Jarvi started on an encore – but then insisted that the audience get involved with some syncopated clapping and even finger clicking.

Sweating, beaming and exuding enough energy to power the Tiwai Point Smelter, Jarvi brought something quite new, and very welcome. As it turned out, also quite new – and astounding – was the late arrival of Glass in Wellington: apparently this was the first time the NZSO has ever performed his work. Such neglect is hard to understand. But at least it’s starting to be undone – and, on this evening’s showing, plenty more such movements would be a very good thing.

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