“Un spectacle fantastique” from orchestra and fireworks

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
“Fireworks and Fantasy”

Britten     The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Berlioz     Symphonie Fantastique Op.14

Piano : Plamena Mangova
Conductor : Julian Kuerti

Michael Fowler Centre,

9th November 2013

Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra received its first performance in 1946, when the LSO under Sargent also performed it on film for distribution to British schools. It became one of the best known British works of the C20th, and is certainly one of Britten’s most accessible and appealing compositions. It is based on a resounding theme from Purcell’s incidental music for the play Abdelazer, which Britten used as the basis for a fascinating set of variations. Conductor Kuerti and the entire orchestra launched into the imposing opening statement of the theme with an enthusiasm and breadth that immediately captured the audience, followed by each instrumental section in turn adding fresh richness and colour. The subsequent variations explore an astonishing variety of instrumental mood, timbre and techniques, and each section or soloist took up the baton with great relish for the task. The writing showcased the outstanding skills and musicianship of the NZSO players, and the sheer fun they had playing this brilliantly inventive music was infectious. The closing fugue and final tutti statement of the Purcell theme was awesome and it had the audience bringing the house down.

Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto Op.23 is another well loved work, and the choice of gifted Bulgarian pianist Plamena Mangova was an inspired one. She was in total technical command of the very demanding score, and her musicianship explored an astonishing range of dynamics, moods, and sensitivities in a way that drew the audience into the wonderful intricate conversations that Tchaikovsky creates between pianist and orchestra. Under Kuerti’s unobtrusive baton they together moved seamlessly from contemplative passages of exquisite delicacy to the most dramatic full-bodied tuttis. The climaxes were full of richness, warmth, and riveting bravura while never straying into the overblown or bombastic. The woodwind principals were again a standout feature of the performance.

The following interval was timed to allow patrons to flock out and watch the annual Guy Fawkes’ fireworks display provided by the City Council in the nearby arm of the harbour. Wellington turned on a breathlessly calm, balmy spring evening and crystal clear skies for the event, which fittingly endorsed the festive atmosphere of the music making. An opinion reported earlier in the Dominion Post was that Guy Fawkes celebrations are now outdated baggage from our colonial past, and that the fireworks display would much more appropriately mark some indigenous festival like matariki, the Maori New Year. Quite apart from the difficulty that matariki falls in the depths of winter, when low cloud, drizzle, and freezing southerlies are the norm, it is not clear to me why the pakeha settlers of Aotearoa are expected to truncate their historical references, while the Maori are not. Surely, in another millennium we, and our many local ethnic groups, will seem like a bunch of settlers that stumbled ashore on almost the same day…….

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique occupied the second half of the concert. Subtitled An episode in the life of an Artist, it is grounded in Berlioz own romantic experience. An intriguing programmatic work, it charts over the course of five movements the angst of a young musician desperately in love with a woman who embodies all he idealises and longs for. His early dreams and passions, and the disturbing images of his beloved that haunt him, are explored by Berlioz in the two initial movements with exquisite artistry, using a recurring idée fixe. Kuerti elicited a wonderfully sympathetic interpretation from the orchestra and again, standout beauty from woodwind principals. The third movement exchanges between first oboe and cor anglais were profoundly moving and breathtakingly accomplished, and set the tone for the dark unravelling of the plot in the last two movements. The expanded brass and percussion came wonderfully into their own, capturing ominous and brutal moods alike with equal intensity, and enriching the power of the maniacal tutti conclusion. The full house was blown away and, undeterred by a long evening’s listening, brought the conductor back repeatedly to express their appreciation.

This programme might be labelled by some as unashamedly populist, but in my view there is every good reason to provide such a chance to enjoy some of the great classics. It is an effective and rewarding  way to showcase the full resources of this wonderful symphony orchestra that our taxes provide, and to enjoy the outstanding musicians we are privileged to hear in our own home town.



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