Festival’s return to lunchtime concerts, now with the NZSO and Tchaikovsky, a triumph

New Zealand Festival 2014: Five by Five: Fifth Symphonies at Lunchtime

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 7 March, 12:30pm

This was one of five lunchtime concerts by the NZSO performing the fifth symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Shostakovich. They were promoted as “famous fifth symphonies that are known for capturing the voice of the composer” and this is certainly the case for the Tchaikovsky. Hamish McKeich guided the orchestra with consummate musicianship through a reading that explored the ultimate heights and depths of the great Russian romantic orchestral tradition, and captured the audience totally.

The work opened with exquisite control and sensitivity, as the clarinets announced the brooding principal motif, then built inexorably to the entry of the brass, unleashed in their full dramatic power. The poetic episodes that alternate with the dramatic tutti sections were beautifully shaped by McKeich, who made full use of rubato, wonderfully contrasted with tightly controlled rhythmic sections. There was an enormous dynamic range between the power of the dramatic tuttis and the delicate relief of the gentle melodic interludes.

The Andante cantabile second movement was lovingly introduced by violas and cellos, leading to the famous horn solo, played with a breath-taking poetry that seemed to speak personally to each listener. The thematic conversations that then develop through the course of the movement display Tchaikovsky’s wonderful orchestration at its best, and the various soloists and sections embraced every opportunity to explore a huge range of moods, from the most ethereal whisper to the full orchestral blast from the hand of Fate.

The third movement Valse was pure delight, its playful melodies passed from one wind soloist to another with obvious relish, superb musicianship and faultless execution. In a lineup of international class, the first bassoon undoubtedly took the prize, and the strings in turn took up the baton with balletic lightness. The fast passagework supporting the main themes was wonderfully clear and crisp, then suddenly the dark cloud of the initial sinister theme passed over, and set the scene for the
ominous Finale.

This principal theme that reappears to open the Andante Maestoso was full of rich new shaping and dynamics, leading into an Allegro Vivo that was attacked with great verve and exceptional rhythmic clarity. The movement builds and builds towards an inexorable finality, and the players’ faces showed they were clearly caught up in the joy and challenge of realising real music, superbly written, never daunted by its huge technical demands. McKeich shaped a movement that explored everything from huge rubati to total rhythmic control, according to his vision. It was a completely convincing vision that swept the audience on to the majesty of the coda and the exultant final chords.

This wrapped up the best performance of this work that I can remember hearing in a very long time. The musical quality and technical command of the NZSO means we can listen right here to a world class ensemble, and the large lunch hour turnout showed that even a bright sunny day could not keep the listeners away. Why are such midday events so rarely offered by the orchestral management, when there is an obvious demand for them? And why is a conductor as patently talented and effective as McKeich so infrequently on the podium? The pleasure written on the face of every departing player and listener said it all. Is anyone in the office listening??

This concert was unfortunately subjected to the worst episode of house management I have ever seen at the Michael Fowler Centre. The breath-taking horn melody of the Andante cantabile was hideously marred by the admission of a parent and child who wandered back and forth deciding on where they might sit, all in plain view immediately above the orchestra. As if this distraction were not bad enough, management later decided they should be re-seated and chose, not a space between movements, but another exquisite moment in the music making to muscle in and shift them. I can’t find a black enough pen to mark this incompetence.



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