A divided NZSO with a breathtaking cellist in a sparkling touring programme for the South Island

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Benjamin Northey; Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello)

“In the Hall of the Mountain King”

Mozart: Symphony No. 31 ‘Paris’
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme
Grieg: Holberg Suite
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 21 November. 6:30 pm

From the first downbeat of Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony, Australian conductor Ben Northey galvanised the orchestra into a sparkling and vivacious performance, and set the tone for an authoritative, yet electrifying evening’s music making. His engagement with the players was almost tangible, epitomised in the initial Allegro assai where he drew out real magic from the contrabasses, in episodes that can often pass almost unnoticed. In the following Andante he fashioned the delicate melodies with gossamer lightness before bursting into the Allegro finale at breakneck speed. His two silent upbeats established a total control that achieved crystal clarity in high speed runs that never felt hectic or hurried. It was an electric, riveting finale that harnessed the extraordinary talent of the players with complete unity of vision between conductor and orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme  gave New Zealand audiences their first opportunity to appreciate the breathtaking talent and musicianship of Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. All of 26 years old, he nevertheless exhibits a total technical mastery that is completely at the command of his extraordinary musical depth and vision. At the pre-concert talk, Northey remarked that no two readings of the Variations were ever the same from Hakhnazaryan, a comment that I recall Barenboim making about the performances of Du Pré. In my mind this newly emerging cellist certainly sits in the same pantheon, and like Du Pré, he held the audience totally spellbound with his interpretation.

You could have heard a pin drop in his magical pianissimo moments, for which Northey fashioned the orchestral support in perfect balance – no small feat for a low register solo in an auditorium seating 2500. The opening theme was offered with loving delicacy in a silken tone that immediately set his playing apart. And likewise the second theme was delivered with deep affection, indeed reverence for every note. Throughout the whole performance he engaged in a mutual conversation with the orchestra that was completely devoid of soloistic bravura; rather they were fellow players making music together with just the lightest touch from Northey at the helm. All shared a common, deeply romantic concept of the work that drew in the audience completely, and led to rapturous applause at the end.

We were treated to two solo encores: first Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio that opened with stark, spare harmonies, and dirge-like vocalisations from the cellist. This idiom alternated with episodes of frenzied despair as though the bereaved were tearing his hair out, interrupted by the recurring, and eventually terminal exhaustion of the dirges. It was a deeply moving performance, and left the audience hungering for still more. Hakhnazaryan obliged with a final offering: first he enquired for any fellow Armenians in the audience, of which there were a few (I understand that there are about 50 such living in Wellington). Then he announced that he would play a setting of an Armenian folk song by a “suffering, lonely person far from their homeland”. It was a soulful, almost anguished piece, exquisitely performed, and obviously very personal to him.

It is a rare and very real pleasure to hear the NZSO strings alone, and what better choice of work than Grieg’s much loved Holberg Suite. Ben Northey’s  sure touch again opened the piece with real lightness and grace, but the super fast tempo he chose sometimes put at risk the clarity of that very distinctive rhythmic motif which drives the whole Praeludium. However, his dynamic control was brilliant, as he built the sound from a feathery piano to a rich full throated climax. He made the most of the contrasting three central movements, Sarabande, Gavotte and Air, which were marked by graceful lilting melodies and lovingly wistful phrasing. He skilfully set their moods of pathos against episodes of warmth and fullness where every string player seemed to relish the chance to draw the maximum richness from their instrument.

The final Rigaudon is a hectic celebratory folk dance gallop distinguished by fiery roles for two soloists – violin and viola – here Donald Armstrong and Peter Barber. So often the lower pitch of the viola comes off second best in this movement, but Peter was not having a bar of that. With vigorous competition from Donald, he made brilliant, spirited play for the attention of the prettiest girl in the troupe, and I’d put my money on his winning out. A great romp!

The full NZSO is currently divided for two separate tours, with this programme being played in Wellington and the South Island. The lesser string resources of this particular ensemble proved, however, that they were more than equal to working with the full blown line-up of wind, brass and percussion needed for Grieg’s Peer Gynt. This suite again showcased Ben Northey’s skill in creating huge contrasts in mood and dynamics: there was the wonderful fresh transparency of the opening Morning Mood; the incredible build-up from pianissimo to fortissimo in The Death of Aase; the beautifully fashioned and puckish pizzicato sections of Anitra’s Dance; and the lovely murky bassoons at the opening of the Mountain King finale, that Northey built on inexorably in tempo and dynamics to create a monumental climax.

The audience was hugely appreciative of this evening of sparkling music making, turning out a virtually full house to hear works they knew and loved. The pedants may speak of hackneyed familiarity, but the listeners voted very clearly with their feet when offered the best of classical and romantic works performed by the outstanding talents of the NZSO and Ben Northey. They worked together in such obvious empathy and produced outstanding results. I very much hope we will see more of Northey on the rostrum in future, and more of this sort of programming.

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