NZSO with Lilburn’s Symphony No 2, his successor’s impressive piece plus striking Swedish composer and trombonist

NZSO Aotearoa Plus

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Christian Lindberg conductor and trombone, and David Bremner – trombone

Michael Norris: Claro
Jan Sandström: Echoes of Eternity
Lilburn: Symphony No 2

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 1 May, 6:30 pm

The title of this concert covered two-thirds of its music, though perhaps the most spectacular element was supplied by trombonist-plus, Christian Lindberg in a work by compatriot Sandström, Echoes of Eternity. The concert, in the two New Zealand works, spanned almost the entire post-war musical history of the orchestra and its home, Wellington. For the orchestra was founded in 1946 shortly before Lilburn moved from Christchurch to Wellington to become a lecturer at the newly established Music Department of Victoria University in 1949. There he finished his first symphony, played two years later by the then National Orchestra; the second followed quickly. Both Lilburn and the NZSO remained in Wellington, the orchestra rather slow to take seriously a responsibility for New Zealand music, but Lilburn and the school of music soon became the pre-eminent harbingers of New Zealand music. This year (2 November) is Lilburn’s centenary.  

The orchestra’s early dilatoriness can of course be understood, for its first task, obviously, was to establish its importance to the community at large which had, in a very short time, first to become familiar with the huge central body of classical orchestral music in live performance. Only having ingested the basic repertoire was there any real hope of audiences coming to grips with the music that our few composers were then writing.

The other New Zealand work in the programme was by a young composer, inheritor of that Lilburn-Victoria University Music School tradition: Michael Norris, 2003 winner of the Lilburn composition prize at Victoria, now senior lecturer in composition, as was Lilburn. As well as composing for orthodox instruments and orchestra forces, he engages with avant-garde techniques – sonic arts, electro-acoustic music, which he studied with fellow-New Zealander Denis Smalley at City University London.

Lindberg appeared as both conductor and trombonist. He ran on to the stage, bounded on to the podium, in a tight, glistening black jacket hinting at his self-image as some kind of bad-boy – at least a bit unorthodox – of music.

Norris’s piece, newly commissioned by the orchestra, reportedly composed for the same orchestral forces as Lilburn’s second symphony was, apart from anything else, a remarkable exercise in imaginative orchestration and harmonic ingenuity; with a more precise musical memory, I could have figured out whether its initial outlaying of pitches constituted a tone row. Even if it did, and in spite of its hardly throwing out any melodies that would persist in the mind long into the night, it was by no means music of the jagged kind that one longs to be finished. There was a recognisable recurrence of certain intervals that rose several times to a state of near resolution; a rising quasi-arpeggio passage with shimmering violin solo and harp; there were interesting passages for tuned percussion – xylophone and marimba. It was all propelled, somewhat miraculously, and mesmerizingly, by the man on the podium given to far-flung, angular arm gestures, commonly both arms mirroring in opposite directions.

The composer’s words in the programme suggested the title of the work, Claro, implied a “state of transparency, lightness and clarity”, and it would be hard to find more specifically descriptive language to characterise it.

That we are now in an era that has turned aside from the alienating styles of composition that drove audiences away, was clear through hearing admiring, if sometimes a bit bemused audience comments, broadly appreciative of all they’d heard.

Lindberg’s showpiece was a sort of concerto for two trombones and orchestra by the 61-year-old Swedish composer, Jan Sandström, written for the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra, the region west of Madrid, adjacent to Portugal. Its major city, Cáceres, has UNESCO World Heritage status, with important Roman, Islamic, Gothic and Renaissance architecture and these features, says the composer, inspire the music.

An off-stage trombone sounds as the orchestra awaits the conductor’s arrival, a long legato melody rising and falling. Now he enters, in a close-fitting white jacket brandishing trombone, continuing to play, accompanied by wood-blocks (virtually the only percussion on hand) and a bed of strings. Nothing could have been a greater contrast with the previous impressionist/virtuosic, multi-tonal Norris than this forthright, quasi-conventional orchestral tutti, big opulent melody verging, for some ears, no doubt, on blowsy. Later there are near-percussive throbbing passages from cellos and basses.  

We’d had a long wait for the other trombonist who eventually entered from the right: NZSO principal trombone David Bremner, and the two were soon involved in battle even as Lindberg continued, as best he could, throwing his right arm towards the orchestra behind him, which seemed enough to keep the players alongside. 

Prominent in the orchestral melee was the tuba, as the two trombones, occasionally inserting mutes, became increasingly frenzied, doing things at a speed one might have thought impossible. There was a calm point in the middle when Lindberg recited a poem that described Cáceres, which did not have quite the impact that a reading by a George Henare (recalling the ANZAC concert last week) might have had. Among later diversions was the winding of a air-raid siren driven by a sort of wind-machine that lent a note of terror – was the city attacked by murderous Falangist rebels in the Civil War?

Music that is conspicuously tonal, though now reinforced by some of the more expressive, perhaps aggressive, features of the difficult music of the past era, has returned, and is no longer scorned. Audiences can now feel welcome in the concert halls again.

Conductor Lindberg appeared in the second half in a plum-coloured jacket (I exercised myself conjecturing synesthestic implications) to conduct Lilburn’s second symphony, written in 1951 but not performed till 1959. Opening with vivid trumpet over firm strokes by strings, this symphony has now signalled Lilburn’s escape from some of the slightly repetitious decorative gestures that constituted an unneeded trade mark in earlier music, and a total maturity and self-confidence. I soon felt that I was hearing a fresh and unhesitant, thoroughly thought-out performance as proved by a conductor who’d committed the score to memory.

It was energetic, assertive in its handling long phrases, its breathing of dynamics, the contours studied and explored with care and traversed with confidence. Again Lindberg was a conductor whose gestures were compelling, for the audience at least (I haven’t asked players whether they were valuable or something else). My only pause came with the feeling that the main theme and the signature motifs in the last movement were overstated.

Never mind: this was a very fine performance, and it was great to have a committed and serious view taken by a non-Anglo conductor capable of grasping its character and inspiring a pretty electrifying performance.

Though the MFC was not full, the audience was no disgrace considering the absence of an acknowledged masterpiece. And the applause was generous. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *