Popular for the best reason – the NZSO’s Classical Hits Concert

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:


James Judd (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 19th September, 2015

Appropriately enough from my point of view, this concert began with the very same music that enthralled me almost fifty years ago, at the beginning of my very first concert-going experience in Palmerston North’s Opera House. I still recall, at the start of the “William Tell” Overture, the beauty of those two NZBC Symphony Orchestra solo ‘cellos (played by Wilf Simenauer and Farquhar Wilkinson), and the thrill of the orchestra “opening up” for the ensuing storm, before the cor anglais (I can’t remember the player’s name) and Richard Giese’s flute flooded us with sunlight and dried us out in time for the excitement of the concluding march. No better introduction to the capabilities of a symphony orchestra could have been devised by anybody, I thought, and especially when the conducting was to my youthful ears as exciting and volatile as was Piero Gamba’s on that occasion.

So, almost as much fond memory was activated as was “here-and-now” sensation and stimuli when Saturday evening’s “Classical Hits” concert got under way in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre with that very same overture, conducted on this occasion by James Judd – Andrew Joyce’s opening ‘cello solo and his duetting with section colleague Ken Ichinose did full justice to the example set by those aforementioned illustrious predecessors – and the rest of the overture literally went like a train, taking time out in between excitements for the pastoral pleasures of shepherd’s pipes and birdsong. Michael Austin and Kirstin Eade most beguilingly did the honours as shepherd and songbird respectively, causing me to fall in love with the music all over again. The rest (not forgetting the Lone Ranger!) is, as they say, history!

A pity that the opportunity wasn’t taken to insert a home-grown classical hit in such a programme – any of David Farquhar’s Ring Round the Moon dances surely qualify with flying colours by now – but at least European hegemony was challenged by Aaron Copland’s exuberant, so out-of-doors Rodeo (well, even rugby stadiums are practically indoors, now!), four foot-tapping “dance episodes” whose “Hoedown” concluding number brought forth at one stage a full blooded “YEE-HA!” from an audience member simply doing what his conductor had told him to do! Incidentally, I thought James Judd’s spoken comments welcoming us all to the concert and explaining aspects of each of the pieces throughout were just right – there was nothing patronizing nor over-modulated about what he said, but simply the conveyance of a message inviting us all to have lots of fun, with both listening and in one or two instances getting physically involved with the music-making!

In the light of such invitations from the conductor, I was half-expecting at least one or two adventurous souls to leap to their feet in the aisles during Offenbach’s famous “Can-can” from the Orpheus in the Underworld Overture – but perhaps Judd’s tempi were a shade too quick for comfort – a bit more weight and “point” to the rhythmic trajectories and textures might have otherwise tempted those who could have felt rushed off their feet at the music’s frenetic pace. However,  no-one could complain regarding the delicious rhythmic subtleties wrought by the conductor and players during Johann Strauss Jnr’s Blue Danube Waltz – right from the pianissimo magic of its opening on the strings, over which sounded those so-familiar horn calls, one was simply entranced – and each episode of the dance, here, had its own particular brand of beguilement, the music’s “character” allowed plenty of variety throughout.

Mirroring Copland’s “Rodeo” Dances before the interval, the second half also included a more extended work, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture. Beloved of concert audiences world-wide because of its instant appeal, the piece still doesn’t “play itself” – and James Judd certainly didn’t allow a single moment of anything but committed, characterful and sharply-focused music-making, right from the opening wind chords (so rich, grainy and redolent of “once upon a time in a place called Verona”) to the full-throated passion of the string-saturated utterances at the piece’s climax. Along the way, we heard the most beautifully-shaped phrasings from both strings and winds in the piece’s first section, and plenty of sound and fury from brass and percussion throughout the conflict sequences. And the voicing of the “big tune” by the violas in unison with the cor anglais produced a sound to die for, as did the answering phrases from the other strings, sounded here with such breath-bated tenderness.

I loved the idea of introducing the often-played “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the piece that precedes it in the complete work, the lovely “W.N.” (the initials of Winifred Norbury) – Elgar, though happily married, obviously enjoyed the company and friendship of  a number of women, some of whom are “enigmatically” represented in this set of variations. So we got the graceful G Major portrait of Winifred and her sister Florence in their beautiful eighteenth-century house, before the music magically modulated down into a rich and noble E-flat, the key of “Nimrod”, a word-play on the German surname of Elgar’s publisher and friend August Jaeger, and supposedly enshrining discussions between the composer and his friend on the slow movements of Beethoven. As in the complete work, the grace and charm of “W.N.” became the perfect foil for the profundity of the noble “Nimrod”.

After this Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries was a near-perfect choice, even if I always feel somewhat cheated in the concert-hall when the “Hoyotoho! Hoyotoho!” isn’t there, though for people not familiar with the music in an operatic context it obviously doesn’t matter. I did wonder whether there might have been a spontaneous irruption of Valkyrie-like shouts from some off-duty Valkyrie in the audience carried away by the excitement of the moment! Had I been the concert organizer I would have been tempted to try and “plant” a few such people (dramatic sopranos in mufti!) in antiphonal places in the gallery, just for the sheer fun of it! This was a swift and lightish performance throughout, James Judd keeping his forces “airborne” right to the end, unlike some of the weightier realizations of famous Wagnerians like Hans Knappertsbusch, whose concert performances on record of the last few bars of the work have to he heard to be believed!

And so we came to the orchestra’s final programmed offering, a spirited rendition of the younger Johann Strauss’s Polka “Thunder and Lightning”, Judd positively exhorting his audience to “make a noise”, which we did, albeit a little inhibitedly. It did the trick, however, as conductor and players rewarded our efforts with one of the classic encores from the famous Viennese “New Year’s Day” concerts, the elder Johann Strauss’s most famous work, the Radetsky March, during which, to everybody’s delight, the conductor “directed” the audience’s clapping, taking particular care to secure the correct dynamic levels for each sequence! The item brought a most successful concert to a bubbling and exuberant conclusion, an antidote for a blessed couple of hours to the dreadful weather which we encountered when making our way home. One wonders which of the tunes we heard during the evening would have made “top of the pops” amongst the satisfied patrons! Thank you, James Judd and the NZSO!






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