Adventurous, surprising, unorthodox, informal concert by the NZSO in a waterfront shed

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra 
Shed Series: Conductor: Hamish McKeich

Haydn: Symphony No 38 in C, Hob.1:38 (‘The Echo’)
Leonie Holmes: Elegy
Revueltas: Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca
Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin
Penderecki: Polymorphia
Jonny Greenwood: 48 Responses to Polymorphia (New Zealand premiere)

Shed 6, Wellington Waterfront

Friday 10 May 7:30 pm

Good Music in Sheds
The “Shed series” of concerts were a new enterprise for the NZSO last year, when there were three concerts of music that was a bit off the beaten track and in an atmosphere unfamiliar to traditional audiences, though essentially classical rather than popular or rock music; perhaps the word ‘crossover’ might here apply. Last year, it was suggested that they would appeal to audiences aged under 40 which was one of the reasons that Middle C failed to review them, as well as the feeling that we might be a bit out of our depth.

We took the plunge with the second of 2019’s Shed Series, in Shed 6 on the Waterfront. It’s a large space (though smaller in audience capacity than the MFC) which is used for a variety of more popular events, pitched at a more casual audience. Last year for example I was there to hear a talk by the stimulating United States music critic Alex Ross (“The Rest is Noise” and “Listen to This”) along with live music from Stroma and soprano Bianca Andrew.

A similar routine is being followed this year: a start with a very approachable, early Haydn symphony, a couple of pieces, one by a familiar composer (Ravel) one by a commonly avoided one (Penderecki); plus a New Zealand piece and a couple by unclassifiable composers: here, Mexican, Revueltas and rock guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

Though the audience is provided with some miscellaneously placed seats, but most had to and seemed happy to stand, to walk about exchanging a few quiet words with friends, getting a drink from the bars on the west side of the auditorium as well as lending an eye and an ear to what the orchestra was doing. The orchestra was subject to another rock influence, Split Enz: in the first half of the concert the orchestra was at the south end, later in the north; and the auditorium was lit rock-style, though with enough light for a critic to see what he was scribbling. Players wore black or near-black clothes – no tails and white ties.

The series is masterminded by NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich, and he spoke casually yet informatively about each piece.

Penderecki’s Polymorphia and its successors
Central to this concert might have been Penderecki’s Polymorphia (of 1961) and the 48 Responses to Polymorphia by Greenwood. (Greenwood’s There will be Blood film score was played last year). Both Penderecki’s and Greenwood’s pieces would have slightly stretched the tastes of the average NZSO subscription series audience. Penderecki’s gets a huge variety of reactions: terrifying prophetic, disturbing, horror, angst, someone on YouTube wrote: “I just love it. I cried like a baby” and “This may be the greatest thing I’ve ever heard”.

It’s played by 48 strings, though much of the central, steady crescendo of sound seemed to emanate from percussion instruments that I couldn’t see.

The beginning presented the singular phenomenon of seeing infinitismal gestures by conductor and even less by players, rising slowly from utter silence to a sea of confused though somehow musical sound, tapping strings as well as bowing. The first four minutes or so are scored aleatorically, that is, allowing players to bow spontaneously, at will but within the composer’s prescription. The central section begins with normal pizzicato chords but drops back to the shape of the first part, slowly crescendo-ing again like a screaming swarm of Hitchcock Crows. To build to an amazingly coherent, musical cacophony, finally creating a powerful emotional impact. And it ends on a quite disorientating C major common chord, followed by mighty noisy acclamation.

Guitarist of Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood, collaborating with Penderecki, wrote his 48 Responses for the same orchestral forces. In a RNZ Concert interview he would have pleased McKeich and the NZSO:

‘While he’s used to playing in front of large crowds with recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Radiohead, [Greenwood] thinks the orchestra is the ultimate acoustic gig. “There’s no way of hearing such musical colours any other way,” he says.

‘Greenwood anticipates the kiwi audience will feel the same way. “I hope that they are spurred to see far more live orchestral concerts. There might be a few magical moments in my piece, but there’ll be thousands in next week’s NZSO concert. Get your tickets now!” he laughs.’

His nine ‘Responses’ may not have had ‘thousands’ in the audience, but I hope it was recorded (I didn’t spot any microphones) and will be broadcast later for many thousands. These responses were certainly less overwhelming and astonishing than Penderecki’s, but still agreeably reflecting the Polish composer’s creation. The audience however, responded whole-heartedly.

Et al. Haydn, Holmes, Revueltas, Ravel
Well, the rest of the concert was relatively uneventful. The one item that did not reflect on death was Haydn’s Symphony No 38 (though I suppose its name ‘The Echo’ gets it past the theme censors)  from his early years at Esterhaza and it promised well for his future as a great composer. Leonie Holmes little Elegy was a much more conventional piece, among several rather more radical items: nicely written for a well-imagined variety of instruments.

Revueltas was a leading Mexican composer of the first half of the 2Oth century (he died at 40 in 1940). Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca, his reaction to Garcia Lorca’s assassination in 1936 was typical of world-wide shock at this early mark of Franco’s murderous intentions. It uses traditional Mexican instruments – or rather approximations available in a symphony orchestra – and the result is surprisingly radical in rhythm and vivid colour, recreating a somewhat primitive, peasant quality, ending in the sort of dance-hall that Copland was inspired by about the same time.

Ravel’s orchestration of four pieces of the six piano pieces from Le Tombeau de Couperin took us back to familiar musical territory. A bit overdue as a funeral ode for Couperin (François died in 1733); each of the six pieces is dedicated to one of his friends killed in WWI and it’s probably not irrelevant that Ravel’s mother died in 1917.  But the tone is reflective rather than tragic: McKeich quoted Ravel’s own remark: “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence”. One member of the audience drew attention to the absence of any ponderous funereal character, by walking with her percussive, hard heels, through the crowd and out the door, leaving it to bang shut.

Nevertheless this was a most appropriate work in the midst of a concert of very different music, anchoring it to the universal store-house of classical music that needs to be present in any intelligent programme of music that seeks to represent more than the music of the past five minutes.

These concerts, and there are two more of them this year, are an important enterprise; judging by the size, character and final noisy ‘response’ of the audience, they work, and their presentation, in style, in venue, in the appropriateness of McKeich’s pithy and pertinent remarks, is excellent.


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