Big audience for the first NZSO Shed series avoiding the mainstream classics

Shed Series: Symmetries

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Brahms: Hungarian Dances No 1 and 3 (orchestrated by the composer)
Lissa Meridan: Tuning the head of a pin
Mozart: Divertimento No 11 in D, K 251 – Rondo
Birtwistle: Bach Measures from eight Chorale Preludes from the Orgelbüchlein:
Russell Peck: Drastic Measures, II. Allegro
John Adams: Fearful Symmetries

Shed 6, Wellington Waterfront

Friday 31 January, 7:30 pm

The idea of using the first of its Shed concerts to open the NZSO’s 2020 series proved a winner, as there was a bigger audience than I’ve seen at these before and the result was an endorsement of the idea of a less than formal affair to attract a different audience. Everyone I spoke to agreed that it had attracted people you wouldn’t see in the Michael Fowler Centre which has – mistakenly of course – the reputation of hosting forbidding, heavy-weight music.

It followed the same pattern as other Shed concerts: a mixture of light classical pieces, easy to grasp, some as the composer wrote them, some as a composer of today had arranged or transformed them. No ‘pop’ music but music influenced by jazz and pop styles, as well as a couple of contemporary pieces by a New Zealander and others.

Two of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances put the audience at rest, played in a genial manner, without too much finesse, but plenty of energy and rhythm.

Tuning the head of a pin
Though Lissa Meriden graduated from Auckland University she spent a few years as leader of the Sonic Arts Progamme at Victoria University from 2000, and is now based in Paris. Tuning the head of a pin was written in 2002, but according to McKeich it had not been performed here. As well as the usual chamber orchestra, it demands a huge and fascinating range of percussion. Such scoring sometimes seems merely a way of showing off a composer’s versatility without making the music more interesting or exciting. But I soon found myself more than a little absorbed by a sense evolution, in which the musical ideas did actually make use of exotic instrumental sounds inevitable. The spectacular scoring slowly played itself out and strings and winds introduced some comfortably diatonic sounds. Strong, highly varied rhythms continued but an agreeable character sustained it, holding the attention and I found myself rather delighted by the whole composition. Not least, it made clear that its successful performance demanded a versatile and well resourced orchestra.

Mozart Divertimento
The fifth movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K 251 followed: a nice illustration of one of the clearest classical forms – the Rondo. It happily involved charming tunes that would, I hope, have been enjoyed by a not especially knowledgeable audience, though that is a dangerous observation as I had the feeling that many of the audience were musically very aware if not erudite. It was an excellent piece to end the first bracket.

Birtwistle on Bach
The second set of pieces, after the first interval as the orchestra moved to the south end of the space, opened with the arrangements by Harrison Birtwistle of five of Bach’s 45 Chorale Preludes (variously, between BWV 599 and 639). They were orchestrated with an eye (ear) to the unusual, perhaps even the eccentric. But in spite of such a first impression, one maintains an open mind and I found myself oddly intrigued by them; which is not to say I thought Bach emerged very intact or prominent at times. But that’s irrelevant as there would be little point in a major composer devoting time to such an exercise if the original work was still very audible and he hadn’t contributed something significant.

It was another opportunity for the reduced NZSO to exibit its brilliant versatility with unusual scoring.

Drastic Measures
A saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) then appeared on a low platform in the middle of the shed, to play the second movement, Allegro, of Drastic Measures, a jazz-style piece by Russell Peck. Spiky, witty, immediately attractive, and played with panache, it struck me as a particularly successful case of cross fertilisation by a fertile composer, at home with jazz but not tempted into hyper-intellectual, avant-garde idioms. It ended with a sudden calm and a gentle smile. I was drawn to explore Peck’s music on YouTube and was even more attracted to the first movement of the piece, Cantabile e molto rubato.

After a second interval the orchestra returned to the north end. I hadn’t fully grasped McKeich’s first rather sketchy programme announcements, and it took a few moments to realise that here were the last three of Birtwistle’s eight Chorale Preludes. Having had an hour to acclimatise to the earlier pieces I found this second group kind-of familiar. Each piece expressed a distinct idea or emotion and I suspect someone who studied the words of the chorales themselves, would be able to recognise their musical interpretation.

Adams’s Fearful Symmetries
Then came the piece that was probably most looked-forward-to: John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries.  (Do you notice the fashion for music titles using two-word, abstract notions?) It arrests the listener from the first moment, though I confess that I’d never heard it before. But I recognised close relatives such as Adams’s Chairman Dances and Reich’s Three Movements. It’s driven by an incessant, heavy rhythmic pulse, that easily conjures the sounds of high speed trains such as exists in a YouTube recording of the Reich music, perhaps with the wonderful throb of a steam locomotive. Though there are long stretches with little variation, the changes are actually very marked over its 25 minutes and it holds the listener transfixed. Like most minimalist music, the changes, a single chordal shift or the arrival of different instrument, though no instrument had special attention. Those subtle changes of timbre and dynamics removed any risk of tedium, and the acoustic, lighting and general atmosphere suited the performance admirably.

If I’ve had reservations about programmes of earlier Shed concerts, and can think of many delightful dance-like pieces I’d prefer to the Brahms dances, this scored very high and might have proven the Shed project beyond doubt.

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