Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

NZSO under New management

By , 06/08/2022

‘Style and Substance’ – NZSO’s Immerse 2022 Festival

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 77
Tabea Squire Variations
John Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony

Hilary Hahn, violin

Gemma New. conductor
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 6 August 2022

This was the second concert of the Immerse series, and the second outing of the acclaimed
violinist Hilary Hahn with the NZSO under the baton of Gemma New, its newly appointed
Artistic Adviser and Principal Conductor. The house was almost full, with such a happily
expectant air that everyone must surely have been here on Thursday for the first concert of
the series.

Gemma New is a local girl made good – only 35, but already with a long list of appointments
and accolades, including the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award. She has been called ‘one of
the brightest rising stars in the conducting firmament’, and she is becoming famous around
the world for her precision and the expressive beauty she draws from her orchestras. Hilary
Hahn is one of today’s great violin virtuosos, with three Grammys and a huge global
following. Putting them on the programme together for three concerts must have seemed to
the NZSO a masterstroke of genius and good fortune.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto was Hahn’s suggestion. She first recorded it at the age of 21 with
the Orchestra of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. That youthful recording
has been named one of the eight great recordings of the work (ahead of one that was my
favourite 40 years ago, David Oistrakh with the French National Radio Orchestra under Otto
Klemperer). It was Gemma New who suggested the two works to accompany it because,
she said, they ‘had a Brahmsian quality’. Not many people would make that observation of
John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony and fewer of the Variations by Tabea Squire. But
that is the world of Gemma New, in which the exquisite and the unusual are two faces of the
same coin.

From the first bar, it was clear that Gemma New’s Brahms was a very different work. Gone
were the sludgy textures and blurred rhythms I had by heart from the Oistrakh/Klemperer
recording. The NZSO is under New management.

Hilary Hahn’s first entry was electrifying. She has been performing this concerto for more
than half her life, and yet she made it as fresh and exciting as it must have been when
Brahms’s friend Joachim played it for the first time.

New kept the NZSO to a restrained dynamic range for much of the time. In a recording, the
balance between violinist and orchestra can be addressed by microphone placement and
engineering. In the concert hall there is a constant threat that the violinist will be
overwhelmed by the orchestra – the concerto is scored for four horns, two trumpets, and
timpani, after all. Not so here. New is known for her meticulous attention to detail, and the
NZSO obliged with beautiful, shapely, thoughtful playing.

The audience was so moved by the monumental first movement that most of them
applauded at the end of it. I almost joined in, because of the huge gratitude I felt for Hahn’s
superb playing. In the third movement, Allegro giocoso, orchestra and soloist danced for
sheer joy. At the end, most of the audience was on its feet. Hahn took four curtain calls
before coming back to play the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor partita as tenderly as you
could wish.

Gemma New introduced the works for the second half of the concert with evident relish. She
loves new music. In 2010, as soon as she graduated from the Peabody Institute in Maryland,
she formed the Lunar Ensemble to perform new music. Together they premiered 30 works in
six seasons. New’s Carnegie Hall debut in 2013 included works by John Adams and Andrew
Norman.

‘I think Brahms would have liked Tabea Squire’s theme and variations,’ New told us
confidently. The work is a deconstructed set of variations on a sixteenth-century pavane,
‘Belle qui tiens ma vie’ – deconstructed, because the theme doesn’t fully appear until right at
the end (although it is sneakily previewed by the horns and there is a wisp of it audible in the
strings about halfway through). I expected this teasing treatment would soon become
frustrating; but Tabea Squire’s orchestration was clever and the ideas never flagged. The
theme finally made its proper appearance at the end, played by alto flute, piccolo, and cor
anglais with the tenor drum underneath – a nice twist on the recorders and drum she
originally scored it for.

Twenty years ago, when Hilary Hahn was starting to make her name on the concert stage,
Gemma New and Tabea Squire were first and second violinists in Wellington Youth
Sinfonietta. A remarkable journey so far, and much is yet to come.

The final work in the programme was John Adams’ monumental and troubling Doctor Atomic
Symphony (based on his newsreel opera of 2005, about the Manhattan Project and the first
atomic bomb test in New Mexico). The symphony condenses many of the musical ideas of
the opera into 25 minutes of inventive and emotionally shattering music. The symphony calls
for a large orchestra, with a huge batterie (xylophone, tubular bells, timpani, bowed drums,
thunder sheet, tam tam, celeste, tuned gongs…) and more tuba solos than you might
imagine (Andrew Jarvis, Scott Frankcombe). It is a monumental work, terrifying and deeply
troubling. At one point Dave Bremner (Principal Trombone) stands to bark orders
(channelling General Leslie Groves). The emotional heart of the piece is Robert
Oppenheimer’s aria from the opera, a setting of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, ‘Batter
my heart, three person’d God’, beautifully played by David Johnson (Guest Principal
Trumpet).

This was a stupendous concert. The NZSO has never played better than this. If you are
reading this review before the last concert of the three, on Sunday 7 August, do not hesitate.
If it’s too late for that, you can’t afford to miss Gemma New’s next outing with the NZSO. She
is an extraordinary talent, and her knack for exciting programming is so very welcome.

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