Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

The band is back – NZSO with Hilary Hahn and Gemma New

By , 04/08/2022

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

JOHN RIMMER – Lahar
SERGE PROKOFIEV – Violin Concerto No. 1
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 4th August 2022

The band is back. This was the first concert by the NZSO for some time, apart from their outing to open the St James Theatre a couple of weeks ago. And what a splendid concert this was! The orchestra was at its best. I have never heard them play better. They appear to have a special rapport with Gemma  New, the newly appointed Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Like many of the members of the orchestra, she came through the ranks of the Youth Orchestra system, and played in the Wellington and New Zealand Youth Orchestras as a violinist, but then went to America to learn the art of conducting. She has served as Resident Conductor of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, and is Resident Conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. To say that this young woman, still only in her mid thirties is vastly talented is an understatement. As a conductor, her style is energetic, athletic and dramatic. She seemed to draw music out of the very essence of the players in the orchestra with her meticulous attention to details, to phrasing, to dynamics, yet giving the solo instrumentalists space to play their lines freely.

John Rimmer : Lahar

The concert opened, very appropriately, with Lahar, a short piece by one of New Zealand’s senior composers, John Rimmer. It is the arrangement and development of the last movement of Rimmer’s major work: The Ring of Fire. Quoting the programme notes: It is intimately connected to the sound of nature. Rimmer is an electronic composer. Electronically virtually any sound can be reproduced and the instruments of the orchestra emulate that in this piece that captures the environmental sounds. You get the earth rumbling on the tympani, birds chirping on the flute and piccolo, powerful brass chords, falling woodwind passages, depicting a volcanic eruption and the silent peaceful aftermath. Rimmer explained in his introduction before the performance that the piece is hot, very hot. You hear explosions, the noise of the forest. Amidst the cacophony a melody emerges played on the piccolo and the cello solo, which is transformed into a lament. For the listener there was a whole world of musical experience within this seven minute orchestral work.

Serge Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev was an up and coming young composer in Paris, already making a name for himself when he composed this concerto. After the shock of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, discordant music became widely accepted and even became mainstream. Prokofiev evolved his own harmonic language, taut harmonies and driving rhythm,  combined with lyricism. The First Violin Concerto opens with a scarcely audible melody  played by the solo violin on top of the orchestral accompaniment. This develops into an energetic dance and the movement ends with an ethereal flute solo. The second movement, a virtuoso scherzo, is driven, and energetic. Prokofiev later reused some of this material in the duel scene in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. The final movement is dominated by a lush violin solo interposed with strong rhythmic drive. Hilary Hahn’s playing seemed effortless, spontaneous, straight from the heart, with a beautiful tone and great control. Soloist and conductor, two prodigiously talented young women, were of one mind with total mutual understanding.

For an encore Hilary Hahn played a scintillating rendering of the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin.

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 

This symphony has a tragic history. After Stalin went to see the composer’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and walked out before the end Shostakovitch felt doomed. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony, which was ready for performance, and wrote a grand 44 minute work, which, according to the Pravda article attributed to him, was ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to justified criticism’. The symphony was an immediate success, both in the Soviet Union and in the rest of the world. It certainly has powerful themes, pulsating patriotic rhythms, folk music elements. It is immediately moving and captivating, but perhaps, in this peaceful remote corner of the world, far from the threats of Stalin’s Russia in 1937, it seems a little drawn out, the themes over elaborated. The shadows of a terrified composer lurks behind the triumphal tone of the work. One can read all sorts of things into the first movement, Allegro moderato, full of dread, or into the lyrical second movement, ‘a malevolent march’. The third movement, Largo, mournful, made the audience at the first performance openly weep. It is indeed, music full of grief. The triumphal march returns in the final movement, but it resolves into a haunting funeral march. Does the symphony end on a hopeful note or a note a desperation ? It depends on your interpretation not only of the music, but also of the tragic world of Stalin’s Russia. In either case, it is very moving and all-absorbing music. One will never hear a better performance of this work than this one under the baton of Gemma New. It was all minutely crafted, carefully thought out, every phrase, every dynamic change and contrast was sensitively molded.

This was a splendid concert and the very large audience, a virtually full Michael Fowler Centre, responded with a huge ovation. I am looking forward to a new era of exciting music with Gemma New at the helm of the orchestra. My one gripe is that the excitement of this wonderful concert should have been shared by people all over the country. It should have been videoed and shown live, available to all, no matter where they live, be it Reefton or Ruatoria, and perhaps available anywhere in the world to show that Aotearoa is not just a country of milk powder and the All Blacks – that it is not an international cultural backwater, but an exciting place with its own cultural landscape. It was appropriate that the concert opened with Rimmer’s Lahar, depicting just that.

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