First in the world with a normal public concert : NZSO’s record, celebrating the emergence from Covid 19 lock-down

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Eliza Boom – soprano; Simon O’Neill – tenor; Maisey Rika – ‘vocalist’; Horomona Horo – taonga pūoro
Singers from Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir and schools in the Wellington region

Gareth Farr: From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs: I. ‘The Invocation of the Sea’
Bizet: Carmen Suite No. 1: VI. ‘Les Toréadors’; Duet of Don José and Micaëla: “Parle-moi de ma mère”; Suite No 2: VI. ‘Danse bohème’
John Psathas: Tarantismo
Maisey Rika: Tangaroa Whakamautai and Taku Mana
Puccini: La bohème: duet – “Mi chiamano Mimi”, tenor aria – “O soave fanciulla”
Verdi: Otello: tenor aria: “Niun mi tema”
Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59
Tomoana: Pōkarekare Ana

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 26 June, 6:30 pm

The orchestra announced that this was the first post-pandemic concert by a professional symphony orchestra anywhere in the World in front of a full audience: the extraordinary achievement of intelligent and clear-sighted management of our response by government and people.

The programme’s content and balance was carefully thought out, with a couple of pieces by established New Zealand composers, opera arias, Māori songs and one extended orchestral work. And there was a particularly rapturous feeling in the large crowd which was obviously thrilled to be in the Michael Fowler Centre once more. It was a fine occasion for the orchestra to show its confidence in conductor Hamish McKeich. It enjoyed a sold-out house.

After some appropriate Māori ritual from the taonga pūoro player Horomono Horo, the concert proper began imaginatively with Gareth Farr’s From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs. The oceanic tone-poem has become genuinely popular both on account of its musical material and through the composer’s flamboyant use of large numbers of tuned and untuned percussion. John Psathas’s Tarantismo, which ended the first half, was less remarkable and rather less familiar, but it offered the orchestra interesting emotional and technical challenges. Both works got performances that were thoroughly accomplished, spectacular and vivid.

There were three impressive singers: Tenor Simon O’Neill is a well-known international opera singer and soprano Eliza Boom; her name was unknown to me but she revealed a most attractive and polished voice. I looked in the usual places for some biographical details. Interesting: she has just gained a place with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.  See .

A third voice was heard in the second half: Māori singer Maisey Rika; her contribution was a remarkably synthesis of Māori and European musical traditions.

Opera excerpts
In the first half O’Neill and Boom sang the Act I duet by Don José and Micaëla “Parle-moi de ma mère” from Carmen: initially the two voices failed to coalesce perfectly but by the time the big tune arrived, they were well matched, credible and impressive.

In the second half Eliza sang “Mi chiamano Mimi” from La bohème, her voice easily penetrating the occasional heavier orchestration; and the two then joined for the duet that follows, “O soave fanciulla”, as Mimi and Rodolfo suddenly get to know each other… . O’Neill then departed from familiar repertoire to deliver Otello’s “Niun mi tema”, his anguished outpouring after killing Desdemona, not a commonly sung stand-alone aria. It was a striking departure from the otherwise celebratory spirit of the concert to touch on jealousy and tragedy, possibly a subtle reference to the dangers of political or race-driven hatred. (Not that either Carmen or Bohème are particularly filled with joy or comedy).

Before and after the Carmen arias the orchestra played striking excerpts from the suites based on the opera. They were a delight, exhibiting the composer’s many-facetted genius; it’s rare to hear them played live, by an excellent symphony orchestra.

Maisey Rika and co
The second half was introduced by a talented, charming young Māori soprano, Maisey Rika (she was described, in pop music terminology, merely as ‘vocalist’). She was accompanied by Horomona Horo performing on taonga pūoro, uttering subtle sounds – perhaps a koauau , which suggest the deep tones of a mellow, low flute. He accompanied his singing with gestures typical in the performance of waiata. In addition, electronic sounds emerged, managed by Jeremy Mayall, with visuals projected on a screen. Maisey Rika, wearing a flowing, ruby-coloured, loose gown, a near match to the reddish robe worn by Eliza Boom, sang two items, named in the heading, above. Both were engaging, interesting and sophisticated; in a certain way, rather haunting. Her voice is warm and flexible, extensive in its range and colourings.

The blending of taonga pūoro and conventional orchestral instruments was variably successful: sometimes intriguing, sometimes a bit over-orchestrated: that was particularly the case with the second song, Taku Mana. Nevertheless, it was a striking demonstration of how to succeed, quite movingly, in grafting Māori music on to European symphonic language.

And Maisey spoke briefly, dedicating her songs “to those who had kept us safe”.

The item I’d most looked forward to (of course) was the Rosenkavalier Suite.  As well as it was played, exploiting the large orchestra that was available, the early passages somewhat unpersuasive, not particularly evocative of the marvellous delights that are to be found in the opera. But from the arrival of the waltz music one was carried away.

The concert ended with Pokarekare Ana, from members of Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir and singers from Wellington schools, the three solo voices and taonga pūoro, accompanied by electronics. The audience was invited to join – the words were conveniently at hand in the free programme. These kinds of gestures can sometimes seem out of place; but this fitted perfectly, a blending of Māori music and poetry, with sophisticated European music.

This was also the occasion to mark the departure of former Chief Executive Chris Blake and the confirmation of his successor, Peter Biggs. And it was a strong endorsement of the role of Hamish McKeich as Principal Conductor (in residence). His control and inspiration were both visible and audible.

At the end, the audience went wild: everyone on their feet, shouting and whistling like I’ve never heard before.

The orchestra has survived in excellent health, and we can look forward to an even more exciting musical year; bearing in mind however, the risks that still lurk beyond our borders; and especially, the importance of not offending the gods by proclaiming success, by exaggerating human missteps or demanding normality prematurely.