NZSO: An Evening with Simon O’Neill

It is always an absolute privilege to be able to go to a New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert. I have been attending them for as long as I can remember and have seen them perform repertoire from the early Baroque to the Contemporary always to an amazingly high standard. The variety or their programming always makes their seasons exciting and this year is no different. So I was excited on Thursday to go along to their most recent concert, “An Evening with Simon O’Neill” conducted by Lawrence Renes and featuring New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill, to hear works by two composers not heard as frequently in Dunedin as they perhaps are elsewhere.

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The first half of the concert consisted of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder sung by the headline act of the concert Simon O’Neill. A strong and confident presence on stage O’Neill expertly delivered the five contrasting songs portraying all the emotional twists and turns of Matilda Wesendonck’s poems. The orchestrations by conductor Felix Mottl make the most of the word painting in Wagner’s and the NZSO conducted by Lawrence Renes made the most of every colouring from the rolling and reflective muted strings in the opening of Der Engel to the slowly fading, plaintive textures at the end of the final song, Traume. The arrangements are in general more reflective and less intense than Wagner’s operatic orchestration, however, there are moments of more traditional Wagnerian outpouring, especially in the fourth song, Schmerzen, which O’Neill delivered to great effect. For me, the highlights were the central, lamentful Im Treibhaus with its colourful bass line played by the lower strings and bassoon, and the final Traume with delicate moments of quiet tension, depicting dreams. Overall, while a couple of woodwind chords took slightly longer than usual to settle and at times the orchestra and soloist seemed to be operating on subtly different wavelengths, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and convincing performance. My only concern was that as the concert was billed as “An Evening with Simon O’Neill” the short running time (20 minutes) of the Wesendonck Lieder would perhaps have been disappointing to any in the audience who came primarily for the evening with the tenor and who instead got a fleeting if memorable encounter.

Following what was an unusually early interval we were treated to Anton Bruckner’s monumental Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. The NZSO and Renes shone in this demanding work highlighting the waves of sound that organically build from hushed strings to emphatic full orchestra tuttis in short spaces of time. The tremolo strings emerging from silence at the opening laid the perfect foundation for principal horn Samuel Jacobs solo delivered with the utmost sensitivity and introducing the main theme of the movement in style. Bruckner’s slow evolving harmonies reminiscent of his career in the organ loft were highlighted well by Renes and the NZSO providing the perfect base for melodies to evolve and develop as they are passed between the brass, woodwind and strings.

The second movement is most notable for the lyrical cello and viola solo lines and these were wonderfully rich with the large string section of the NZSO. Renes tempo in this movement was well considered, giving the movement both the gravitas it needed as well as maintaining movement throughout. The Scherzo of the third movement again showed Bruckner’s fondness for waves of sound created through changes in volume and again the NZSO, barring some ensemble issues when the main hunting call is passed around, excelled bringing out all the dynamic and timbral shading. The central trio provided a brief moment of calm before the Scherzo reprise brought the movement to a triumphant end.

The opening of the final movement is elusive, circling round and hinting at themes presented both earlier in the movement as well as in earlier movements without frequently quoting them directly. Moving between a wealth of material in a similar vein to the first movement, Renes ensured the music maintained direction particularly through the emotive cello solo passages. This continued until the ending, where, after once again building from extreme quiet to an emphatic climax, the NZSO brass took centre stage closing the work and ending a thrilling concert!



Nathaniel Otley is a third year Music Student at the University of Otago studying Performance Violin and Composition. He is a member of the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra and the current concertmaster of the Dunedin Youth Orchestra.