NZSO: Classical Hits

A concert of “classical hits” has the potential to be pretty average, and I admit that when I heard the title of NZSO’s most recent Dunedin concert, I was expecting an evening full of cliché extracts, the sort of stuff that’s on a “Best of Classical Music” CD that no classical musician would ever actually choose to listen to. However, the programme was pleasingly diverse, offering a range works which served well as an insight to the classical music world, and also resulted in an enjoyable programme for regular concert-goers.

Image thanks to New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Opening with Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, the “Unfinished”, the audience was treated to an exquisite insight into the classical period. Opening with soft strings followed by the introduction of the first theme in the oboe and clarinet, the small but enthusiastic audience were held captivated throughout the movement. The second movement, although perhaps taken a little slow, displayed great contrast between the long lyrical lines, and pulsing motifs, with the intricate counterpoint displayed to great effect.

The Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33 showcased the talents of Principal Cellist Andrew Joyce, who gave a lively and virtuosic performance, displaying his skill as a soloist. While some of the transitions showed signs that the orchestra was on the second to last stop of an eleven-concert tour, the ensemble offered great support for Joyce, and left the audience in enthusiastic applause going into the intermission.

Soloist Andrew Joyce and Conductor Hamish McKeich. Image thanks to New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Whitehead’s Turanga-nui opened the second half of the concert, displaying what fine talent New Zealand composition has to offer. This work, which was premiered at the start of the tour, is part abstract and part programmatic, and is based around Cook’s arrival to New Zealand and the reaction of iwi to the new arrivals. Whitehead’s use of orchestral colors, as well as Taonga puoro in the percussion section effectively evoked images of the story in the composer’s mind, while leaving a degree of freedom in the listener’s imagination. While the NZSO, in my opinion, could do with featuring more works by female and New Zealand composers, to have Whitehead’s work in this “Classical Hits” concert was fitting – she really is one of the greats. The audience reaction, particularly that of the young people in the room, shows that works like Turanga-nui have a strong place in the classical music repertoire, and ought to make up a larger portion of programmes.

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is a stunning work portraying the mythical story of a faun, and features spectacular orchestration, with ambiguous rhythmic chromaticism and exquisite flute lines, performed beautifully by Principal Flautist Bridget Douglas. This vivid, colorful work showed the orchestra perhaps at it’s best throughout the concert, as the ensemble seemed to receive an extra boost of energy for this whimsical work.

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, a popular work portraying the well-known tragedy. The orchestra performed this tragic symphonic poem with intensity, guided by conductor Hamish McKeich, finishing the concert as he said “on a bit of a negative note” but never-the-less, with great skill, drama, and passion.

A fantastic programme, and a huge tour for the orchestra, which seemed to be a success in the opinion of everyone attending!

Review by Ihlara McIndoe