14 Aug 2017

Review: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

From Upbeat, 1:30 pm on 14 August 2017

Wellingtonians got the first taste of violinist Karen Gomyo this past weekend when she joined the NZSO for two performances. Friday night Mahler & Berg took centre stage, along with Salina Fisher’s Rainphase. Saturday it was all about Beethoven and Bruch, with a splash of John Adams – both performances conducted by Music Director Edo de Waart.  Elizabeth Kerr was at the Michael Fowler Centre both nights and reviews the concerts which will be replicated in Auckland later this week.

Edo de Waart

Edo de Waart Photo: NZSO/supplied

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kerr

These were two nicely curated and enjoyable concerts, both conducted by Edo de Waart with violinist Karen Gomyo, each with a short recent or contemporary work, a violin concerto and a symphony. The first programme was more adventurous, with a new work by young New Zealand composer, Salina Fisher, Alban Berg's lovely Violin Concerto, an important work not often heard and Mahler's First Symphony. The second began with John Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine, then Max Bruch's ever popular 1st Violin Concerto and Beethoven's 7th Symphony.

This is the third work by John Adams we've heard in his 70th birthday year. Short Ride is one of his most popular, an explosive work, inspired by a late-night beer-fuelled ride in his brother-in-law's Ferrari. NZSO and de Waart nailed the technical demands and captured the exhilaration and tension of the piece.

Salina Fisher's Rainphase is completely different : a work with a lovely surface, beautifully shaped, with skillful use of orchestral colours. Salina has led the National Youth Orchestra and understands the orchestra as an instrument. Her orchestration is very clever; we experience the sounds of rain in a gathering storm, from tuned percussion, harp, pizzicato strings and then a peaceful ending evoking wet Wellington streets after rain.

Both concerts featured Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo as soloist, first in Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. There's a sombre requiem aspect to this work, and a ghostly quality at times. Here Gomyo gave us beautifully contained playing with a great sense of line. Her sound is not big and occasionally Berg's use of low instruments - contrabassoon, bass drum, tuba - almost overwhelmed the violin line. She dealt effortlessly with the dramatic virtuosity the work demands and the technical difficulties of double and triple stops, left hand pizzicato and so on.

She seemed to have more "ownership" of the Bruch Violin Concerto in the second concert, playing this fine German romantic concerto with strength and a big romantic sound. She soared over the orchestra without difficulty, demonstrating what a very accomplished musician she is. I did feel a certain emotional coolness at times: for some reason this performance, while impressive, didn't quite send shivers up my spine.

In both programmes I was most impressed by Edo de Waart's work with the orchestra. The First Symphony of Mahler's is very wide-ranging, a symphony of melodies - great tunes, even birdsong, songs, dances and harmonically-infused counterpoint. De Waart had a complex and truly symphonic conception of the work in all its beauty, whimsy, humour, character and passion. His flexible tempi showed his great skill as a conductor and deep knowledge of the piece in all its changeability; it's a wonderful vehicle for the orchestra, and showed off outstanding playing from all the sections.

Beethoven's Symphony No 7 was equally stylish. De Waart conducted the first two movements without a baton, in an understated way; there are no histrionics, no big "look-at-me" gestures or displays of ego from the podium. Throughout, there's lots of flexibility and connection with the musicians: he breathes with the orchestra. This is a very experienced conductor who knows the repertoire intimately, what he wants and how to get it. He picked up the baton for movements three and four and showed us marvelous timing, real pace and sustained momentum to the end; the Finale went off like a packet of crackers.

Both programmes will be repeated in Auckland on 18th and 19th August.