July 12, 2021

New Zealand’s Stuff Entertainment praises Gemma New's NZSO Marathon Weekend

New hope dawns in NZSO marathon weekend
By Max Rashbrooke
July 12, 2021

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New with Mere Boynton (reo oro), Ariana Tikao (taonga pūoro and reo oro), and Michael Houston (piano). Music by Farr, Boynton, Tikao, Chopin, Stravinsky, McIndoe and Shostakovich. Visuals by Nocturnal. Michael Fowler Centre, July 9-11. Reviewed by Max Rashbrooke.

It was like a quiz question: what connects Matariki, The Rite of Spring, and Leningrad, the weekend’s three New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) concerts? The answer: new life.

The first concert, on Friday night, saw the premiere of Ngā Hihi o Matariki, a collaborative piece by Gareth Farr, Ariana Tikao and Mere Boynton. Hosted by Te Atiawa Taranaki Whānui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika, it celebrated the rising of Matariki through a combination of Farr’s orchestral music, Tikao and Boynton’s amplified vocalisations, and Tikao’s taonga pūoro playing.

A collaboration unlike anything seen before on the NZSO stage, the piece explored themes of seasonal alternation, sources of wisdom and fresh dawns, its seven movements arranged around the stars of the Matariki cluster. The idea of renewal, the way that spring is nurtured even in the depths of winter, was ever-present.

Processing on diagonal paths through the orchestra, Tikao and Boynton literally and figuratively took centre stage, never more so than in their powerful duet in the third movement, Tupu-ā-nuku/Tupu-ā-rangi. If at times the orchestral music lacked the impact and coherence of Farr’s best work, it was nonetheless a striking collaboration.

The programme described Matariki as “a time to dream for the future”, and the work’s combination of Māori and Pākehā musical traditions seemed an embodiment of how the coming decades might be. A standing ovation from the majority of those present suggested they hoped as much.

The natural world was once more the focus the following night, as conductor Gemma New led the orchestra in a stirring rendition of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Right from the famous bassoon solo that opens the work, slower and more fluid than in most renditions, this was a masterful performance.

The work’s bizarre, unsettling story of a sacrifice to the God of Spring was alternately wild, intoxicating and sad. The viola section in particular played beautifully. Throughout, New’s conducting was somehow both flexible and sharp-edged, every moment precisely delineated. Projected on a large screen behind the orchestra, the accompanying images by New Zealand firm Nocturnal were occasionally effective, but did not profoundly alter the experience of a work already so astoundingly visual.

The Rite of Spring was originally premiered alongside Les Sylphides, a ballet with an accompaniment by Chopin. So, in a clever piece of programming, Saturday night’s concert opened with Michael Houston playing the ballet’s eight waltzes, polonaises and mazurkas.

Eschewing ‘’Chopinesque’’ sentimentality, this playing was vintage Houston, treating the music a bit like Beethoven and bringing out its muscularity and seriousness. He even dealt well with an audience too dense to realise he didn’t want them to clap in between movements, launching new pieces right over the top of the applause for the old ones with just the hint of a smile on his face.

In the last of the weekend’s concerts, it was the turn of the National Youth Orchestra (NYO), their ranks augmented by a smattering of not-so-youthful figures.

The opening work, Ephemeral Bounds by NYO Composer in Residence Ihiara McIndoe, began in darkness with some of the players scattered among the audience. Inspired by Antarctica, it evoked the continent’s creaking ice shelves, distant sounds and vast spaces. It would have benefited from developing a smaller number of musical ideas, but still had moments of attention-commanding stillness and undeniable beauty.

Closing out the weekend was Shostakovich’s mammoth Leningrad Symphony. The NYO displayed an impressively mature sound, and New’s conducting was again magnificent, her dynamic and rhythmic control immaculate and even the warmest, most indulgent moments shaped with absolute clarity.

In a weekend devoted to new beginnings, it was fitting that the country’s musical future seemed so bright.

To read the complete review, click here.