November 20, 2022

Praise for Gemma New with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Exceptional Requiem combines good taste and passionate intensity
By Max Rashbrooke

Mozart’s Requiem, like all pieces based on the Latin mass for the dead, is an invitation to listeners to contemplate both their own mortality and whatever sins might be weighed up on a notional day of judgment – which, in the case of this reviewer, would include a major logistical error that meant they caught only the second half of this concert. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra staff have taken advantage of this fact to assure me, in a no doubt unbiased manner, that the first half – consisting of John Psathas’s Seikilos and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration – was “superb”.

The Requiem itself certainly deserved this epithet. A near-capacity audience was treated to one of the season’s best concerts, as the always-excellent Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir combined to brilliant effect with the orchestral players.

The evening’s only minor blemish was that the soloists – soprano Anna Leese, alto Rhonda Browne, tenor Amitai Pati and baritone Robert Tucker – were ill-matched. Tucker, so searingly good in Festival performances like Eight Songs for a Mad King, seemed underpowered here, and his conventional timbre sat oddly against Pati’s perhaps overly operatic stylings. Browne, meanwhile, sang beautifully and intelligently, but was almost overpowered by Leese’s brilliant and crystal-pure vocals.

That aside, this was an exceptional performance that combined good taste and passionate intensity to a remarkable degree. The famous Lachrimosa encapsulated the performance’s strengths, the singing in particular possessing everything that could have been desired: well-shaped lines, a perfect swell and fall in the dynamics, crisp articulation and thrilling fortissimo passages.

Under Gemma New’s astute conducting, and the influence of Voices New Zealand director Karen Grylls, both the orchestral playing and the singing were beautifully balanced and perfectly lucid, the main motifs sharply articulated and the tempo flowing without ever being loose.

What stood out most, though, was the performers’ sensitivity and musicality. In movements like the Rex Tremendae, rapid changes in tone and dynamic were brilliantly handled, every fine shading of emotion and sentiment perfectly captured. The players, too, displayed a beautiful range of textures, from the pastoral feel of the Hostias’s opening passages to the almost honeyed tones of the Benedictus.

The final Communio, with Leese to the fore, was excellent, but it was perhaps fitting that the high point had come one movement earlier in the Agnus Dei, where the sensitivity and variation in the singing were simply exquisite. Next month’s “Messiah”, a staple of the orchestral and choral calendar, has a hard act to follow.

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