The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Bertrand de Billy filled the Auckland Town Hall with glorious French colour last night. It was De Billy's debut with the APO but it felt like they were warm friends already, a gorgeous rapport flourished between baton and band.
With a stroke of genius, the evening opened with an impromptu solo flute piece by Claude Debussy, Syrinx. Melanie Lançon's flute with a 22-carat gold headjoint threw beams of sunlight into our rushed and rain-filled Auckland evening, airlifting us into a summer glade in the south of France. A beautiful homage to Debussy as it happens on the date of his birth, 22 August 1862.
Wind and string sections painted soft billows of sound under de Billy’s direction...
Only then did the conductor enter the stage to begin one of my desert island disc pieces of music, Debussy's Préludes a L’Après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun). I had high hopes and held my breath in preparation. The orchestral Prélude wove it’s way into the Hall wrapping us in its sensual reverie.
Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem was brought into languid life as another lovely flute solo invited the faun with his pan pipes to play in the forest. Wind and string sections painted soft billows of sound under de Billy’s direction. Maybe some of the exultant breath-taking spaces weren’t quite ready to take form this early in the programme. Perhaps I was looking for the ‘dragonfly hanging like a blue thread loosened from the sky’ to quote a line from Vaughan Williams’ song Silent Noon, based on a poem of similar reverential lustre.
In seven continuous movements with a spectacular solo from Benjamin Sheen on the organ, what a scorching blaze of volume and chord to bring us into full alert of an evening...
The glorious surprise for me actually was the performance of Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor next. In seven continuous movements with a spectacular solo from Benjamin Sheen on the organ, what a scorching blaze of volume and chord to bring us into full alert of an evening. I must confess to being an organ concerto novice (I will resist using the term ‘virgin’ in the context), so this was an incredible ear-opener for me. And I gather it’s been 14 years since this work was performed in Auckland.
Poulenc’s weird and wonderful tonality inversions are never conventional but neither alienating in their modernity. Under conductor de Billy the Andante opening and subsequent Allegro giocoso had a seamless meld of interplay between organ tone and orchestral colour. Strings took up the odd organ chords with eerie snaking sounds, opening out into playful phrases as only Poulenc can write. Steven Logan’s timpani created a great range of exclamations giving great pace to the piece. Originality in every moment right to it’s concluding sections there were also lovingly delivered snippets of solo from Robert Ashworth on viola, and Ashley Brown of NZTrio fame on cello. The ‘Très calme’ section and final two movements held the most ravishing beauty of the evening from an orchestra Auckland should be proud to call it’s own.
Soloist Benjamin Sheen was called back on stage for an encore of a divinely rendered Gigue from J S Bach’s Fugue in G major BWV 577. A great opportunity to hear the Auckland Town Hall’s spectacular organ, deemed one of the greatest of its kind in the world. Fun facts - the organ has built-in passageways at three levels connected by a solid oak staircase, five keyboards including one played with the feet and 5291 pipes driven by enough air pressure to launch an elephant 200 metres! This unique organ also includes two pipes based on the sounds of two traditional Māori instruments: the kōauau (flute) and the pūkāea (horn). There are free organ recitals on Sunday afternoons in the Hall.
Beautiful moments of cor anglais and french horn, triumphant timpani, the blaze of brass and the ever-responsive string section of the orchestra brought us to an exciting symphonic touchdown.
But without digressing further, the icing on the rather gorgeous gateau last night was César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, arguably France’s greatest contribution to world-class symphonic form. Here conductor Bertrand de Billy and the orchestra expanded into masterly Romantic exuberance. Great flourishes were gloriously unleashed with huge aplomb and command of form. De Billy was an orchestral player originally and had a fantastic relationship on the stage in a kind of joyous dance with the Philharmonia. Beautiful moments of cor anglais and french horn, triumphant timpani, the blaze of brass and the ever-responsive string section of the orchestra brought us to an exciting symphonic touchdown.