A programme grandly titled Transfiguration promised much from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Te Tira Pūoro O Aotearoa Podium Series in the Auckland Town Hall last Saturday night. Conductor Asher Fisch was making his debut with the orchestra and the internationally renowned pianist Louis Lortie was back in NZ after a gap of 25 years. Not only that but three mighty pieces from the Romantic repertoire in one power-packed evening. Not your average fluffy night out, this was a Saturday night of great substance.
We were swept off our feet with Lortie’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2. He plunged into the huge opening chords with the first movement, found sheer ripples of sound in the second movement. A great depth of sound from majesty to lyricism. A luscious opening to the night with the audience loving that Lortie was enjoying himself enormously on stage.
In an unusual quirk, conductor Fisch joined the encore. Both performed Schubert’s Marche Militaire on the piano superbly.
Good to see a wide range of age groups in the Town Hall and a pretty full house. It seems that this programme and perhaps a good habit of student offers (?) have created a wide age demographic at least at this particular concert.
After the interval, we had perhaps the most challenging part of the programme. In a tone poem written for large orchestral forces, Richard Strauss composed this work titled Tod und Verklärung or Death and Transfiguration at the age of 25. Although obviously not autobiographical, it describes an artist at the end of his life.
Fisch and the NZSO described the hovering near death in the first largo movement with due gravitas and there were some beautiful solo moments in woodwind. Although a little more bite would have been more intense from the upper string section, there were some great colours from the lower strings.
In the drama of the agitato section, there was some great ‘noise’ from brass and timpani even if there could have been more power overall. But Fisch roused vibrancy from the orchestra for a great tutti ending. And in true Straussian fashion, the clouds cleared and the piece ascended into the sought-after transfiguration.
Somewhat odd to end a programme with an overture but what a great piece anywhere in the evening. Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser is a sublime 14 minutes of orchestral brilliance. The themes of sensuality and salvation play out with the ‘voices’ of the hero and his love and a foretelling of the story.
A real triumph for NZSO to have Fisch conduct this big German Romantic repertoire, his pedigree is in both operatic and symphonic worlds and the depth of his experience in Wagner played out on the Auckland Town Hall stage. Even though the stillness at the start of the piece was a little elusive, there was some brilliant and energetic playing from strings and ensemble with some excellent voices from the horn section and woodwinds.
In the final flourishes of this Overture, Asher Fisch whipped the band into greater energy through the scurrying of chromatic strings against the stately brass ‘pilgrim’ theme. The evening was crowned with this glorious work and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra achieved excitement and nobility bringing this evening to its climax.