It was joyous in the Auckland Town Hall last night as conductor Hamish McKeich led the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and guest performer helden-tenor Simon O’Neill in a programme of Berlioz, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev. Unique circumstances in the world mean that O’Neill is in NZ and able to perform for our pleasure. And most likely the NZSO have had to hurriedly re-assemble programmes as COVID restrictions mean artists and conductors cannot travel to NZ. Last night’s ‘Spirit’ was an absolutely inspired line-up of music for an Auckland audience hungry for live orchestral performance.
For an NZSO Chief Executive new to the role in 2020, Peter Biggs has had quite a year to step in, leading an orchestra in a challenging time of change. It is to the Orchestra’s credit that they have been able to adapt and are touring again. And that they are presenting impressive programmes with our deeply talented local artists.
Principal Conductor in Residence Hamish McKeich began the evening with Berlioz’ ebullient Le Corsaire Overture. Quite likely that McKeich stepped into other conductor’s shoes last night, but we wouldn’t have wanted anyone else with this Berlioz. It was joyous, sparkling and probably the best opening a hungry audience could hope for. McKeich had the orchestra absolutely at the tips of his fingers and the blazing tutti finish brought forth a roar of appreciation from the audience - yes! live music!
Gustav Mahler’s bittersweet Lieder eine fahrenden gesellen was written in the wake of an unhappy love affair. It has complex ups and downs, intricate nuance and outbursts of colour - a true Romantic masterpiece and on many a singer’s wish-list to perform. Simon O’Neill took us on an incredible journey in the song-cycle. He is in complete mastery of his voice and his expressive powers are electric.
However here McKeich and the orchestra did not truly keep pace with O’Neill. Mood changes in this song cycle are mercurial but at times this was sluggish and without enough orchestral energy. Could be due to the unexpected turn-up of this piece in NZSO programming. However, O’Neill is a consummate artist and sailed over the rather slow tempo of the first Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht with superb assuredness.
In the second Ging heut Morgen über’s Feld, again there could have been more orchestral wind under the tenor’s sails. And even if I prefer a mezzo soprano to sing these songs, O’Neill was so generously expressive, it was art song performance of the highest order. And what a fabulous heft in his long phrases and ring to his top notes in Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer. Despite a little dragging of feet in the orchestra at the start in the final song Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz, both tenor and orchestra found a gravitas for a profound finish.
Composed in the same year as these lieder was the next song, Richard Strauss’ Allerseelen. A slightly less than pliable beat didn’t hold back some beautiful expression from O’Neill. And what a stunning Ruhe meine Seele next, could have been composed with this tenor in mind, O’Neill brought a depth of understanding and perfect German to these long phrases. And with Strauss’ love song Cäcilie and with the euphoric top C, well, his job was done really. Stunning.
Also a highlight of the evening was Morgen next with the sweetest solo from orchestral leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen. And with Zueignung to finish, both orchestra and tenor united in triumphant accord.
And that was just the first half.
In a fitting joyous second half of the evening, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 was, as the composer described it, “on the greatness of the human soul”. Conductor McKeich (without baton) with his bare expressive hands drew real energy and shaping from the orchestra. There was some beautiful lyricism in this opening movement - the cantabile octaves between flute and bassoon and a warm sweep from the strings. McKeich moved the orchestra along with convincing energy allowing the mighty machinery of this astonishing Russian piece to roar into life.
It was a huge treat to hear this symphony - the Wild-West-ride of the second movement which the orchestra seemed to enjoy as much as the audience. The almost eerie third movement had some jagged moments with a little loss of drive but an opportunity to hear soaring string themes. And wow what a fourth movement, magnificent sounds from the whole orchestra. After a gorgeous giocoso theme from clarinet and beautiful voicing from the sections, conductor McKeich set the orchestra off on their scurrilous dash once more into the finale. Percussion dazzled and the brass section delivered scorching gold to the back of the Town Hall.
It was a hugely exhilarating (and devilishly hard) finish to the Prokofiev brought off with flourish from conductor and orchestra. A huge and rewarding return to live music from our beloved NZSO and a star tenor of international stature. Welcome back!
NZSO 2020 Season click HERE