SO's Sizzling Seventieth!

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Wed, 2017-03-08 00:12

It was party-time at the Michael Fowler Centre on March 6, 2017, as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 70th birthday. For someone like me, almost as old as the orchestra, it was a night of nostalgia and poignance, replete with posthumous salutations to legends such as Vincent Aspey, Alex Lindsay, John Hopkins, Juan Matteucci, Oswald Cheesman and other giants of the Orchestra's formative years. Conductor Hamish McKeich stepped into their shoes with assurance and verve, directing without a baton and with infectious spirit.

The celebration began with Dvorak's Carnival Overture, a bit of a non-event but jolly enough. Then, living legend Michael Houston appeared to perform some Cacofiev, which was an unfortunate waste of a superb pianist. Things got back on track with Elgar's Chanson de Nuit. Gareth Farr then received the obligatory tilt to a New Zealand composer, after which the occasion when Igor Stravinsky visited here to conduct his own Firebird Suite was recalled with an anecdote one hopes is not apocryphal: at one point in rehearsal of the same piece several years later, a subsequent visiting conductor stopped and asked why the Orchestra were playing this passage that particular way? From the depths of the double-bass section is claimed to have come the response: "Because some baldy old guy called Igor told us to."

The second half opened with the overture to Verdi's Force of Destiny, a timely reminder that music is mainly about melody. A lush performance of the Intermezzo from Sibelius' Karelia Suite reinforced the message. The players then really let their hair down in Ron Goodwin's irresistible 633 Squadron theme, introduced with great panache by Principal Timpanist Laurence Reese. Finally, the crowning success of the night, the thing that ensured the party was not a fizzer: an electric performance of the Suite from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. This piece—sufficiently startling and discordant at times to satisfy the pomowankers yet sufficiently melodious overall (in the manner of the other Strauss) to satisfy curmudgeons like me who unrepentantly hark back to the Classical/Romantic era—ended in wave after wave of delicious bombast that rendered the ensuing prolonged standing ovation as inevitable as it was deserved.

The Orchestra capped its triumph with a rousing encore, Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 (always great to finish with a tune from the Classical/Romantic era!).

Congratulations to the NZSO on its 70th—here's to 770!

PS—The Orchestra's programme this year includes the long-awaited return of pianist Freddy Kempf in September. Bravo!