SupaDupa Band!

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Tue, 2017-03-28 05:52

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra had a lot of competition in Wellington last Saturday—the CubaDupa 2017 weekend was on, meaning most of Cuba St was cordoned off to vehicular traffic so that sundry performers, musical and otherwise, could strut their stuff. The pedestrian traffic was overwhelming.

Restaurants had set up stalls outside their premises, and the heavenly fragrance of animal flesh being barbecued for human edification was such that my week-long experiment with a vegan version of my usual ketogenic diet came to an immediate end. The hand-made sausages at Ombra saw to that comprehensively. The pork belly salad at Plum and paua patties outside Logan Brown further contributed to my glorious undoing. The festive atmosphere made it impossible to continue on so joyless a path, so continue I did not.

My concert companion suggested we take in some of the carnival on Saturday afternoon. Fearing the worst, I inserted earplugs, my usual trusty defence against ubiquitous headbanging and the quacking performed by contemporary females in lieu of speech.

On encountering our first group of musicians, however, I was astonished not only to be able to remove the earplugs but actively to enjoy the performance. Bazurka describes itself as "a collective of Wellington musicians, coming together to present their modern take on Balkan gypsy and folk music. Intricate and exotic melodies, driving rhythms and tear-jerking ballads are all on the menu as this seven-piece powerhouse present some of the best music to come out of Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria and more." The "intricate and exotic melodies" we lingered for were mostly familiar to me (and not Balkan), sinfully sentimental, and soulfully rendered by vocalist Briar Prastiti. The "driving rhythms" were reinforced by some formidable tongue-gymnastics by trumpeter Michael Costeloe. All seven musicians were exemplary in their professionalism and enthusiasm.

It was a delight to be thus reminded that the words "band" and "gig" are not necessarily synonymous with caterwauling, malice, menace and Anti-Tune. (It was also a delight to run into a leading light in music academia and be assured that the reign of the champions of Anti-Tune is nearly over.)

And so to the NZSO at the Michael Fowler Centre in the evening.

Notwithstanding all the competition, the venue was almost full. The programme was given over to Nature, opening with Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, continuing with Elgar's Sea Pictures and concluding with Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony.

The Orchestra were on their game right from the start, offering a deft and vigorous rendering of the Mendelssohn, making the prospect of hearing a movement from one of the composer's under-performed piano concertos played by Freddy Kempf later in the year all the more mouth-watering.

The musicians continued to glow in the Elgar, if anything being slightly let down by their star soloist, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. The Diva's credentials were not in question, nor her sumptuous voice; she seemed, however, under-rehearsed and under-committed, glued to her score and singing to it, her words mostly inaudible in the orchestra's impressive shimmer. A less qualified and less experienced aspirant from the School of Music would probably have given a more convincing account at far less expense! This is not meant to denigrate DeYoung's talent and accomplishments; it's just to observe that this Elgar will probably not go down in history as one of her more stellar outings.

The Alpine Symphony is not really a symphony at all, but an elongated tone poem, the last in a series by Richard Strauss that often focused on prosaic minutiae and sounded as though that's what they were doing. Alpine is a bit more ambitious in its theme; in fact, Strauss originally titled it The Anti-Christ in honour of Friedrich Nietzsche's devastating critique of Christianity as soft, flabby, weak and degenerate—the symphony was supposed to represent a journey of purification, a triumph of muscularity and proud individualism over Christianity's sickly humility-worship. In the end, though, Strauss abandoned all that and the "symphony" became exactly, literally what it says it is: the depiction of a day's climbing in the Bavarian mountains—setting out at sunrise, getting lost, encountering danger, getting back on track, making it to the top, getting caught in a storm on the way back, and finally making it safely home. The titles of the twenty-two continuous movements tell us exactly what is going on at any given moment.

Never one to skimp on spectacle, Strauss scored the work for 120 players (the NZSO sported 105 for the occasion) and included an array of instruments not usually heard or seen, an organ, and even wind and thunder machines for the storm sequence: things that looked like gigantic toilet rolls with grinders on the side (a hilarity enriched by the fact that one of the grinder-winders had to rush back and forth between the grinder and his glockenspiel!).

It would be fair to say a great time was had by all. This reviewer is firmly in the camp that says Strauss is all too often Anti-Tune, a lot of "sound and fury signifying nothing," but he, your reviewer, was among those on their feet when the arresting cacophony subsided. Well done, band, and Edo de Waart! You more than held your own against the offerings outside!

One entreaty, though: please, band, if you ever want to revisit the alpine wanderer theme, consider doing Tchaikovsky's rarely-performed Manfred Symphony. It too is set in the alps. It too has an organ. More than that, it really is a symphony.

With tunes!


Hebrides Overture...

Olivia's picture

Great piece - I swooned to it a few weeks ago when it was played on Concert FM. Must've been something live!

Your CubaDupa weekend sounds very worthwhile all round... welcome back to animal flesh! What were you thinking?! Evil

Edit: Actually, I've understated it.... the Hebrides Overture is absolutely exquisite to my ear. Reminds me a lot of his Midsummer Night's Dream. I love it!

Three fine pieces!

Ed Hudgins's picture

Three fine pieces! Decades ago, the second classical record (yes, vinyl) I ever purchased was Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" (paired with his Scottish Symphony); Beethoven's 5th was my first. My reaction was "Wow, how music can communicate!"

On a trip to Colorado around 2013--the girls were about 2 1/2 -- we drove up Pike's Peak with the "Alpine Symphony" playing for the complete audio-visual experience!

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