NZSO—Sex Cymbals!

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Mon, 2018-04-23 07:24

Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart, with Sasha Cooke (mezzo)
Michael Fowler Centre, April 21

Things got underway in a rather puzzling fashion on Saturday night at the Fowler. With the obligatory preliminaries over—switch off cell-phones, join the players in the bar for drinks after the show, etc.—the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra appeared to spend the next eight minutes repeating its tune-up routine and not quite succeeding at it. Half-time rumour had it that the late tune-up was actually a recent composition commemorating Captain Cook, and was part of the concert, but this could not be confirmed, and seemed unlikely in any event—one astute observer was heard to remark that had Captain Cook foreheard such a posthumous tribute to his landing he assuredly would not have made it.

Then actual music began. One of the first of the great Romantics, Hector Berlioz often brought his overwrought emotional state to his music. Out of his mind for several years with unrequited love, he would repair to the fields outside Paris to contemplate his benighted fate. (On one such occasion a stellar search party comprising Liszt, Mendelssohn and Chopin went out looking for him! They found him and saw him safely home. Eventually, the object of Berlioz' love did requite his attentions—with disastrous consequences.) The songs comprising Les nuits d'été are not overwrought, but they are about love—love found, love lost, love mourned, love remembered. Recordings of them are innumerable, in part because Berlioz ended up scoring them for every voice from soprano to bass (almost). Many are freely available online: Kiri, Régine Crespin, Janet Baker, Anne Sofie von Otter, José van Dam, et al. Sasha Cooke was the equal of any of them. Her vocal line was unfaltering, her articulation exemplary, her dynamic variation compelling, her voice uniformly rich and round with the top especially burnished and resonant when she pressed the loud pedal. The fourth song, Absence, with its recurring high tessitura, was especially affecting. The Orchestra's accompaniment, sagely guided by the redoubtable Edo de Waart, was exquisitely sensitive.

After the interval it at first seemed that another prolonged tune-up was underway until one realised one was being tossed hither and thither by the fathomless waves of Debussy's La Mer. One assumes this work was well executed, since the performance was volubly acclaimed by many erudite people in attendance.

Finally, Ravel's best-known work, Boléro. He himself called it a masterpiece in search of a tune, even though it's easily the most tuneful thing he ever wrote. The problem, if a problem it be, is that said tune is over in a few bars and then simply repeats itself for 13 minutes, relying on an inaudible start leading up to a deafening climax for its impact. A rather jolly solution is to think of it as an orgasm set to music. One starts out perhaps dutifully rather than eagerly (at least in times of plenty), as if to say, "Oh, really, this again? Shall I affect a headache?" (This, as the snare drums whisper the rhythm that will be as unvarying as the tune. Tum Tatata Tum Tatata Tum Tum Tum Tatata Tum Tatatatatatatatata Tum ...) Inexorably one gets beguiled in. "Hmmmm. This isn't too shabby at all. As good as this morning, in fact. Let's keep going." Tum Tatata Tum Tatata Tum Tum Tum Tatata Tum Tatatatatatatatata Tum ... "Oh man!" More and more players join in and things get progressively noisier and more frenetic. Tum Tatata Tum Tatata Tum Tum Tum Tatata Tum Tatatatatatatatata Tum ... Finally, the point of no return. "We're thinking this will end really well." Tum Tatata Tum Tatata Tum Tum Tum Tatata Tum Tatatatatatatatata Tum ... There's no going back now. Tum Tatata Tum Tatata Tum Tum Tum Tatata Tum Tatatatatatatatata Tum ... KABOOM!!

Thus did hundreds of concert-goers spill out into the streets of Wellington on Saturday night with unseemly smiles on their faces. Scores were arrested, chanting the names of several brass, woodwind and percussion players—and raving about their prowess—as they were carted off. Police report them to be unrepentant and still smiling as they apply for bail in time for the sex cymbals'next concert: Leonard Bernstein at 100 on May 11.