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Auckland Chamber Orchestra with Peter Scholes and John Chen - review

May 23, 2014 Music

Auckland Chamber Orchestra
Conducted by Peter Scholes, with John Chen (piano).

Raye Freedman Arts Centre
May 11


Aucklanders, do you know what you have in Peter Scholes and the Auckland Chamber Orchestra? If the demand for tickets ever rises to the level of the group’s merits, the ACO will need to abandon the Raye Freedman Arts Centre, its cosy Epsom performance base, for a less intimate venue. Since the freeze-drying of chamber music through exposure to too much space is one of my pet hates, logically I should not be writing this review at all.

But come on. Wake up! There were empty seats at this show. Not many, but still. This is absurd.

I went to three concerts last month featuring exclusively 20th and 21st century music. Another absurdity: this still constitutes brave programming. I have only praise for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s commitment to contemporary composers, and to New Zealand composers in particular. Until we get down to specifics, at which point I have to admit that of the six works featured in the NZSO’s May 2 and May 10 concerts, I enjoyed one. There is a way to programme new music, and it involves not making me wish I’d stayed home and cleaned the bath.

That piece I’d leave the bath grubby for? Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (1976),whose vast interior spaces were given cathedral-like definition by the NZSO strings, and whose devastating solo soprano line was rendered clean and ecclesiastical by the Australian Baroque specialist Sara Macliver. I argued with a friend afterwards as to whether this piece’s undeniable power comes via reductive grandiosity – basic ideas simply executed, but on a large scale, an essentially cheap ploy – or whether its austerity is in fact evidence of genius.

That argument came to mind again last night, as I listened to the ACO play the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’s beautiful single-movement poem for strings, Viatore (2001). Easily as minimal as the Gorecki, the piece contrasts shimmering, dream-like washes of sound with broad elegaic moments and repeating clockwork figures, the latter played solo and with pinpoint light bowing by the section leaders. The music’s simplicity, like the Gorecki’s, is that of sublimely carved bone.

This was my first taste of Vasks. ACO concerts nearly always include a composer I’ve never met before; Peter Scholes, ACO musical director, has a remarkable gift for finding never-performed-locally works that will pull audiences in rather than pushing them away, and then building appealing programmes round them. Last night we also heard Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1 (1933) – outrageous, brilliant, full of drunken swoops and sudden reversals – Copland’s uncharacteristically subdued Quiet City (1940), the one piece on the programme I found slightly dreary, but also, happily, by far the shortest, and Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937).

The Britten is a full calisthenic work-out for string orchestra, comprised of an introduction and ten slaps to the face: each variation on the opening theme so sharply different from the one before that it would jerk you awake if you were in any danger of nodding off. No one was, in this performance. The ACO were detectably playing at their limits in places – notably in the dizzy Aria Italiana and furious Moto perpetuo variations – but they played with so much heart, and so much attention to shifts in mood and mode, that it was breath-taking. They’re one of the cultural treasures of Auckland.


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