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Classical review: APO Settling the Score

Dec 4, 2013 Music

Settling the Score

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Auckland Town Hall, November 28, 2013


And Radio New Zealand said, “Let there be light”. And The Lark Ascending rose from the howling abyss, fluttering its little wings, and Radio New Zealand spoke again, saying, “Put down the gun, Larsen“.

Light classics. Lowest common denominator crowd-pleasers, the elevator music of the classical world. Every year RNZ Concert runs its Settling the Score competition, where listeners vote for their favourite piece, and a countdown of the winners forms the station’s New Year’s Day programme. It’s a splendid idea in theory, and the new wrinkle where a teaser programme of the top orchestral place-winners gets an APO performance at the end of the year is nice too. You turn up not knowing what you’re about to hear, except that it all polled as the most popular symphonic music in the land, and you let the orchestra surprise you. Apart from when they play Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, obviously, which is never a surprise, except in the larger sense of “Who is it who keeps voting this scrap of fluff into the top ten?”

The popularity fairy is such a fascinating individual. Sometimes she waves her wand at Lorde’s “Royals” or Bach’s neglected-for-centuries Goldberg Variations, and bam, music so well crafted, so rich with fractal complexity that you’ll never grow tired of it is charting. Crowdsourced aesthetic insight. Hooray for popularity contests! But what about the years before Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs recording, when the crowd wanted nothing to do with Mr Bach?

What it comes down to is that the crowd’s many perversities include a tendency to over-reward success. If something inoffensive happens to get voted to the top of Settling the Score once, its chances of doing so again increase drastically, and increase again the next time, until at this late date there is no stopping the Lark‘s relentless ascent. It was in this year’s concert countdown at number three, immediately after a movement from Bruch’s First Violin Concerto.

Ah, Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. It’s a nice little show-piece with the depth of a puddle, and it seems to be emerging as a new Settling the Score favourite. (Eighth place last year, third the year before). If I had to nominate the worst possible classical hit to perform over and over again, this would top my list, even above the Lark, because its charms are real but exhaustible. It’s music you can damage through over-use. Seriously, could we maybe have a programme of the lowest place-getters next year, to encourage quirky oddities, as an alternative to a predictable plod through the likes of Vaughan Williams and Gillian Whitehead?

Wait. Gillian Whitehead? A New Zealand composer who isn’t Lilburn or Psathas made the top ten? Yes, in at six, with Resurgences, dissonant, jagged, and not my favourite of her pieces, but so welcome here. It opened up the concert. If this could happen, anything could happen. (Except the Lark‘s absence. That will never happen). I diagnose a concerted voting campaign on the part of her fans, to whom I say, “Well done. Do it again!” This is how you counter the inertia of crowd-conservatism: whip up a new crowd. Next year, can we all please vote for Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s symphonic arrangement of the Goldberg Variations?


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