The Best Classical Concerts of 2014
A rough beast, and more.
Above: Marlena Devoe, star of ACO and Auckland Opera Studio’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Auckland Chamber Orchestra playing Vasks, Shostakovich, Copland, Britten
Electric. In May, the ACO mixed familiar modern classics with a New Zealand premiere, all of it fired by the excitement of hearing professional players push their limits. Flawless playing can be lifeless; this was a risky rough beast of a performance.
Best Concert (runner-up)
Soldiers’ Tales, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Runner-up by the breadth of a split hair. I’d forgotten how much I love Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand; I didn’t know how much I love Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale suite; and as for the massed APO strings in full voice in the third movement of Nielsen’s Inextinguishable symphony — I wasn’t breathing. A programme that demanded hard-out gutsiness paired with absolute precision, and players who didn’t hold back.
Best Concert Series
Beethoven symphonies, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
An idea so obvious that no one ever gets round to doing it: the nine symphonies of Beethoven, performed as one four-day event. When your programme’s subtext is, “Here’s why this is the most famous music in the canon”, you need to turn up ready to play. The NZSO delivered.
Best Soloist (Instrumental)
Ning Feng in A Fateful Symphony, APO
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a violinist with better bow control. In the massively underperformed Britten violin concerto, Ning Feng was the best kind of virtuoso, using his formidable technique purely in the service of the music.
Best Soloist (Voice)
Marlena Devoe in Lucia di Lammermoor, ACO & Auckland Opera Studio
The title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a terrifying gift to a soprano: here, go high, go low, sing long passages on a single breath, show off your full powers, and by the way, your character loses her mind, so let’s hope you can act. Marlena Devoe (above) was the best asset of a great production, and entirely equal to Donizetti’s challenge. Stunning singing.
To the nightclub next door to the Mercury Theatre, I say this: thank you for spotting Donizetti’s unaccountable failure to give Lucia di Lammermoor a hard bass beat, and thank you for doing something about it. You annoyed me more than concert-goers’ mobile phones, and more than concert-goers who think riffling busily through the programme booklet during those boring quieter moments is a good way to kill time.
Meme Most Deserving of Death by Fire
(No, I do not know how you kill a meme with fire. Shut up.)
The three-piece suit programme
Overture, concerto, symphony: if you use this standard-default template for your concert, every single note had better be alive with musical intelligence. I have no beef with traditional concert design if programmers consciously opt into it, but several times this year I sat through concerts that would have been twice as good if they’d been half as long.