NZSO’s Magnificent Mozart Wows Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Mozart: Bridget Douglas (flute), Carolyn Mills (harp), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan (conductor); Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 12.10.2013 [Pse]

Serenade in G “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Concerto for Flute and Harp
Chaconne from Ballet Music for “Idomeneo”
Symphony No. 41 in C “Jupiter”


There hovered over Whangarei a “Blue Moon”, a beacon that brought a host of music-lovers flocking to Forum North’s Exhibition Hall, glistening with anticipation at the prospect of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) filling their ears with the splendid sounds of “Magnificent Mozart”. Where, you may wonder, does this “Blue Moon” malarkey come in?

Well, via their website the NZSO tell us that, “We’re continually on the road, touring as many as 100 symphonic concerts as well as dozens of dedicated concerts for children and small communities each year. While we present all our main programmes in Auckland and Wellington, we tour New Zealand extensively . . . [performing] in concert halls, schools, marae, hospitals, parks, rest homes and even on railway platforms.” That’s an awful lot of ground for them to cover; not surprisingly, then, it takes a fair while to cover it all. To give you some idea of how “fair” is that “while”, in the six years that I’ve dwelt in Whangarei, this is the first time they’ve played here – and, in my book, that adds up to “once in a blue moon” (Q.E.D.).

Of course, taking orchestral music to little, out-of-the-way places (of which there’s an abundance in NZ) has its problems, not least of which is finding suitable local venues. I suspect that this is one reason for taking the likes of Mozart, rather than Mahler, along for the ride. Equally of course, I find it teeth-grindingly frustrating that Whangarei – which is, for Heaven’s sake, defined as a “city”! – has a gaping hole in its cultural infrastructure right where “concert hall” should be, and is therefore apparently – and not unreasonably – classed as a “little, out-of-the-way place”.

As far as I am aware, Mozart has never been regarded as anything less than an absolute genius. When I was but a lad, scrimping and saving pocket-money to buy classical LPs, what was only my third acquisition contained Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Much as I loved that music, I nonetheless had a nagging suspicion, shared with my pals, that Mozart was somehow “a bit soppy”. Really, you’d expect that I would have gradually outgrown any such notions – whereas, in fact, the very opposite happened!

Eventually, I was forced to wonder: is Mozart’s music really like this – or is it that Mozart has slowly but surely been emasculated by succeeding generations of increasingly reverential performers, busily trying to out-do one another in expressing his music’s “exquisite beauty”? The answer comes courtesy of the “authentic performance” movement, which – restored Mozart’s reputation by reminding the world just how Mozart should be played, and, incidentally but happily, uncovering a resemblance that made sense of the young Beethoven’s admiration.

Surely, conductor Nicholas McGegan, being a renowned authenticist – and, I might add, a right proper live wire whose podium manners put me in mind of Gennady Rozhdestvensky! – would be just the man to demonstrate what it was that so inspired Beethoven? He surely would! His “take” on Mozart was as a virile “reverence-free zone”, one hundred per cent sugar-free and shorn of its accumulated over-interpretative flab.

However, instead of applying authenticism wholesale, McGegan used it circumspectly, arguably recreating the “real” Mozart in the context of a modern orchestra. One of the most controversial aspects of Classical authenticism is that of strings playing without any vibrato, to which very many folk object as being generally unpleasant, claiming it sounds thin, scratchy, strident, even emaciated. Under McGegan, the NZSO strings did use vibrato, but applied it with great discretion, giving us, if you like, “the best of both worlds”.

To my mind, this entire approach works a treat. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard the ubiquitous Eine Kleine Nachtmusik sound so fresh and new. It emerged – appropriately enough – feeling as fit as a fiddle: crisply enunciated, purposefully paced and, crucially, with nary a trace of saggy elastic in the tempi, the music bristled with bracing energy. This benefitted especially the Andante, where McGegan’s sturdy, though not even remotely hurried approach supplanted “simpering” by refreshingly clear-eyed and gutsy elegance.

Not unreasonably, some “operatic” latitude was taken in the Concerto for Flute and Harp. Despite his apparent aversion to both solo instruments – a pairing which strikes me personally as a marriage made in Heaven – Mozart produced a veritable cornerstone of the concerto repertoire, and an opportunity clearly relished by NZSO principals Bridget “Peaches” Douglas (flute) and Carolyn “Cream” Mills (harp). Endlessly fascinating was both the sparkling interplay of the poised, vivacious soli, and also something I’d not really appreciated before – the rather neatly shifting allegiances of the strings, between arco (“flute-like”) and pizzicato (“harp-like”).

McGegan, jigging, bouncing and swaying on the podium, clearly enjoyed the highly humorous pot-pourri of dance-moods in the Chaconne from the “Idomeneo” Ballet Music. He wasn’t alone in his enjoyment – the music was a right romp from start to finish. It was nicely chosen as both prelude and foil to the final item, the imposing Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”.

As the symphony began, I got a distinct impression of a dark veil having been swept aside. Suddenly, in music that had long seemed luxuriant, I could “see” all the hard edges and taut musculature. This sharpened focus dramatically heightened the first movement’s power and majesty; illuminated the second’s extraordinarily potent “other-worldly” dissonances; hoicked the robust Ländler from where it’d been lurking all these years, in the third’s woodwork; and considerably clarified the complexities of the tumultuous finale’s double-fuguing.

Before the event, I’d felt a mite doubtful whether I could stand a whole evening of Mozart (heretical maybe, but true!). I needn’t have worried – such was the enlivening impact of McGegan’s method, it felt as though I was hearing this mostly familiar music for the first time. It was superlatively stirring stuff, superlatively played by NZ’s top orchestra. To quote the immortal Ira Gershwin, “Who could ask for anything more?” Well, more is what we did get! – Mr. McGegan had up his sleeve a Beecham-esque “lollipop”, in the form of a quirky little Contredanse on the famous tune of the aria Non Più Andrai. It hardly outstayed its welcome. I’d have been more than happy if they’d played it again – not just the Contredanse, but the whole concert.

Paul Serotsky