New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Is Top Of The Classical Pops

New ZealandNew Zealand Rossini, Copland, Offenbach, J Strauss II, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Wagner: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Judd (conductor). Forum North, Whangarei, New Zealand. 27.9.2015 (Pse)

Rossini – Overture “William Tell”

CoplandFour Dance Episodes from “Rodeo”

Offenbach – Can-Can from “Orpheus in the Underworld

Johann Strauss IIWaltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”

TchaikovskyFantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet”

Elgar – Enigma Variations, No. 8 “W.N.” and No. 9 “Nimrod”

Wagner arr. Langley – The Ride of the Valkyries from “Die Walküre

Johann Strauss II – Polka “Thunder and Lightning”

Arriving at Forum North, I joined an audience humming with eager anticipation, busily filling every square inch of 60% of the Exhibition Hall. The remaining 40% of the floor area was occupied by the platform reserved for the 80-odd members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

That feeling of anticipation was heightened because NZ’s splendid national orchestra ventures this far north but once a year. I suspect that the reason they don’t come more often is tucked away in those percentages. For, whilst the Exhibition Hall is just about adequate for chamber music, symphonic performances need a hall with an internal volume at least a dozen times bigger. Sadly, it’s the best we have to offer, until the city (yes, city!) builds itself a proper concert hall, within which a great orchestra may sound at its majestic best, and over which, I suspect, porcine aviators will often be visible.

On this occasion, NZSO had brought us a colourful programme of “Classical Hits”. I am reliably informed that “classical hits” don’t work the same as pop record hits, but are simply pieces that everybody knows – even if they don’t know that they know them – through their use in popular entertainments such as films, TV programmes and (need I say?) adverts. Generally, a concert title including words like “hits” or “favourites” makes my heart sink, as I contemplate the gloomy prospect of a relentless procession of 25 or more of Tovey’s “bleeding chunks of butcher’s meat”, minced into the minutest of morsels such as fill the very worst of those execrable “The Very Best of the Classics” compilation albums.

However, on this occasion, my fears turned out to be unfounded. As James Judd, NZSO’s Music Director Emeritus and a right, proper live-wire, explained in his pre-concert talk, many of these so-called “hits” are actually top-notch music, gratifying for players and listeners alike. The problem is that many of them just don’t sit easily in conventional concert programmes. So, daft as it may seem, we’re forced to conclude that much of the most popular classical music is rarely heard in its natural habitat.

I can guess what you’re thinking: it isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as that, is it? Never mind, I’m sure that you’re getting my drift – and whichever way you look at it, the obvious solution is to make up a concert programme of “classical hits and misf-hits”. If James’s thesis is anywhere near right, this should set both an orchestra champing at the bit and an audience’s mouths (or should I say “ears”?) watering. Ah – but how do you do this without ending up with (perish the thought!) a “Very Best of” concert?

Well, the judicious James Judd had a blazingly simple workaround: he presented the whole picture or, failing that, provided at least some sort of context. OK, so sometimes, for example, the whole picture is a work that does sit comfortably in concert programmes, but when the idea’s good, it’d be a bit churlish to get over-picky about piddling details like that. The important thing, surely, is that, instead of umpteen ultimately unedifying snippets, this resulted in a concert comprising just eight varied, yet wholesomely satisfying courses.

Take, for example, the opening item. Instead of “The Lone Ranger” all on his lonesome, we heard the whole of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which introduced those who know only the bit inextricably associated with “Kemo Sabay” to the wonders of Rossini’s four-movement mini-symphony. Any such folk must also have been gob-smacked when the music started, and they heard the NZSO’s five solo cellos lovingly caressing their gorgeous melody. After James had whipped up a right royal storm, I wonder how many recognised the cor anglais melody, from its use in, for example, at least one Tom and Jerry cartoon. The finale was brilliantly done, and not taken over-fast, allowing the bows elbow room to fair rattle on the strings. Incidentally, the booklet described this finale as “Swiss soldiers in a cavalry charge” – yet, to the best of my knowledge, in the body of the opera this tune shows up only in the guise of a gentle, bucolic dance!

Similarly, instead of playing the famous foot-stompin’ Hoedown in isolation, NZSO treated us to Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from “Rodeo” in their entirety. Talking of “entirety”, can anyone see the point of this suite – it amounts to over three quarters of the entire ballet; seeing as most of the omitted quarter is a rumbustious “honky-tonk piano interlude”, why not just play the lot? Still, apart from a trombone solo that to my mind was far too polite, it was a cracking performance, with a rip-snorting Buckaroo Holiday, a luminescent Corral Nocturne, a nicely “off-balance”, smoochy (but maybe not quite smoochy enough) Saturday Night Waltz, and a thrusting, skirling Hoedown complete with ad lib. hollering (some of it from the audience), percussionists clowning in plastic cowboy hats, and a conclusive “whinny”.

Similarly again, those familiar only with the ubiquitous love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet” surely had their eyebrows, hair, hackles and Heaven-knows-what-else raised by hearing that fulsome theme in its full and proper context. Theirs and everyone else’s were raised by Judd’s finely moulded, memorably intense and impassioned reading, which was up there with the best in its elucidation of both the music’s structure and the thematic progressions.

Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, is often performed on its own, generally to mark solemn events such as the passing of some notable person. As such I suppose it qualifies as a “bleeding chunk”, but only by the skin of its teeth. Full marks to Judd and co. for prefacing it with the domestic whimsy of the preceding variation (W.N.). This not only provided a welcome bit of context and a lot of contrast, maximising the impressive impact of Nimrod’s nobility, but also preserved that vital, linking silken thread of near-silence, the work’s most magical moment.

Offenbach’s Can-Can may be brief, but it is a wholly distinct “number”. Maybe, as per the Elgar, it would have been nice to hear it in the context of the preceding, rather strait-laced minuet, which maximised the Can-can’s shock-value. Of course, it properly (or improperly!) requires a troupe of dancers. Regardless off that, however, the music needs to be belted out with bags of bubbling bounce and utter abandon. It got exactly what it needed, and thereby won a storm of applause. Shame about the dancers, though – maybe next time?

The one real “bleeding chunk”, because it has been surgically separated from Wagner’s Die Walküre, was The Ride of the Valkyries – that is, the very Walkürenritt mentioned by Tovey in his celebrated critical statement. What we heard was the “long” version, with its massive instrumentation deftly slimmed to ordinary symphonic proportions by a Mr Langley. NZSO valiantly rode above the loss of sheer solidity of brass tone to give a very convincing account of this wild music, conveying pretty well all the vaulting thrust, thunder and flashing brilliance that its composer hoped for. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that the double dotting of the (dare I say “Apocalypse Now”?) theme was short of a dot – the very dot that Solti had been at such pains to coax out of an apparently reluctant Vienna Phil. in rehearsal during the making of the legendary Decca recording of the opera!

Really, Johann Strauss the Younger’s illustrious dances are de facto “hits”, although (need I say?) in the 1960s The Blue Danube’s popularity was significantly expanded through its imaginative use in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. At the start of the second half, Judd and the NZSO affectionately and idiomatically moulded every bar of this consummate waltz. At the other end of the second half, the Thunder and Lightning Polka positively sparkled – and flashed and banged.

An encore, a “toast” to round off this feast of entertainment, simply had to happen; can you guess what it was? Got it in one (probably): Johann Strauss Senior’s celebrated Radetzky March, which NZSO dispatched with such irresistible panache that sitting on your hands was not only exceedingly difficult, but also extremely hazardous! Thesis proven, methinks.

Paul Serotsky

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