The NZSO home and away
Shed Series: Juxtaposition, and An Evening with Simon O’Neill
Friday 1 June and Saturday 16 June
The last few weeks have seen two strikingly different NZSO concerts: another iteration of their Shed Series, the ongoing
attempt to get out of the Michael Fowler Centre and reach new audiences; and a more standard concert featuring leading
New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill.
Illness prevented a more timely review of the former – but it was, I must say, a triumph. I don’t know what the first
Shed Series concert was like as I wasn’t there, but this one had an audience startlingly different from the NZSO usual.
It was young, and bearded (the gentlemen, anyway), and one didn’t feel out of place being under 40. Some people stood;
we shared a table with some 30ish (at a guess) hipster folk who were knowledgeable but clearly not regular concertgoers.
Overall the more relaxed atmosphere was mostly a success. Shed 6 isn’t an especially beautiful space, but it is innately
more informal, and having a bar in the corridor just outside was a nice touch. During one break in the music someone
audibly opened a can of beer, and everyone laughed, which gives you a feel for how it was.
There were other good touches, too: a less formal layout, with the main players in the centre but a trio at the far end,
and some dramatic lighting effects. At one point conductor Hamish McKeich was bathed in a gloomy green, giving him the
appearance of a ghoulish leader of a band of underworld players. (Conversely, I got sent not one but two pictures of the
rather startling effect of my red trousers under the red light. So there you go.)
The music itself – important not to forget that – was also excellent. Opening with Arvo Part’s Fratres was a wonderful
move: it’s such beautiful music, and was played perfectly, managing to suggest simultaneously reverence and anguish.
From my vantage point immediately behind the violins, I felt almost physically immersed in the music – not an experience
one can really have in the Michael Fowler Centre. Speaking afterwards to other patrons who were stood along the back
wall, though, I got the sense that the sound hadn’t travelled very well towards them. That’s the trade-off between
ambience and a really good acoustic, I suppose.
Michael Norris’s piece for jazz trio, Heart across the Night, was a work I was ill-disposed to like – I don’t
particularly care for jazz – but I was won over by its clever (rather than too-clever) deconstruction of the standards,
with the struggle of something to emerge from the awkward stops and starts actually rather poignant.
John Zorn’s Kol Nidre, by contrast, suffered a bit in contrast with Fratres, being along similar hypnotic, meditative
lines but definitely (to my ears, at least) an inferior piece of music, lacking the development and progression of the
latter. The Haydn and the Jonny Greenwood pieces I thought were well played but frankly didn’t have strong feelings
Playing away from the Michael Fowler Centre is definitely a learning experience. Having an ambition that people can come
and go from the venue to buy food and drink is one thing. Realising the effect that has when the orchestra is playing
something as still and fragile as Fratres is quite another. Either Shed 6 is going to have to install completely
soundless doors, or the coming and going might have to be restricted to the intervals. But that’s a quibble, really. I
thought it was a fantastic concert, probably well overdue, and one that gave me hope for the future of classical music.
On a slightly more conventional note, last Saturday’s concert was billed as ‘An evening with Simon O’Neill’. Now, I
don’t know how long you think an evening lasts, but I tend to feel it is more than 25 minutes, which is about all we got
of this wonderful singer, as the Wesendonck Lieder, though lovely, are not particularly long.
It’s not the first time this has happened this year: visiting superstar Anne Sofie von Otter gave a not much longer
performance at the Festival. One doesn’t want to get too crude, and suggest that enjoyment is a function of quantity –
but it’s hard not to feel a little shortchanged, especially in comparison to the generosity of, say, Renee Fleming when
she was out here a couple of years ago.
That aside, one couldn’t complain about the quality. Listening to O’Neill is a bit like looking at a sculpture which has
had every extraneous part of it pared away, so that all that is left is the essential beauty of the thing, without
unnecessary frills and filigree. It was total musical communication, with the sort of simplicity available only to the
best singers. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the text of the Lieder, which is the worst of overwritten German
romanticism, but with singing like that, who needed to worry about sense?
In the second half – or, more accurately, the latter two-thirds – we got a very good rendition of Bruckner’s Symphony
No. 4. I was quite taken with conductor Lawrence Renes’s ability to summon up different textures right from the outset,
a cool sound in the strings contrasting with the warm rich brass. He kept just the right amount of tension throughout,
and there were some wonderful moments – the delicate opening of the second movement in particular.
Also in the second movement, there was – as advertised! – a rare moment for the violas to shine, and they took it
sensationally, drawing out long, beautifully shaded arcs that told a different story each time the motif repeated. As
you’d expect, the horns were also excellent throughout, with some really good crunchy moments in the third movement and
a majestic, sweeping sound in the fourth.
You could probably criticise some of the details – I thought one or two of the fortissimo moments, especially in the
first movement, went too hard too early, and the waltz -like sections were a little tentative. But as an overall
performance it was hard to fault. There was a real sense of spaciousness, of architecture almost, with lovely long-paced
buildups and a clear expression of the basic optimism that suffuses the work.