Reviews, News and Commentary

Simon O’Neills magnificent performance with the NZSO


Podium Series Spirit

August 7

Auckland Town Hall

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

One positive result of Covid 19 is that the New Zealand tenor, Simon O’Neill was marooned in this country instead of performing at international venues. As a result one of the world’s great tenors  was able to perform with the NZSO singing work by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

The concert in the Auckland Town Hall was the first of the orchestras restarted concert series in Auckland coming on the back of the orchestra havingpreviously gained the bizarre honour of being the first orchestrain the world to give a concert without Covid 19 restrictions.

The orchestra opened the concert with a fitting celebratory work , the Berlioz “Le Corsaire” overture, a roller coaster of a work full of colour and drama with Hamish McKeich driving the orchestra on with enthusiasm and flair.

O’Neill sang Mahler’s  “Songs of a Wayfarer” and a set of Strauss songs, two of which were  the earliest he wrote and a group of four he had written for his wife on their wedding day.

He sang with superb clarity, ensuring that every word and musical phrase was considered. He displayed an understanding of the narrative of each of the poems and rendered them with an emotion richness.

His body language and acting, subtle hand movements and awareness of the orchestra combined to make this a magnificent performance

He provided an operatic intensity in his command of the stage displaying absolute control and establishing himself as a character  rather than a singer. At times he was singing directly to the audience at other times to an unseen companion and frequently he would be become introverted  as through in a state of reverie.

The Mahler songs are not merely the musings of a wanderer reflecting on his physical and emotional loneliness they are also an expression of the young composer grappling with his personal life and his feeling of being outside society.

Singing “Dei zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (The two blue eyes of my love)  O’ Neills pleading voice of the weeping, despondent Man Alone  soared above the wasteland of despair created by the orchestra was tender and moving while in “Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer” (I have a gleaming knife)  his voice took on a frantic tone as he crouched, his body buffeted  as though overwhelmed by the coming dark storm of the growling orchestra.

In singing the Strauss songs which were all similar in tone and  O’Neill gave a superb almost Wagnerian performance. The lively ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’was  full of youthful intensity, expressive of love and infatuation. While with “Ruhe meine Seele” (Rest thee my Soul) he eloquently captured the singers “troubled spirit” as he competed with the occasionally engulfing orchestra.

The major work on the programme was Prokofiev’s Symphony No 5 composed during summer of 1944 as the tide of war was turning and Soviets were pushing back the Nazis from their borders.

Prokofiev was sheltered from the worst of the war at a country dacha for composers at a former aristocratic estate. Here he contemplated the war at a distant, imagining a new world after the conflict.

This is reflected in the music where there are contrasts between bright spring-like passages and sounds of turmoil, where little dance sequences meet oppressively tense passages.

The innovative music is threaded through with themes from his other work such as the ballet Romeo and Juliet and his film music for Ivan the Terrible.

For the composer it is a work where political and social ideology find common ground with his personal vision. Hamish McKeich and the orchestra managed to convey the devastation and joy of the work along with visions of battlefields and peaceful landscapes with a thoughtful, energetic performance.

Future NZSO Concerts

Brahms orch. Parlow Hungarian Dance No. 5 & 6
Stravinsky Danses Concertantes
Maria Grenfell Clockwerk
Mozart Idomeneo Ballet Music 

Wellington August 28, Auckland September 4

Robin Toan “Tū-mata-uenga “God of War, Spirit of Man”
Elgar  “Cello Concerto” (Andrew Joyce Cello)
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 Pathétique

Wellington August 29. Dunedin September 1. Christchurch September  2, Auckland September. 5

These concerts will be conducted by New Zealander Gemma New who will be conducting NZSO concerts in August and September. She is currently Music Director of the Hamilton (Canada) Philharmonic Orchestra, Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Hailed as “a rising star in the musical firmament” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), New was awarded Solti Foundation Career Assistance Awards in 2017 and 2019.

New has conducted numerous orchestras including the Atlanta Symphony, Toronto Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, and back home to New Zealand with the Auckland Philharmonia, Christchurch Symphony and Opus Orchestra.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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