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NZSO performs a spectacular Firebird

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Igor Stravinsky and Hamish McKeich

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Ryman Healthcare season of The Firebird

Auckland Town hall

Hamish McKeich Conductor
Diedre Irons Piano

Juliet Palmer, Buzzard
WA Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major
Stravinsky orch. Stravinsky/McPhee The Firebird

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

It was sixty years ago that Stravinsky took to the conductor’s podium in the Auckland Town Hall to conduct the finale of his “The Firebird” during his New Zealand tour.

Film of the concert shows the composer conducting in a measured manner but throughout there are times when his arms are raised making him look eagle-like in appearance.

Sixty year later NZSO conductor Hamish McKeich looking more like a nimble elegant bird led the orchestra in a journey into the exotic and mysterious realm of “The Firebird” which is the first of the composers three major ballet works along with “Petrushka” and “The Rite of Spring”. This was the beginning of a new age of music and ballet and was mainly due to  Sergei Diaghilev, the famous Russian ballet promoter who had established the Ballet russe in Paris. He gave Stravinsky the opportunity to write a score for a ballet based on Russian folklore.

The Firebird is based on the myth of The Firebird, a powerful female spirit bird with magical feathers that provide beauty and protection, bringing both  blessing and curse it for its owner.

Stravinsky uses different kinds of music to tell the story, providing each character – The Firebird, the heroic Ivan the sorcerer Kastchei and thirteen princess – with a musical theme that conveys his or her personality. The human characters are represented by folk tune-like melodies while the mythical characters like the Firebird and Kastchei are represented by the music which is more mysterious, exotic, and unexpected identifying them as otherworldly.

As the music was written for a ballet many of the sequences are intended to capture the sweep and movement of the dancers as well as brief occasions of intimacy.

From the opening where the low shimmering strings are  used to convey the mysterious ambiance of an enchanted garden  through to the thunderous finale, conductor Hamish McKeich kept a superb hold over the orchestra, a sorcerer in his own right. The work was studded with moments of drama and tenderness as well as the excitement of the ‘Infernal Dance’. The narrative is conveyed  by various solo instrumental voices, – horn flute flautist  piccolo, bassoon, and an enigmatic viola,

The first half of the programme featured “Buzzard”  a short work by Juliet Palmer which was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s “Swan  Lake”, Stravinsky’s The Firebird and the jazz music of musicians such as Dave Brubeck.

In this  exploration of Russian ballet music Palmer uses a jazzy syncopation along with a taut minimalism to rework the colours and textures of the original music. She overlaps and reworks many of the themes of the original ballets as though she were operating as a DJ mixer splicing and sliding together the various musical threads in a weird echo chamber.

This mixture of the classic and modernist creates sounds which ranges from the effervescent  and raucous to the moody and enigmatic. At times one detects the perfect flows of “Swan Lake” and  at other times the innovations of “The Firebird”.

Also on the programme was an outstanding performance by the accomplished New Zealand pianist Diedre Irons of the Mozart Piano Concerto  No 23.

She played the work with a casual elegance, not so much a challenge as revisiting a well-known friend. Each note was played with deliberation and accuracy particularly noticeable in the opening of the second movement where she carefully and delicately gave great emotional expression to the music. Later in the third movement she become more exuberant and dramatic in her playing .

Throughout she displayed an understanding and appreciation of her role and her symbiotic connection to the orchestra while Hamish McKeich handled the  shifts between moods—innocent, desolate, passionate with a supple deftness.

Future NZSO Concert

The Rite of Spring,

Conductor Emma New

Auckland July 3

Wellington July 10

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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