Reviews, News and Commentary

NZSO’s Fantastic Dreams and Nightmares concert

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Holly Mathieson

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Podium Series – Fantastique

Auckland Town Hall

May 2

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert “Fantastique”  featured Berlioz’s epic work, Symphonie fantastique. Through its five  movements, it tells the story of an artist’s self-destructive passion for a beautiful woman. The work describes his obsession and dreams, moments of anguished and  tenderness along with visions of suicide and murder, ecstasy, and despair.

Berlioz was obsessed with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, and the symphony was his mating call to the actress.  The music attempts to render the story of his own life intertwined with that of The Artist,  musically and emotionally.

The piece begins with a description of The Artist and the object of his love with an elusive theme which recurs through the work. Then we encounter him at a ball, trying to gain the attention of his love and then in a pastoral setting possibly seeing his beloved with another suitor. A fourth movement is a narcotic dream sequence where he sees himself led to the scaffold in the belief that his love has been rejected.

The final movement is another dreamscape, this time a vision of hell where The Artist is carried into the underworld  watched over by the object of his craving.

Under the direction of an agile Holly Mathieson the NZSO provided an energetic performance of the work ensuring the drama and intensity of the work was expertly delivered. There were the thrilling violins and flutes which conjured up the image of The Artist’s beloved through the two harps leading the delicate ballroom scene to the military band escorting the prisoner to the scaffold and onto the final ominous bassoons and tubas roaring out  the funeral chant of  the Dies Irae. 

Frightening outbursts alternated with moments of the greatest tenderness. Massive onslaughts by the percussion and timpani contrasted with the  delicacy and  melancholia of the ballroom and pastoral scenes.

The first half of the programme featured two dream works one by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s “Dreamtime” (Yume no toki)  and “The Third Dream” by New Zealander Dorothy Ker. 

Takemitsu’s “Dreamtime” references the aboriginal approach to storytelling which employs, symbols, myth and visions to explain the known world and its connection to the past and the spirit world of guiding forces.

The work was  intended as music for a dance work by choreographer Jiri Kylian and the sweeping sequences of the work convey the notions of bodies in  motion. These moments of swelling drama connect also with the composers view  that  they are like the surge of the giant wave in Hokusai’s “The Great Wave”. These lyrical  balletic sequences also contrasted with some unsettling suspense film style music.

Overall, the work had a cinematic feel with shifting layers of  sound morphing into another as in a dream where one intense vision is replaced by another often with shocks at the changing perspectives. This shifting from the ethereal to the earthly from the lyric to the discordant was emphasised by the instrumentation which  emphasized contrasts of texture, volume and invention leading up to the final moments where the music evaporates into silence and light.

Where “Dreamtime” was full of light  Dorothy Ker’s “The Third Dream” was full of lightning, with sharp bolts of sounds resounding through the work. From the drama of the Wagnerian  opening to the final blasting tubas this was a work which verged on the nightmare.

A lot of the time the instruments were played in unconventional ways pushing the instruments and the players  to the limit. The timpani were stroked by hand and the strings players employed different bowing techniques along with plucking strings and slapping their instruments.

Future NZSO Concerts


Holly Mathieson Conductor
Alien Weaponry Band 

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra joins Aotearoa New Zealand metal band Alien Weaponry described by  by Revolver Magazine in the USA as “one of the most exciting young metal bands in the world right now”. The three-piece from Waipu deliver emotionally and politically charged stories of conflict and grief with a warriorlike attitude.

Hamilton May 22

Christchurch May 29


Holly Mathieson Conductor
Kevin Keys Narrator 

An interactive family concert, with narrator Kevin Keys presenting popular classics including music from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”, Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the theme from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” by John Williams’.

Hamilton May 23

Christchurch May 30

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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