Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra & Hilary Hahn
Truth & Beauty
Auckland Town Hall
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
The latest NZSO concert ”Truth & Beauty” opened with John Rimmer’s “Lahar” which he wrote in the 1970’s as part of his Ring of Fire orchestral work. It was a volcanic lahar of melted snow and ice which caused the Tangiwai disaster on the Whangaehu River in 1953.
While Rimmer does not reference the disaster directly in the work one can sense the various forces of nature – geological and atmospheric which contributed to the disaster represented in the music.
Conductor Gemma New reinforced the aspect of peril inherent in the work with her arm movements which at times looked like short sharp semaphoric, movements signalling danger.
The percussion instruments created the opening growling sounds of the volcano and the tectonic shifts, while other instruments captured the sounds of the forest such as the twittering piccolo and flutes representing the bird life.
The work ended with a plaintiff piccolo solo, a lament in honour of the victims of the Tangiwai disaster.
The big work on the programme, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 had some of the same brooding and reflective quality to it as the Rimmer work.
In the 1930s, the Soviet Union the purges of Joseph Stalin meant that traditional music and composers were declared decadent and even Dmitri Shostakovich saw the need to adapt. In a cynical nod to political correctness, he subtitled his symphony “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.” While there are many lyrical and heroic aspects to the work there is a sense of despair beneath the almost romantic melodies.
The symphony feels as though it is contemplation of the battlefield, the horror of battle and the eerie aftermath. But this is not some reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s triumphant 1812 and it sems very relevant to the present day as Ukraine had been focus of Russian territorial ambition in WWI and the site of much fighting and destruction.
The work opens with the great percussion roar of war and destruction followed by the various colours and moods of the battlefield landscape where the souls and spirits of the dead lie. Then there are themes which could be derived from folk melodies which eventually morph into driven militaristic music.
The second movement which has some links to dance, but this is not folk dance or the waltz but rather a dance of death. Then as with most of the bright and colourful themes in the work the music eventually returns to the militaristic the dramatic and the chaotic.
The slow third movement was almost a requiem with mournful sounds provided by flute and harp and the work eventually moves to a transcendental mood conveyed by the flute. In the fourth movement New extracted nuance and subtly giving the work a lightness and innocence before erupting into a joyous reworking of the opening theme
At times throughout the work Gemma New’s elaborate conducting style saw her more as a magician than conductor and her baton more of a wand.
While the Shostakovich was the big symphonic work on the programme it was Hilary Hahn’s electrifying performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 1` which was the highlight.
After the slow ethereal opening her playing became more impassioned with some frantic bowing displaying a deep understanding of the work. Her own bodily movements also displayed a physical response to the music moving with a dancer’s litheness and intensity.
The fairground themes of the second movements which foreshadow the composers later compositions for film were soon turned into more robust sounds with some powerful contrasting passages.
Her playing was technically brilliant and she handled the more difficult sequences of playing on the bridge of the instrument and plucking with consummate skill. Her duets with various instruments of the orchestra were all precise and incisive.
Her playing ranged from the whimsical through the serene to the extravagant and all the time she was formidably focused on the music. There were times when she seemed to be in trancelike state while at other times she seemed to be in a rage. Throughout it was as though there was no effort being made and that the technical wizardry and sumptuous music flowed effortlessly from her instrument.