Reviews, News and Commentary

Celebration and reflection in NZSO’s Enduring Spirit concert

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Bloch & Shostakovich, Enduring Spirit

In association with The Grand by SkyCity.

Auckland Town Hall

April 29 

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The renowned Scottish conductor Sir Donald Runnicles made his New Zealand Symphony Orchestra debut last week with performance in Wellington and Auckland alongside German-French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt who has not performed in New Zealand since 2015.

The Enduring Spirit programme comprised Aaron Jay Kearnis’ “Musica Celestis”, Ernest Bloch’s cello composition “Schelomo”, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Tenth Symphony”, all works which were celebrations of. or reflections on belief system which have inspired or distorted the lives of people.

Kearnis previously said of his work  “Musica Celestis is inspired by the medieval conception of … the singing of the angels in heaven in praise of God without end.” He also notes the influence of “the soaring work of Hildegard of Bingen”.

This debt to medieval music was apparent from the opening with floating strings suggesting the  wispy shapes of angels and throughout the work  there was the impression of  the softly beating wings of angels.

The throbbing plucked sounds of the double basses at times contrasted with the insistent strings providing something of a conversation, a debate between the good and evil angels.

But this all resolved into blissful  vistas of heaven with all its imagined  mythic creatures –  cherubim, seraphim, archangels.

Bloch’s “Schelomo” was a significant work to be played this year as it is now the seventy fifth anniversary of the founding of the modern  state of Israel, an event Bloch can only have imagined when he composed the work in 1916. The final work in his “Jewish Cycle” it builds on much Jewish heritage and the prayer which ended many important Jewish events –  “Next year in Jerusalem”,  

“Schelomo” was intended to “express the struggle of King Schelomo (called Solomon in the Bible) to resist the world’s earthly pleasures … Bloch himself described the cello as the voice of Schelomo himself, specifically expressing the sentiment held in texts from Ecclesiastes… In contrast, the orchestra represents the tempting material world, including his wives and concubines”.

Nicolas Altstaedt

The work opened with a single high note from the cello  like the voice of a Jewish cantor calling on God and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt  seemed to be  both the voice of the composer and that of the spirit of the Jew.

This was followed by troubled strings and brass which conveyed a sense of physical and spiritual oppression, distance and dislocation, and as in Kearnis’, “Musica Celestis” there were visions of angels and  prophets.

The work touched on the notion of the  individual / state confronted by oppression and tumult in a continuation of the history of the Jew and the fate of Jerusalem / Israel.

Nicolas Altstaedt  played with a distinctive detachment as though in contemplation but he produced exquisite  sounds which were like agonising pleas which dissolved into melancholic acceptance.

Shostakovich said of his  Symphony No. 10 that “I did depict Stalin …. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the Symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years.”

While that is certainly the case it is also a depiction of the composer himself and his reactions to living under the Soviet regime of the time.

From the opening dark mummering of the strings one was conscious of the sombre mood which pervades the work and throughout  the symphony there are themes which represent the composer and Stalin and what might be the voice of Mother Russia.   

The composer is represented by a  more pensive  theme and that of Mother Russia looking back to pre-revolutionary times featured a feminine motif rendered by woodwind which conjured up images of Russian landscape. In the third movement there was also an enigmatic slow march which also seemed to hark back to a time of Russian folklore.

Sir Donald Runnicles

The second movement with its reckless martial sounds directed by the agitated Runnicles was an obvious portrait of the dictator and the regime. There was also an undercurrent of dark strings appearing throughout the work. 

At all times Runnicles controlled the orchestra with a supreme confidence. In the first movement he impressed with his grand gestures and his body at times wrestling with the music while at other times he was moving to the dance-like sounds.  He also showed great skill in moderating the volume taking the music from the  riotous through to barely a  whisper.

In the  last movement the various instruments saw moments of joy as well as a hectic battle between the sections of the orchestra leading to a final cacophony of sound.

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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