Review – Schumann and Barber – The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at Claudelands Arena, Hamilton.

American conductor James FeddeckYou’ve got to take your hat off to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Just moment into its latest concert at Claudelands Arena, in Hamilton, the audience was transfixed and you could have heard a pin drop. But more of that later.

First up was Brahms’ Tragic Overture. Written in 1880, perhaps to commemorate the death of his friend and neo-classicist painter Anselm Feuerbach, In the hands of the NZSO, conducted by James Feddeck, the piece felt like it belonged to an earlier age. Close your eyes as the music plays and images of a Jane Austen like romance turned to tragedy is what is conjured up in just 13 minutes.

You have to see, and of course hear, cellist Danile Muller-Schott play Schumann’s Cello Concertto in A minor to believe it. It was as though the musician was wrestling every note out of his Ex Shapiro cello, made in Venice in 1727, which had almost as much stage presence as he did. It was a joy to watch the exquisite dance of pain and pleasure expressed on his face, and through his fingers, as man and instrument produced an aurally mesmerizing 25 minutes of music.

It got even better, after the interval, when the NZSO turned to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, composed at the end of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism. Wave, after mournful, wave of music hit the audience over the eight minute piece, bringing to mind those loved and lost. No wonder this is a piece played at the funeral of presidents and princesses.

Contrasting that beautiful piece was Barber’s loud and bombastic 19-minute Symphony No.1, Op. 9, memorably all drums and brass in parts, despite there being plenty for the whole orchestra to do. If the late film and television composer Leonard Rosenman didn’t take some inspiration from this last piece, I’ll eat my hat.

In the absence of the Founders Theatre, closed because it does not meet earthquake safety standards, Claudelands Arena is a reasonable second best. But back to that pin being dropped. Claudelands would be better still if some soundproofing could be done to prevent such concerts from being interrupted by the creaks of the building as it expands and contracts in reaction to the temperature.

The NZSO continues its Schumann and Barber tour around New Zealand.

The NZSO is back in Hamilton on July 6 for Bold Worlds.


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