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Seen and Heard Prom Review

 

 

PROM 46: Lilburn, Mahler, Sibelius, Jonathan Lemalu, bass-baritone, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Judd, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 18 August, 2005 (TJH)

 

 

Lilburn – Symphony No. 3

Mahler – Des Knaben Wunderhorn (selection)

Sibelius – Symphony No. 2

 

 

A little background: the last time I saw the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – who made their Proms debut on Thursday night under music director James Judd – was not during some whirlwind tour of Europe and Asia, such as the one they are presently undertaking; rather, it was at the Auckland Town Hall during one of their frequent visits to New Zealand’s biggest city from their home base in Wellington.  For over a decade this group – along with the Auckland Philharmonic – comprised my only experience of orchestral music-making.  Very few foreign orchestras ever visited New Zealand’s shores, and even fewer big name performers: the most famous conductor I ever saw there was Sir Neville Marriner, who seemed at the time unapproachably grand.  (Then again, so did most people coming from that mythical otherworld known as “overseas.”)  But now that I have lived in London – with its five world-famous orchestras and endless procession of visiting maestri – for several years, I was more than a little curious to hear how the orchestra I grew up with would stack up against Europe’s finest.

 

 

The answer was both a pleasant surprise and a mild disappointment.  In the six years since James Judd – a Briton by birth – took over as music director, playing standards have unquestionably gone up.  Indeed, there was little to criticise from a technical point of view: they played all the right notes in the right order, most of them rather well.  The string tone was perhaps not the best, but it was an admirably tight section; as for the winds and brass, they played competently and even quite beautifully at times.  But as an interpreter, Judd consistently proved frustrating.  There were moments of real insight here and there; but not enough of them to add up to a truly compelling evening, and certainly not enough to mark him out as a noteworthy artist in his own right.

 

 

The evening began with a traditional Maori welcome, a karanga.  The sound of conch shells rang out from either side of the platform, setting the stage for the ritualistic chanting and ceremonial display, welcoming Judd on the stage.  This sort of thing is in fact fairly commonplace in New Zealand, but it all seemed faintly ostentatious in the Royal Albert Hall, where the audience seemed more than a little bemused.  A second New Zealand offering began the programme proper, the Third Symphony of Douglas Lilburn, New Zealand’s most important composer.  Lilburn was single-handedly responsible for what little ‘tradition’ exists in New Zealand classical music, introducing Schoenberg and electronic music to the country at a time when rugby was considered New Zealand’s foremost cultural achievement.  His first two symphonies bear the unmistakable imprint of his teacher Vaughan Williams, but the Third marked something of a shift in aesthetic: it is somewhat rarefied, very precise in terms of expression, even neo-Classical in the Stravinskyan sense.  The NZSO played it with great care, but despite that satisfying way Lilburn put everything together, none of his ideas were sufficiently compelling to linger long in the memory.

 

 

Lilburn also claimed Sibelius as a large influence, and Sibelius’ method of cellular composition was very much in evidence in his Third.  But it was the real thing that closed the concert: Sibelius’ Second Symphony, to be precise.  In some ways the NZSO had a good sound for Sibelius, particularly the woodwinds, who had a chilly, slightly detached quality.  But Judd could not sustain the energy required to give the finale much impact and the slow movement, so poetic in Osmo Vänskä’s BBCSO Prom last year, was a mess of seemingly unconnected ideas.

 

 

Judd was on firmer ground with a handful of songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and he proved a thoughtful accompanist to the Samoan bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu.  Lemalu is making quite a name for himself these days, and it is clear why: he oozes charisma, quietly and unfussily enticing the audience into the palm of his hand.  He sings rather well too, and although a slight flutter of nerves was clearly troubling him in the first couple of songs, he had overcome them in time for a marvellous account of Revelge. The line “Ein Schrecken schlagt den Feind!” positively dripped with venom, just as the following song, Lob des hohen Verstandes, dripped with irony; Lemalu sang Mahler’s witty little dig at his critics with the vocal equivalent of a knowing wink.  The highlight of the evening without a doubt, and a great effort from the NZSO as well – they played with almost as much character as Lemalu.  It was only disappointing that their music director did not have the character to pull off the rest of the evening’s programme.

 

 

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

 

 


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