Auckland Arts Festival

November 1, 2012
2 mins read

THE LINE-UP for the rehashed, reinvigorated Auckland Arts Festival looks impressive. There’s a lot going on between March 6 and 24, 2013.
But looking exclusively at the long list of music performances, I can’t help wondering what happened to the cutting edge. Did it wither away and die, or is this conflagration of theatricality, world fusion and self-conscious exoticism supposed to be the new cutting edge?
Okay, it’s an arts festival, so it’s no surprise that the lineup leans towards the archly arty end of the spectrum, but I don’t see a single act or production that could be described as experimental, or leaning towards the avant-garde – in other words, there’s an absence of the kind of next-gen wow-factor amongst all the long-established names and the frankly embarrassing, too-florid attempts to woo us into the idea that we’re living in some kind of utopian multikulti Pacifica.
I suppose there’s a clear reason for the multi-cultural skew – Auckland’s arts festival takes place almost simultaneously with WOMAD in Taranaki. Odd, then, that more of its line-up isn’t shared between the two: a quick scan of lineups for both festivals revealed only a few double-ups other than that of South African minstrel Hugh Masekela.
WOMAD in NZ has been playing it safe for years, with too much of an accent on good-time grooves from Africa and too little representation from countries with music that requires dedicated, open-minded listening. It’s become the world music equivalent of New Zealand’s attitude to reggae: ask the average Kiwi what he or she thinks of that art form, and they’ll agree that reggae is great, as long as it’s Bob.
The last three or four WOMAD line-ups have been slim on music from difficult regions like the Middle East, and there have been few representatives of traditional Indian music. While WOMAD started out as a terrifically open-minded exploration of music throughout the world, it’s become safe and unchallenging, with little of the kind of cross-cultural experimentation that any musical voyager would hope for.
The Auckland Arts Festival, on the other hand, seems to be going for a high-minded version of the same thing, and pretentiously so. Just when it seemed like high culture and low culture had fostered an appreciation of each other’s form and aesthetics, along comes the arts festival to give us a dose of old-fashioned pomp and ceremony, with Benjamin Britten’s “monumental” War Requiem (for two orchestras, massed choir, children’s choir, three soloists and organ), leading the charge.
Following right behind are a bunch of local musical endeavours that make me shiver in anticipation… and not in a good way. Hey, who knows, maybe Convergence, in which NZTrio are joined by Taonga Puoro “master” Horomona Horo “in a musical experience weaving together Western, Eastern and Maori musical traditions” really will be exhilarating; and maybe Whaka-Aria Mai (Opera In Te Reo) will prove that, had Wagner been alive in the 21st Century, he would have been composing with Maori in mind.
Then there are those acts that would be right at home on the WOMAD stage, performing to an uncritical audience high on the whiff of patchouli. Let’s thrill to the “unprecedented display of musicality, virtuosity and genuine gypsy entertainment” of the Stochelo Rosenberg Trio. Let’s throw on our dancing shoes for the “retro salsa dura mixed with classic cumbrai, ska, Latin jazz and old school New York Boogaloo” of LA 33. Let’s “soak up the sounds of Afro-Peruvian ensemble” Novalima, who apparently have a “new blend of dub, reggae, electronica and phat Latin beats” (yawn). Or the aforementioned Hugh Masekela, who is a legend, but at the age of 73, is hardly breaking any musical boundaries.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to even look at the theatre, dance or visual arts selections. I’ll have to build up to that. As for the music selections of the forthcoming Auckland Arts Festival, the programme seems to me to be an ambitious undertaking, but one that is sadly short on the kind of artists who could elevate the experience with a hint of the new. GARY STEEL

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here


  1. “Odd, then, that more of its line-up isn’t shared between the two: a quick scan of lineups for both festivals revealed only one double-up in South African minstrel Hugh Masekala.” Hugh M, LA33 and Novalima all at Womad too. No mention of the Carmen musical piece?

  2. Nice nom de plumage, ‘Jon’. As for Jack Body’s themed work on Carmen, it’s obviously a populist concept. I have tremendous respect for the composer, and have no comment about a work I haven’t heard. But as my blog states, it’s the lack “next-gen wow factor” cutting edge/avant-garde. Body’s been on the scene forever, so hardly fits that category.

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