Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra recently revealed its 2021 season to a Town Hall crowd. RICHARD BETTS took notes.
When 2020’s classical concert seasons were announced, it seemed every musician in the world was destined to play Beethoven. Lots and lots of Beethoven. It was all in honour of the great man’s 250th birthday and New Zealand orchestras were poised to get in on the act. Most notably, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) promised a full set of the nine symphonies, to be played at Auckland Arts Festival, as the centrepiece of its forthcoming year. With that and numerous other of the German’s works being programmed in Aotearoa for 2020, I churlishly suggested that I’d had enough of Beethoven before a note had been played.
Fate intervened, of course. The APO never got to deliver its symphony cycle, with Covid-19 bringing the festival to an abrupt halt days before the orchestra was to hit the stage with its concerts.
The APO, which recently launched its 2021 season at Auckland Town Hall, is trying again, sprinkling the complete Beethoven symphonies throughout the year. It feels different this time. After everything the arts sector – and all Kiwis – have been through in 2020, programming the symphonies resembles an act of defiance befitting this heroism of the music. More prosaically, by delaying the concerts by a year, the APO’s cycle doesn’t follow hot on the heels of the NZSO’s 2019 full set with Edo de Waart. As in 2020, the APO’s music director, Giordano Bellincampi, will be atop the podium.
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With concert halls around Europe likely to be closed for some time, the Denmark-based Bellincampi, who has dispensation to travel here as an essential worker, will perform more APO concerts than he has in previous seasons. That’s good news. The APO simply sounds better with the boss at the helm. Circle April’s ‘Enduring Spirit’ concert, where Bellincampi accompanies Michael Hill International Violin Competition winner Natalia Lomeiko in Shostakovich’s second concerto, and ‘Inextinguishable,’ the fourth symphony by Nielsen, a composer dear to the conductor’s heart.
The Nielsen was actually a 2020 Covid casualty. Other works resuscitated from this year’s disrupted programme include Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Piano Concerto No.3, for which local hero Michael Houstoun again delayed his retirement. A further hold-over is Barber’s Violin Concerto. The notable thing about that is it’s being played by Liu-Yi Retallick, the APO’s associate concertmaster. It’s interesting not (just) because she’s a fine violinist, but because she and nearly every other musician performing in the APO’s 2021 season is either a Kiwi or lives here. It means, among other things, that we’ll have the rare opportunity to hear violinist Benjamin Morrison, the only New Zealander playing in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world’s greatest bands. Morrison sticks around for concertos by Brahms and Korngold.
Other soloists include the New Zealand Guitar Quartet, who’ll play Rodrigo’s rarely heard Concierto Andaluz (programmed with Ginastera and Michael Abels, this concert is another personal recommendation), Benjamin Baker (Bruch’s syrupy first violin concerto) and the superb NZTrio pianist Somi Kim, who tackles Gershwin’s jazzy Concerto in F. Aside from Retallick, APO players Melanie Lancon (Ibert’s Flute Concerto) and concertmaster Andrew Beer both step forward from their usual roles.
Beer (who with pianist Sarah Watkins just won Best Classical Artist at the Aotearoa Music Awards for their album 11 Frames) gets the honour of playing the world premiere of a concerto by Gillian Whitehead. Shamefully, though, the Whitehead is the only work in the APO’s flagship New Zealand Herald Premier Series to be written by a Kiwi. It’s a similar if more understandable case in the other main series, Bayleys Great Classics, where Maria Grenfell’s excellent but brief Stealing Tutunui is the only work to wave our flag. Between them, the APO’s two major series offer 49 individual pieces of music, yet just two of those are by local composers. It’s not enough.
Witchdoctor put this to the APO, which supplied a statement pointing out that away from the mainstage concerts, the orchestra has programmed works by Claire Cowan, Ross Harris, Leonie Holmes, Dorothy Ker, Rachael Morgan, Ruby Solly, Ryan Youens, Chris Adams and Rosa Elliot, as well as the pieces by Grenfell and Whitehead. Among those, there are six new commissions, which is impressive, especially in financially straightened times.
Solly’s new work appears with existing ones by Morgan and Ker in an intriguing standalone concert, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’, which airs on International Women’s Day and features pieces from eight female composers, including an arrangement of music by the 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen. It’s another concert to look out for, even if it doesn’t quite erase the disappointment of just 40(-ish) minutes of New Zealand music in the main series.
Less a disappointment than a regret is that next year the APO’s opera in concert will not be Peter Grimes, which was scheduled for 2020. Britten’s opera is not Bellincampi repertoire (it was to be conducted by the popular Swede Tobias Ringborg), so the orchestra has again turned to Beethoven and will perform Fidelio. Apart from the composer himself, the drawcard here is our leading singer, Simon O’Neill, in the role of Florestan. On the evening of the season launch, Bellincampi introduced O’Neill as “The best Florestan in the world.” Listening to the tenor flawlessly deliver Florestan’s Act ii aria “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!” as O’Neill did that night, he just might be.