The NZSO at 70: promise and puzzles

It was the NZSO’s birthday this week – it turned 70 – and so it threw a big party, in the form of a free concert featuring a kind of ‘greatest hits’ snippets of the last seven decades. So is our national orchestra in good shape, now that it’s a septuagenarian?

Mostly, I’d say, it is. I occasionally wonder how its funding, though intermittently cut, has held up so well over the decades, in a fairly pragmatic country that doesn’t even fund indigenous art – like kapa haka – particularly well, and which has recently gone for a minimal-government approach.

A clue comes in the 70th birthday concert programme, where both the arts minister, Maggie Barry, and the orchestra’s chief executive, Christopher Blake, give great prominence to what the orchestra has done overseas: its one major recent tour, the music for blockbuster international films, and so on.

The point here is that New Zealand still hasn’t shrugged off its cultural inferiority complex, and we still judge ourselves by what others think of us. The Viennese liked us? That’s wonderful! Standing ovations “and rave reviews” (Barry) in Europe? We must be OK! And so the government keeps funding something that makes us look good on the world stage. (That’s one explanation, anyway.)

And yet: the notes on the Elgar piece played on Monday night, Chanson de Nuit, point out that the recordings the NZSO makes earn “much-needed revenue”. So we still don’t fund it well enough to be properly stable.

Nonetheless the NZSO has become a lot stronger and more professional in 70 years. The first players included people who played in tea rooms and the like; now they’re all salaried professionals. And goodness do they play well sometimes. The Suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird was just gorgeous: intense, rich, lush, and yet with that ability to let the music breathe, and have its space, that I sometimes think is one of the NZSO’s best characteristics. The horn playing especially was beautiful, and the whole thing was close to a religious experience.

The NZSO also works with great people, and who better to have on stage than Michael Houston, superb artist that he is. His playing on Prokofiev’s piano concerto no 3 was just what you’d expect: almost crystalline in its clarity and structure, yet sensitive and flexible. He doesn’t have a touch that you instantly fall in love with, but it’s playing of the highest musicianship. (And I say that not even liking the Prokofiev all that much.)

It was a classically Kiwi concert in some (though not other) ways, especially in its folksy feel, with the pieces interspersed with introductions and reminiscences from the players. Some of these speeches, to be honest, had a high-school, “here’s my rehearsed address” feel about them, and went on a bit too long. But they were touching, too, and funny, and genuine.

The programme notes told us that the NZSO’s first concert, in 1947, started with God Save the King; and on Monday night we got, of course, God Defend New Zealand, which was a useful reminder that sometimes a country can go backwards in terms of musical quality. Not even Ossie Cheesman’s arrangement can disguise the fact that our national anthem is a stinker, and the sooner we replace it with Pokarekare Ana (or similar), the better.

But then there was Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, which was great fun, and Gareth Farr’s From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs, still retaining that ability to astonish and electrify. Most of the time the NZSO played beautifully under the assured conducting of Hamish McKeich. The only minor stumble, for me, was Verdi’s overture to La Forza del Destino, which I think needs a bit more snap in the opening string lines and, overall, just a bigger, slightly more over-the-top and swaggeringly Italian feel than it had here. But Sibelius’s Karelia Suite and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Suite were both delightful.

One major reservation I had concerned the relative lack of New Zealand music. Farr’s piece is wonderful, but it was commissioned for the NZSO’s 50th. Couldn’t we have had something commissioned for this? Couldn’t we also have had more than one New Zealand piece on a large programme, given that we are, after all, in New Zealand? Douglas Lilburn got a name-check at one point; how great it would have been to hear something from him, or from a really up-and-coming young composer. Normally events like a 70th are – as the cliche has it – a chance to look forwards as well as backwards, but this felt almost entirely backwards-looking.

Ditto the audience, in a way. Several audience members were applauded for having been at that first NZSO concert 70 years ago, and that is extraordinary, in a way; but also not surprising, because the NZSO audience is, to be honest, quite old. Even with tickets available free, there were precious few young people in the crowd.

This matters because classical music has to build a fan base for the future, and I’m not sure how successfully that’s being done. In short: it was a lovely concert, and getting to 70 years is something to be proud of, but I wonder a little about where the NZSO will be in another 70 years.

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