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Monday, April 21, 2008

Now that's a long-distance dedication ...

Ever since I saw the NBR New Zealand Opera's excellent production of Turandot last year, for which the Vector Wellington Orchestra provided the music, I have been wanting to see an orchestra perform on their own. I was highly impressed with their performance on that night. Wellingtonians are fortunate enough to not only have an active and well-funded opera company, but to also have two outstanding symphony orchestras.

So it was a few weeks ago that I wandered into Wellington and passed by the Michael Fowler Centre. As I was waiting for the light to change, I realized I was standing right next to one of Ticketek's main outlets, this being the only one that handles all of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's events, apparently.

I stepped inside their office and asked about NZSO's upcoming shows. What didn't strike me until later was that I didn't ask - or seem to care - what the show was, exactly. So enamoured of their music was I that all I wanted to know was when they were playing again and, if it fit my schedule, I would automatically go.

After a bit of give and take with the ticket girl I finally found a date when I could go, and that date was last Friday night. Not until I got to the event did I realize what I was in for as out of blind luck I had chosen quite a special occasion.

It was at the Wellington Town Hall Auditorium, an imposing and majestic tan building with a beautiful interior. The spacious ceiling offered great acoustics and it seemed like it was made just for the symphony. The seats were all quite comfortable, too, and I hope to be seeing the NZSO perform here again some day.

The purpose of this concert, which is part of the Explore Antarctica festival going on right now, was two-fold; first it was dedicated to the late Sir Edmund Hillary. The second was that it was for all the New Zealanders currently serving at Scott Base on Antarctica, a site where Sir Ed was part of the very first winter-over team.

The performance consisted of three movements, during the first of which a steady montage of images of Sir Ed passed on the screens above. This piece was the Suite from Scott of the Antarctic, by Vaughan Williams, and it was heartfelt. The nearly sold-out audience was quite caught up in the orchestra's mastery, as was I.

Between the first two movements the NZSO took a break after welcoming its new conductor to the crowd. The mucky-muck in charge of the whole shebang took the stage and thanked all of his sponsors and then explained the night's performance. Finally! Even though I didn’t need a particular reason to go see the NZSO play, it was nice for the evening to have such a unique context.

The day prior to this show, the last plane for four and a half months had come and gone from Antarctica, so the remaining scientists and staff at the base were just now preparing to dig in for a long winter on the bottom of the world. It is worth noting that the United States' own McMurdo Station sometimes works closely with New Zealand's Scott Base so a few of the Americans from McMurdo were in attendance as well.

In attendance at Scott Base, Antarctica, that is. This show was being simulcast to those stranded (voluntarily, of course) down there so it was a pleasant surprise for me (the only one in the audience not in on it until now, probably) to learn that these brave souls on the bottom of the world were part of the audience.

There was a live telecast from one of the members of the research team who gave a speech thanking the NZSO for their support. It was followed by a montage of several of the other staff down there showing the rest of us a bit of what life is like so far down the globe. Lastly another of the staff gave a warm toast to the NZSO and ultimately, Antarctica itself.

They then gave us their own rather humorous performance with their New Zealand “Sympathy” Orchestra in tribute to the 'real' NZSO. It was great and, in Kiwi fashion, very tongue-in-cheek. They even had their own home-made triangle, a gigantic one which seemed to be large pieces of welded iron pipe, clanged expertly and only once by one of the three 'musicians' that wielded it.

After much laughter and applause, it was back to business as usual but it was cool knowing that we had a distant yet appreciative crowd in Antarctica as part of the audience.

For the second movement a tall thin man returned to the fore of the stage with the conductor. It turns out this was Paul Whelan whose voice formed the centrepiece of the second movement, called Terra Incognita and this was its world premiere. It was written with Mr. Whelan in mind, and he and the Orchestra were backed up by the awesome Orpheus Choir. To this novice symphony-goer it sure seemed to me like the conductor got the most anyone could have gotten out of that very talented ensemble of voices.

I was seated five rows back, to the right of and behind the conductor. The large choir stood in two separate sections on the stage above and behind the musicians, so one bank of singers seemed to be staring straight at me although of course their rapt attention was focused solely on the conductor. It just gave this movement a neat effect, as if the choir were singing directly at me.

There was a 20-minute intermission after these first two movements. Yet, without a program and not having the cash to pay for one, I had to sheepishly ask one of the very nice usherettes if that was it or was there going to be more. She told me it was just an intermission but it was honestly hard to tell because as soon as it began a fair number of people made a beeline for the cold air outside. I guess they were probably the smokers in the crowd!

The third movement was Maxwell Davies’ Symphony No. 8 Antarctic Symphony and it was also good but this one did not use the Orpheus Choir. It was a more stark number than the first two, as its obvious focus was on global warming and the melting, splitting and breaking up of several large parts of Antarctica. That this is happening more and more lately was demonstrated just last month by the partial collapse of a huge Antarctic ice shelf.

The music certainly fit the theme, with sudden shrill outbursts, I suppose mimicking the spontaneous cracking of large sections of ice. Superimposed on images of melting ice and flowing rivers of snowmelt were sped-up movies of moving cars numbering in the thousands. There were also ominous images of oil refinery smokestacks, burning away endlessly amidst a backdrop of melting ice.

This symphony was expertly performed, including a frenzied conclusion that seemed to be flawlessly pulled off by the musicians, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the first two movements. It was harsh and jarring - purposefully of course - but its sobering effect took off some of the glow I was feeling earlier.

Plus, I missed the presence of the Orpheus Choir!

Yet just as Turandot spawned a desire for me to catch the NZSO on their own, so now has NZSO ignited a yearning in me to see the Orpheus Choir in a future performance.

So as my ‘matryoshka doll’ style of interest in the arts keeps going, I’ll be sure to find something else to experience after the choir and I can’t wait to find out what that is!


Blogger Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Wow, Brooksie! You certainly did “luck out” into a very special performance. I wish I had been there! Thank you for sharing the experience.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Brooksie said...

Hey thanks Nick, glad you could enjoy this vicariously at least!

5:21 PM  
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10:56 PM  

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