NZSO, Made in NZ 2009; Wellington Town Hall
June 12-13 | Reviewed by Samuel Holloway

THE ARRIVAL of Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku in New Zealand gave dual reasons for celebration. Not only did we have one of the world’s foremost clarinetists performing here, but he had convinced the NZSO to programme two substantial contemporary pieces by fellow Finns Magnus Lindberg and Jukka Tiensuu. These two works were without doubt the highlights of the concert series, but were sandwiched between standard concert repertoire that came off looking a little banal by comparison, in spite of consistently excellent playing by the NZSO.

The Friday night concert opened with Rossini’s ubiquitous William Tell Overture. William Tell was Rossini’s last opera, and the Overture contains, in its final section, one of the most pervasive musical memes ever written. It has been appropriated for use in a range of popular media from A Clockwork Orange to Lone Ranger, and the resultant familiarity makes it an enjoyable choice for performance. The NZSO’s performance under the baton of Pietari Inkinen was uniformly tight, and featured a beautiful performance of the Ranz des Vaches (herdsman’s call) by Michael Austin on cor anglais.

The high point of the first concert was undeniably the work that followed: Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto. The work resulted from collaboration with Kriikuu, and it displays typical Lindbergian energy and colour, at times hinting at the romantic excesses of Mahler and giving distinctly Gershwin-esque flashes toward its conclusion.

But like many concerti, it is essentially a vehicle for the soloist. And Kari Kriikku was the ultimate soloist, from his lithe and mobile figure to his shiny tan shoes, his James Dean-like poses, and most importantly the range of sounds that he coaxed from his instrument, and the breathtaking virtuosity that he displayed in a constant interplay with the Orchestra. For their part, the NZSO proved more than capable, with particularly nuanced playing from the front desk of the cellos in quieter moments.

The second half of the concert consisted solely of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, an attractive work that felt a little flat after the exhilaration of the first half, in spite of some momentum gained in the darker final movements.

Saturday night began with a work rivaling the Friday night opener in the populism stakes: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a work best known in New Zealand for being the annual closer of Christmas in the Park. The piece celebrates the 1812 defeat of Napolean by the Russian army and features a host of National tunes from the Marseillaise to a Russian liturgical chant, along with canons (rendered here necessarily if somewhat unfortunately in a recording triggered from an Apple laptop). Like the Rossini of the night before, it’s a familiar opener, but one that could have done with a little less of Inkinen’s Nordic restraint, and could happily be saved for outdoors.

At the other end of the evening, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a symphonic suite based on episodes from The Arabian Nights, is musical orientalism at its best. The work is noted for its colourful orchestration, and the Orchestra shone again, with particularly good solo turns from principals David Chickering and Ed Allen, Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and percussionist Lenny Sakofsky, who displayed an artful lightness of touch in his snare drum playing.

The star of Friday night, Kari Kriikku, reappeared for Jukka Tiensuu’s Puro for clarinet and orchestra, a work written for the performer in 1989. Tiensuu, an important figure in Finnish Modernism, has spent much time in electronic studios around the world, and the influence of this is evident in Puro. The work has as its harmonic basis a spectral analysis of a low note played on the clarinet, and this is made manifest throughout the piece as chords based on the analysis. It is a more difficult work than the Lindberg, lacking the familiar gestures and ‘safe’ moments, but is nonetheless immediately appealing, eschewing aggression as melodic ideas presented on the clarinet echo around the orchestra.

Again the Orchestra was up to the task, giving one of the best performances of contemporary work that I have seen from the NZSO. Kriikku’s mastery was especially evident in the lengthy cadenza, with echos previously made by the orchestra now coming from the solo instrumentalist in a stunning display of virtual and actual polyphony. Even the most reluctant listeners could not help but be excited, with Kriikuu’s adventurous performance eliciting a deservedly rapturous response from the audience, who were rewarded with a witty klezmer encore.