6 Mar 2017

Pride and Pleasure: The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra celebrates 70 years

From Upbeat, 9:00 am on 6 March 2017

Ahead of their first performance on the 6th March 1947, Deputy Prime Minister Walter Nash addressed the National Orchestra.

Souvenir programme from the first ever public concert given by the National Orchestra on 6 March 1947.

Souvenir programme from the first ever public concert given by the National Orchestra on 6 March 1947. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference Eph-B-MUSIC-NO-1947-01-title

The National Orchestra's first performance at the Wellington Town Hall was a highly anticipated event. Those who failed to secure a ticket listened to the live broadcast on 2YA. It was English conductor Andersen Tyrer's big night and J.C Beaglehole captured the electric atmosphere in his review for 'The Listener'.

In 2017 The National Orchestra, now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, celebrates 70 years of concert giving. We asked listeners, RNZ Concert presenters, and players from the orchestra to share their most memorable concert experience with us.

Here's what they said...


Conductor Andersen Tyrer in 'New Zealand Listener', 1947

Conductor Andersen Tyrer in 'New Zealand Listener', 1947 Photo: The Listener

"One of the most memorable events in my childhood was the first time I had ever seen or listened to an orchestra. The brand new National Orchestra came to play at the Civic Theatre in Invercargill in 1947.

A Haydn symphony was performed. My mother and aunt told me this symphony had to do with hunting so we listened for the sound of horns. Most exciting.

The conductor was Anderson Tyrer. I remember thinking it was very strange to have Anderson for a first name.

My mother, unusual for her, had put on lipstick and was wearing her prized rabbit fur coat. Emblems to confirm the importance of the event. I've no idea what I wore but was well fitted out with a clear set of terms and conditions as to behaviour ."

First Love


"I was a small child, 70 years ago in Timaru, when I fell in love and was swept off my feet for the first time....The National Orchestra of New Zealand was coming to play in our small town, their first official visit.  Everyone came out to greet the players and their minders when they arrived.

It was a bit like VE Day and VJ Day all over again.

That night I was to be taken out in the dark for the first time with my parents to hear the new orchestra play at Timaru's Theatre Royal.  It was a very special occasion and  I was  I was wearing my new velvet dress and black patent leather shoes,  

The concert began with "God Save the King".  We all stood and sang loudly...well I did, My heart was thundering with every musical note I heard.  The orchestra was enormous, and I saw instruments that I had no idea existed.....I was in love with them all, and planned to play in a huge NZ orchestra when I grew up....any instrument, I was not fussy, as long as I was there.

I began with a recorder at school, and sadly that was it.

Many years later I fell in love again, this time with a 2YC radio announcer. One of his duties included compering musical concerts at Wellington's Town Hall. He always had 2 tickets for the concerts, one for himself, and one for me.

I was with him the night he compered Victoria de los Angeles'  concert at the Town Hall, and was introduced to her at an after show gathering. What a night...the magnificent Victoria, the orchestra, and my husband, Brian Hudson, duty compere for the evening.

While working with the BBC in London, Brian compered many musical concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, and Prom concerts at the Albert Hall. I was usually with him.  However, none of these brilliant musical events ever had quite the same impact as my first night at an orchestra concert 70 years ago, the night I was swept off my feet by The National Orchestra of New Zealand at the Theatre Royal in Timaru."

Donald Armstrong, NZSO Associate Concertmaster

Donald Armstrong, Associate Concert Master NZSO

Donald Armstrong, Associate Concert Master NZSO Photo: Supplied NZSO

David Morriss, RNZ Concert Presenter

"My most memorable NZSO concert was Franz Paul Decker conducting Bruckner’s Symphony no. 5. There was nothing else on the programme. There didn’t need to be.

I’d listened to Bruckner’s music before and found it pretty impenetrable, but as soon as the “big tune” in the strings in the second movement started, I was hooked.

Just off the top of my head, I have more than 10 recordings of that symphony alone, not to mention several complete sets and many other single symphony recordings. I blame the NZSO. They have a lot to answer for!"

Amanda Brown, RNZ Concert Presenter

"My earliest experience with the NZSO harks back to the Proms concerts of the 1970s & 80s which were nicknamed ‘Cushion Concerts’. Family friendly - and yes- you brought your own cushion and sat on the floor of the Wgtn Town Hall. Mum and Dad used to take us along, great fun for all the family!"

Stellar Guests

Conductor Igor Stravinsky's 1961 visit created a real stir.


"There have been many memorable NZSO  concerts in my sixty plus years of concert going, but the most outstanding is definitely when Igor Stravinsky conducted in 1961 the then National Orchestra playing his Rite of Spring in the Wellington Town Hall.  I still vividly remember his somewhat stooped figure making his way on to the rostrum, then spreading his arms out so that from the stalls he resembled an eagle in flight; and then the amazing music he conjured from the orchestra. Not only did he conduct without a score or a baton, but for most of the time his hand were clenched.   Even now the memory of it still gives me goosebumps!"


"There’s no more fitting description of the excited atmosphere in the Auckland Town Hall as we waited for Stravinsky – Stravinsky himself! – to appear than ’electric’. It seemed that magic was in the air and when the magician himself brought his 'Firebird' to life, the effects of the spell he cast have lasted with me to this day."


"I shall never forget the 1986 concert with Dame Joan Sutherland. Her husband Richard Bongyne conducting the NZSO and flautist Richard Giese accompanying Dame Joan in the mad scene from Lucia Di Lammermoor. Superb and totally unforgettable. Orchestra perfection."


"About 40 years ago I took my two tiny boys to an NZSO children’s concert in the Town Hall.  It was a wonderful experience and the boys were fascinated by music such as Peter and the Wolf etc.  Coming out I glanced at the seats higher up and spotted Douglas Lilburn, sitting by himself.  On impulse I dragged the littlies up to meet him.  I don’t know what possessed me.  Possibly the excitement of the concert had put me on a ‘high’.  We talked about the music.  Douglas was friendly and urbane.  It was like meeting a God!  I was overawed, the boys were non-plussed, and I don’t know what Douglas Lilburn thought!"

Rick Young, RNZ Concert Presenter

"A highlight for me from the last few years is the NZSO’s Beethoven series back in 2014. All nine symphonies beautifully played and conducted by Pietari Inkinen, who does know his Beethoven from his elbow. Over 340 minutes of thrilling, orchestral brilliance – paradise for any Beethoven fan!"

Chaos at a National Orchestra concert

Chaos at a National Orchestra concert Photo: Public Domain

Musical Mishaps and Marvels


"Many decades ago, I can't remember which, maybe 1950s or so, the then National Orchestra was giving a live broadcast from the Cambridge Town Hall. They were playing a very complex and rhythmical arrangement of Jamaican Rumba. There were many fast and syncopated notes. In later years, as an orchestral player myself, I am well aware of the pitfalls available to a player especially if, after a quick glance at the conductor, you arrive back at the music but not in the same place. OMG!

On this occasion, someone must have done just that as the music went off beat but it did not pick up and got progressively worse until the whole piece collapsed in chaos. The conductor turned to the audience and said "Ladies and Gentlemen.This is a very difficult piece. We will start it again." They played it right through brilliantly and received one of the most tumultuous ovations I have ever heard in all my years of orchestral appreciation. As I was young at the time, I tend to doubt if any of those players are still alive today. If any of them are, I am sure they might want to forget the breakdown but could only be justly proud of the resulting replay and the thunderous applause it received."


"To make a concert memorable, amongst those performed over 70 years by the NZSO, there has to be something very unusual.  For me it was a concert in the Auckland Town Hall on Saturday 9th August 1958 conducted by Nicolai Malko.  This was of course an event of some significance, as Malko was famous for his championing of Shostakovich, and the concert included a suite from his opera The Nose.  At one point it involved a slow descending scale played by the bassoon (or was it double bassoon), which continued ponderously until it seemed it could go no lower.  It was done with such flair and  feeling for the humour that I and many others were nearly rolling in the aisles.  It was quite a relief when it finally finished, and the audience could settle down again - almost.  But when in the next section a piccolo took over from the bassoon at the opposite end of the register the audience dissolved into guffaws."


"My most memorable NZSO concert is not for the music itself, (though I think it was the 50th anniversary concert with the first performance of Gareth Farr's wonderful From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs but that during the concert, which was conducted by the late Sir Neville Marriner in the Michael Fowler Centre, there was a small earthquake. Sir Neville faltered slightly, looked around and then went back to conducting the orchestra which hadn't missed a beat! A memorable concert for everyone involved I imagine."


"I was at a performance at the Founders Theatre Hamilton in the 1980s. During one of the breaks I was aware of two well known cellists looking my way and smiling. However they weren't smiling at me but at a dog sitting quietly in the aisle in front of me. The owner was blind and the dog her companion. I asked what the dog's favourite tune was. Dad smilingly replied “Offenbach!”  The conductor resumed resumed his position on the rostrum. He raised his baton turned and looked at the dog with a nod as if to ask permission to start much to the to the amusement of audience."


"We were living in Havelock North & in either the’ 70’s or ‘80’s pianist Janetta McStay came to the Hastings Municipal Theatre on tour with the NZSO. The hind leg of the Grand piano fell off!!  Being Hastings out came wooden apple boxes & propped the piano on them!! Apart from the spectacle the sound was just lovely!!! A lovely memory."

Composer Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik

Composer Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik Photo: Public Domain

Emotional Moments


"Shortly after the Air New Zealand Mt Erebus crash in 1979 I attended an NZSO concert in Wellington Town Hall.  As a requiem for those who had died, Michi Inoue conducted the orchestra in “Nimrod”, Variation IX from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.  Whenever I hear of the Erebus crash, or hear Elgar’s lovely dignified music, I always think of that moving occasion.  Many in the audience knew victims of the disaster.  It still brings me to tears."


"My most memorable concert was 3rd August 2002. My mum had been an avid supporter of NZSO, writing letters of welcome to visiting soloists and conductors, and to 'the band' members as well.

Four of them, plus the manager had attended Mum's funeral that morning on Waiheke Island and played Mozart`s flute concerto in G. Manager, David Pawsey had also brought a bouquet of flowers. Luckily, as I hadn't known it was my job to order flowers for the casket!

That night, James Judd dedicated the concert to Mum. I particularly remember the last movement of Mahler's 3rd, where it sounds a bit like that old song, 'I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places' bringing us all to tears. Very memorable."

Tim Dodd, RNZ Concert Producer

"A performance of Mahler 9 in Christchurch Town Hall … would have been early 80s and I’ve no idea who the conductor was. It absolutely slayed me and I could hardly get out of my seat to leave the hall afterwards."


"After listening to Marshall Walker's Letters to Sibelius some years ago, and identifying with his troublesome growing-up years, I phoned him at the University of Waikato; his voice message gave me his mobile number which I rang. He responded with real enthusiasm saying how wonderful to hear a NZ voice, since he was sitting in a café in Helsinki.

Some time later Wellington hosted the NZSO with a Sibelius Evening. I booked  online and flew up.  I have never felt so uplifted by a programme, including the moving Valse Triste. I have a boxed set of his entire works."

Clarissa Dunn, RNZ Concert Presenter

"I’ve had many fantastic opportunities to present live NZSO concerts from the radio booth but one of the most moving and inspiring experiences I’ve had was singing in the NZSO Chorale during a performance of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, conducted by Edo de Waart. During one of the quieter, more reflective passages, illuminated dust motes caught my eye as they gently drifted from the ceiling towards the orchestra, and I thought – there’s nowhere else I would rather be."



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