11 Feb 2019

Review: NZSO's casual series returns

From Upbeat, 9:23 am on 11 February 2019

The Shed Series is a great idea. Pick a musical theme or artist and show off the influences between them and classical music. This year the NZSO kicked off the series with jazz, something they had dabbled with in previous shows.

NZSO performing at Shed 6

NZSO performing at Shed 6 Photo: Twitter - NZSO

The Shed Series is always an good spot for people watching. There’s a younger crowd who are happy to stand but feel awkward as they try not to get in anyone’s way. There’s the seasoned orchestra goer who is confused by the lack of seating and drags chairs where they best see fit. And then there’s those who are just happy to sit on the floor.

And of course part of the fun of Shed Series is that the orchestra moves around. So in between sections there was a lot of rearranging and spinning of chairs and redistribution of bodies. People also seemed more friendly at this particular concert. Sharing seats and chatting to their random neighbours.

The music was also excellent.

I am not a jazz fan, broadly speaking. So I was wary of the performance, and the opening song Fanfare for Bert by Jack Body, went almost immediately for the type of jazz I dislike. As conductor Hamish McKeich said afterwards: “we think there’s a melody, we just haven’t figured which one it is yet”.

The titular Bert, is Bert Kaempfert, composer of Strangers in the Night and Swinging Safari. You could certainly hear the influence in the opening.

La Création du Monde was far more my style, sounding as though a New Orleans jazz band had walked into the wrong room and were confronted by a conductor trying to rein them in. This lead me to an interesting thought about jazz and orchestral music.

Jazz is, by its nature, very free and improvisational, while orchestra music simply can’t do that. Sam Scott of the Phoenix Foundation noted this during last year’s collaboration with the NZSO. While his band went off on riffs the orchestra sat silent because it simply wouldn’t work.

La Création du Monde had many points that sounded like it was about to burst into an improvised solo on various instruments, but then each was pulled back in by the rest of the orchestra.

The solo cello piece and, later the solo violin, by Bach were both excellent. The Shed Series format for solos of this kind is to stand the musician, on a small plinth, slightly above the audience, but directly in the middle of it.

It’s hard not to feel more of a connection to the music when you are so close. To be so close to an artist doing their thing, to see the music on the page as they play it, is quite involving and I hope there are more solos during this year’s series.

At the end of the cello solo one woman whooped as though she was at Homegrown, and after the violin piece, the violinist mimed that he was off for a beer. This is not a regular concert by any means.

Bach’s solos bookended Arvo Pärt’s wonderful If Bach had been a Beekeeper. (The original title was apparently Portrait of a Musicologist Against a Wasp Nest.) The piece was lively and light, made more fun by the orchestra playing it standing in a section where they were surrounded by the audience. I made a note that it sounded like “the soundtrack to John Wayne chasing a bee”, which is to say, delightful.

The final section was devoted to Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige Suite. With much more of a big band feel, this was quite the departure from the rest of the pieces. However, by building to it through the other pieces, you could see how it fitted in the grand scheme.

While La Création du Monde was a composer who adored jazz, Black, Brown and Beige seemed to be much more constrained while telling its story. And the music was so evocative, as we sat in Shed 6, drinking wine and squished happily onto a seat with strangers.

I leaned over to my wife at one stage and said “I feel like the room should be full of cigarette smoke”. She replied, “and we should be drinking gin fizz”.