10 Jul 2020

Review: APO's Welcome Back With Houstoun gets rapturous reception

From Upbeat, 11:35 am on 10 July 2020

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The APO's Welcome Back With Houstoun concert

The APO's Welcome Back With Houstoun concert Photo: ©Adrian Malloch

The APO made its welcome return to the stage last night after a shutdown forced by the Covid-19 Virus. Aucklanders had been missing their orchestra and gave them a rapturous reception to mark their return to the Town Hall. A full and enthusiastic house enjoyed this celebratory evening of warm and rich music which may not have plumbed the depths but perfectly suited this much anticipated occasion.

The APO's Welcome Back With Houstoun concert

The APO's Welcome Back With Houstoun concert Photo: ©Adrian Malloch

The unity and teamwork of the country over the lockdown was invoked by New Zealand composer John Psathas with his specially commissioned Five Million Fanfare for brass and percussion that began the concert. Crisply written and compressing a lot into a short space of time, this was a brilliant and bracing opener. Soaring brass and driving percussion (including an oil drum) captured the feelings of release and relief as well as the drama of the last few months. Like a finely made shot of espresso the music hit the senses and left us raised and exhilarated.

The fanfare was followed by Beethoven’s spirited and dazzling Piano Concerto No 1. Michael Houstoun and the APO revelled in the playfulness and joy of the piece and delighted the capacity audience with a bravura performance that also had its deeper moments. The piano’s wittily offhand entrance after the concerto’s opening chords set the tone for the first movement with its many surprises and cunning musical twists and turns. There were also beautifully rendered darker moments in the central section with ethereal passages which prepared the extensively wild and exhilarating cadenza. The second movement was full of depth and shade and was the concert’s highlight for me. The clarinet-dominated woodwind textures recalled Mozart, and the music’s space and tranquillity was captured in a thoughtful dialogue between soloist and orchestra.

Michael Houstoun performs with the APO

Michael Houstoun performs with the APO Photo: ©Adrian Malloch

Then with a crash and a bound we were off into an exhilarating and joyfully buoyant version of the famous rondo third movement with Houstoun and the APO under Andrew Beer’s capable direction capturing all its humour and zest that capped a joyful performance. A short Beethoven Bagatelle encore made an effective palate cleanser.

The concert’s second half began with the wind serenade written by Richard Strauss when he was only 17. This sunny music was impeccably played by the APO musicians. The varied sonorities, dynamics and instrumental combinations of this short piece were colourfully exploited to great effect by the players. This is conservative music that looks back to Mozart but it has its surprises and is a masterpiece of instrumentation which delighted the audience.

The APO strings then took to the stage and stood throughout their delightful performance of Antonín Dvořák’s famous and popular Serenade. By turns elegant, lilting, lush and dramatic, this varied suite was given a fond and persuasive performance that made this somewhat familiar music come alive. Rich colours and some crisp rhythms articulated the characteristics of each movement and overall made the music a warm and delightful capstone to this celebratory evening.

Welcome Back with Houstoun

PSATHAS: Fanfare for the ''Team of Five MIllion'' (world premiere)
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No 1 in C Op 15
STRAUSS: Serenade in Eb for winds Op 7
DVORAK: Serenade in E for strings Op 22

Michael Houstoun (piano), Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Beer (dir)
9 July 2020, Town Hall, Auckland (RNZ)