Nelson summer high

by Rod Biss / 29 December, 2007
So much to choose from.

There's a combination that's almost unbeatable; chamber music, devoted performers, intriguing programmes of new, old and local music, intimate venues, a beautiful setting in summertime. Yes, I'm describing the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson where in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere the playing was at such a high level that each concert seemed unsurpassable.

If pushed, I might almost choose one that stood out: the New Zealand String Quartet together with Canadian clarinettist James Campbell in performances of both Brahms and Mozart's Clarinet Quintets in the School of Music Hall. I'm not sure, though; I could just as easily decide that it was the New Zealand Trio playing Gillian Whitehead's Piano Trio in the tiny hall at Motueka.

Later in the year there was more Whitehead when Tuhonohono played a concert of her music in the Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber to celebrate Matariki (the Maori New Year).

Whitehead's music is genuinely of Aotearoa, blending together taonga puoro with conventional instruments in an innovative way. The sound is new and beautiful: Nau mai e tea o marama, a duet for voice and taonga puoro played by Richard Nunns and sung with power and eloquence by Ramonda Te Maiharoa-Taleni is a piece I long to hear again.

More traditional yet still memorable, from CMNZ's subscription series, was the Kungsbacka Trio playing a well-known work, Schubert's Trio in E flat D929, with thrilling freshness that made old music sound as though one were hearing it for the first time.

In a different world was the NZSO's sold-out performance of Mahler's colossal Symphony No 2, The Resurrection, for AK07. Orchestra, choir and soloists all worked like mad, but Mahler's vision remained disappointingly earthbound.

Much more thrilling was the festival's closing concert, fire-wind-water, from the APO under Giancarlo Guerrero, which had as its centrepiece Toru Takemitsu's From Me Flows What You Call Time for five percussion players and orchestra - the most delicately beautiful and brilliantly imagined piece in the whole festival.

There's no doubt about the NZSO's fantastic playing, but their subscription programmes were ultra-bland, unmemorable affairs. The concerts that should tour never left Wellington: Made in New Zealand with Nathan Haines, composer-focused concerts for Tchaikovsky and Wagner and, most infuriatingly of all, an intriguing all-Bernstein concert conducted by the miniature but magnificent Xian Zhang.

By contrast, all the APO's programmes had shape, conviction and interest. Best of all were concerts that presented Gareth Farr, Prokofiev and Charles Ives conducted by Marc Taddei; a more popular event, Rome, the Eternal City; and their final subscription concert of Britten, Prokofiev and Holst conducted by Mischa Santora.

I had misgivings about NZ Opera presenting Turandot yet again, but Christopher Alden's perceptive production brought it chillingly alive. Singing, particularly by the chorus, was outstanding - in fact it was all so good that I just had to see it a second time.

I'm also a fan of the Opera Factory, who constantly scour through the catalogues to find works we thought we'd never see on stage here. Mid-year they presented a triple bill that culminated in Linda Kitchen's jazzy, heart-warming production of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges.

But what is classical? I'd include Herbie Hancock, who in one Aotea Centre event played his "Watermelon Man" and much else, and then put the spotlight on guitarist Lionel Loueke, whose playing was a revelation of melody and rhythms, a 10-man band housed in one body.

Helen Medlyn sings classics, too, but they're not always opera or oratorio. Hell Man, her show with Penny Dodd, took us to the nostalgic, cynical, tuneful world of Broadway and Hollywood, with a sublime encore of "The Nearness of You".

Viva Voce's homage to Monteverdi, The Full Monte, took us back four centuries for the magnificent opening of the Vespers, and a number of madrigals, all of them tender and anguished.

But the most significant and marvellous five minutes of music in both 1607 and 2007 can only be the attention-grabbing toccata that opens Orfeo, followed by the opera's prologue in which La Musica, personified to perfection by Emma Roxburgh, sang of music's wide-ranging powers.

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