Nordic Fire – Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Tonight, the opening night of the 2021 Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra season was full of surprises and delight. Before any music played the CEO came out to welcome everyone and also to announce that tonight was the final performance for two members of the orchestra, between them they had racked up a stunning 53 years with the orchestra: first violinist Mark Bennett and principle horn Nicola Baker. There was huge applause for the pair of them and flowers came out, it was a really sweet moment which set the tone for the night, this was a celebration.

The programme for Nordic Fire comprised mostly pieces from Finland, with one Norwegian piece, and what each of these pieces does so perfectly is give different instruments the spotlight as well as celebrating the entire orchestra, you couldn’t have picked a better programme to really give everyone in the orchestra a moment.

Finlandia by Sibelius opened the concert in a confident performance conducted by NZ Assistant Conductor-in-Residence Vincent Hardaker. Originally written in 1899 and revised in 1900 the piece was composed for the Press Celebrations of 1899. A short piece at around 8 minutes long it had to be performed under alternative names to avoid Russian censorship for some time. The piece is a brilliantly rousing and exciting, with the beautiful Finlandia Hymn tucked inside. To the surprise of many, not least Siblius himself, the piece became a massive hit, not just in Finland for its rousing patriotic sentiment but all over the world.

Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra  was next by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, a five movement piece played continuously. Originally premiered in just 2015, the piece is part of Aho’s mission to compose concertos to showcase every instrument in the orchestra, and in this piece, the Timpani are front and centre, quite literally too, as the five drums that span two octaves and make up the core of the piece were right at the front by the conductor, played by principal timpanist Steven Logan.

The piece begins with a mystical, supernatural-esque style, building to huge washes of sound from across the spectrum. It’s an interesting piece, but I think the way I view it, is as a way of spotlighting the huge talent of a timpanist, in this case a spectacular Logan, who you could see how much he was enjoying himself, as well as giving the rest of the orchestra a lot to do as well!

After that performance, Logan gave the audience a treat. He brought out a xylophone, and with a string accompaniment, he performed the Bye Bye Medley, by Bob Becker. To me this was the highlight of the first half of the evening, only a few minutes but the sheer amount of talent that Logan showed in those few minutes was absolutely staggering and the audience responded with huge cheers, a fantastic extra that just made the night perfect, I’ve never seen anything like it, the skill was just beyond belief.

After the interval, most of the orchestra had left the stage, leaving only the woodwind and brass out for Gran Duo for Woodwinds and Brass by Magnus Lindberg. Conductor Hardaker brought a microphone out and before playing the piece, he wanted to talk about it, explain it so it would make more sense to the audience, which I’m very glad he did, we spotted things more as the piece was playing, it’s a great idea. It involved getting the orchestra to play small segments and explaining what it was all about, explaining that it’s a dialogue between two people, the masculine, and the feminine, represented by the brass and the woodwind. It builds and splits and turns in to different things until, finally, it merges in a beautiful crescendo with the Duo united at last in bliss and beauty. At this point Hardaker takes his leave as the conductor and the woodwinds and the brass leave the stage.

The strings come on stage and, apart from the cellos, everyone on stage was standing in a semicircle making it feel a bit more of an intimate affair and, with concertmaster Andrew Beer leading, they played through all five movements. It is a stunning piece. The only non-Finland piece in the performance, coming from Norway, it was originally composed for the piano, but a year later Grieg adapted it for a string orchestra, the five movements are meant to be an introduction and a set of dances. The Praeludium introduces us to an exciting and energetic piece, followed by Sarabande which is a bit more meditative followed by a rather respectful sounding Gavotte, with the longest movement in the piece being the deeply romantic and moving Air, leading to the Rigaudon which is much more animated and rowdy than its previous, but combining together into something beautiful, especially performed in this way, it was a really special way to end it.

Except it wasn’t the end! Nicola Baker came back out, and, accompanied by the strings, performed as a member of the orchestra for the last time with a lovely upbeat piece, earning her the biggest applause for the night, celebrating her last performance.

This concert was made up of lots of different moments, each showcasing a different member or section of the orchestra, highlighting them, celebrating them, and it was spectacularly done. If something this special is only the first performance from APO for the year then we have one very special 2021 to come!

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