Fantastique – NZSO

The NZSO took over the Auckland Town Hall for the evening and brought out three ‘fantastique’ pieces under the baton of New Zealand conductor Holly Mathieson for the first time. Mathieson introduced the night and described it as an evening of dreams, each piece a different dream, a different style. Mathieson gave a strong and assured performance throughout; a very exciting beginning to what I hope will be a long partnership between her and the NZSO.  

The evening began with Toru Takemitsu’s ‘Dreamtime’ (Yume no Toki), a piece very much musically inspired by Debussy. Of all three pieces tonight, this one is very much the most ‘dreamlike’ in terms of the more traditional Western style of dreams with the harps and the mystery sort of element. The Debussy influence is very strong in this music, keeping it mysterious and beautiful.

Takemitsu took the Australian aboriginal myth of Dreamtime as inspiration also (but was not referencing the myth directly, merely using it as inspiration to create his own piece on dreaming). He wrote ‘Just as a dream…in this work short episodes hang suspended in seeming incoherency to form a musical whole. The subtle variations in rhythm and changes in tempo only serve to emphasise the sensation of floating in the music.’

The second piece was ‘The Third Dream’ by New Zealand composer Dorothy Ker. If Dreamtime was your quintessential dream-like music, The Third Dream is much more a nightmare.

The piece opens dark, stormy, this element of horror, this is a nightmare of epic proportions and it is glorious. The strings are absolutely stunning here, sharp strikes, a rising terror building with elements of percussion fluttering in and out. The timpani and brass are fantastic here. It’s eight minutes of thrilling adventures in the frightening darkness.

The third and final piece of the evening was the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, in five movements it was a hugely influential and important symphony with its size and scale and its ability to tell a non-musical story.

Leonard Bernstein’s description of the piece as “You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral” is very apt! The story is about an artist who is haunted by a perfect and unattainable woman. Funnily enough Berlioz knew a fair bit about being haunted by an unattainable woman. In his case, he saw a performance of Hamlet and got completely obsessed with the actress who portrayed Ophelia, who, much to his chagrin ignored him completely.

The five movements follow the artist following in love and the frustration of that love, to the artist being haunted by his love being away from him to the fourth act where he tries to overdose on opium and ends up dreaming that he has been sentenced to death for murdering his beloved, ending the movement with his execution. The fifth and final movement is the artist in hell at a witches Sabbath, howling in despair at his death.

The music throughout these five movements is a stunning evolution. The music begins with some crazy, glorious strings, beauty and madness entwined. In the third movement it begins beautifully slow, stunningly sweet, the cello in particular was brilliant; the way that the tension built with the strings was just incredible. The fourth movement had a bit of a moodier start, leading to a great case of using the full orchestra leading to a wonderful climax, particularly with the strings. The final movement, set in the world of the dead sounds so different- so dark and twisted, yet referencing the earlier movements , it’s just a fantastic way to end it.

It was a fantastic first concert for Mathieson and the NZSO to share together. I’m hoping this concert is just the start of a very long relationship. The three pieces combined together to create a fascinating exploration of different cultures, times and composers on that one common theme of dreams and what a dream the evening was!

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