It seems that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is on a roll this year featuring living composers, following up their intriguing HK Gruber concert last month with this concert featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen’s magnificent Violin Concerto alongside a 19th-century masterwork, Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 “The Great”.

Jennifer Koh
© Juergen Frank

Premiered in 2009, Salonen’s Violin Concerto was composed at the end of his stint as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and was described by the composer as “a private narrative, a kind of summary of my experiences as a musician and a human being at the watershed age of 50.” It certainly runs the gamut of musical expression, from the violent to the utterly sublime, all with an extraordinarily difficult solo violin part, here taken by spectacular American violinist Jennifer Koh. Starting from the extremely virtuosic opening movement, where the light-toned but restless violin part scarcely seemed to stop its breathless passagework, Koh showed her mastery of all of the work’s difficulties even as the violin line become ever more embellished and accelerated to an almost unrealistic speed. The orchestra shone as brightly as the soloist, the piquant vibraphone, glockenspiel and celesta having particularly memorable parts. The onset of the second movement was a complete change of mood, a sweet if somewhat eerie violin melody, delicately spun out by Koh, set against the light pulsing of the timpani and some particularly beautiful flute playing. The third movement suddenly erupted with violence and the hammering of a log drum, its wild, thrusting rhythms taking on a myriad of influences from rock through the off-kilter rhythms of early Stravinsky to some surprisingly joyful jazz elements, and again the technical aspects of Koh’s playing were stunning. The final movement is another slow one, an “Adieu” to the orchestra Salonen had worked with. Koh again amazed with her insightful rendition of the score.

Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 was probably mostly written in the year 1825 and thus not his last symphony despite being the last-numbered. In Schubert’s lifetime it received no official performance, only a run-through by a conservatory orchestra that found it too long and too difficult. The symphony wasn’t premiered until 1839, when Mendelssohn took it up. Schumann famously described the work’s “heavenly length” and much has been made of the repetitive nature of the work but on this occasion, it was clear that conductor Edo de Waart had strong engagement with the work’s musical structure and almost every repetition sprung forth with care duly given to changes of dynamics, harmonics or instrumentation. The horn sang out the memorable opening theme with enthusiasm, echoed by equally expressive woodwind and the magical mood was well-established. Of all of the movements, the first was the only one that seemed to drag slightly towards the end. De Waart’s Andante con moto second movement was rather sunnier in feeling than some other performances but none the worse for that, the tricky key changes well-handled. The orchestra romped through the dizzying and deliciously melodic themes of the Scherzo, bringing a touch of sophistication to the overall bucolic feeling. And in the last movement, there was exciting rhythmic impetus and ample light and shade before the final glorious apotheosis. In one of the best performances I’ve heard this orchestra give under his leadership, de Waart brought new life to Schubert’s warhorse in a way that excited almost as much as the preceding Salonen.