Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s “Bach to the Future” promised to be a highlight of their season this year. This orchestra has repeatedly shown its mettle in 20th-century repertoire and had taken part in an absolutely stunning B minor Mass last year. And how appropriate to have a young Scotsman conducting Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony. In the end, this promise was somewhat fulfilled with some revelatory Bartók, mostly disappointing Bach and pretty wonderful Mendelssohn from the Auckland Philharmonia and conductor Rory Macdonald in his New Zealand debut.

To get the disappointing out of the way first, it was difficult to respond to Kristian Winther’s interpretation of the Bach Violin Concerto in E major, mostly because he didn’t offer all that much to respond to. He is certainly such a formidable technician that the technical aspects of the piece held no terrors for him. But most expression seemed to elude him on this particular occasion. Particularly the passagework seemed skated-over, pallid in tone, with higher portions sometimes inaudible even over the reduced Auckland Philharmonia. In the slow movement an occasional swooping portamento intruded, wholly inappropriate, but one was almost grateful that at least some sort of expression was finally being employed. The chamber-sized orchestral contingent accompanied gamely, but in the end, without an effective soloist, the performance never caught fire.

By contrast, the preceding Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste received a stunningly alert and punchy performance. There was an underlying tension throughout that allowed one to really be grabbed by the performance in total contrast to the following Bach. The slight acerbic timbre of the Auckland Philharmonia strings was not out of place in this work and added an extra touch of grit to the first movement’s wrenching upsurge. In particular, I very much enjoyed the yearning quality of the viola sound. The fugal lines benefited from great clarity throughout and Macdonald’s control was exemplary in judging the swell and ensuing diminution of volume. The second movement offered extreme precision and also a sure way with the music’s dance-like, folk elements.This orchestra seems to play its best when faced with music of great rhythmic vitality, and this was no exception, with the piano playing particularly impressive in this movement. The dialogue between the violin sections was well-handled in its coherency. Congratulations must be given to harpist Rebecca Harris, who made her instrument the centre of attention at its every solo appearance, especially in the slow movement with its eerie soundscapes. The finale has a lot of stopping and starting but it is to the orchestra and Macdonald’s credit that everything felt coherent for start to finish.

Considering his enthusiasm for reviving Bach’s works, it was fitting that the second half of the concert was devoted to Felix Mendelssohn, namely his Symphony no. 3, “Scottish”. This piece was famously inspired by the young Mendelssohn’s walking tour of Scotland, including a visit to the ruins at Holyrood Palace. The opening chorale-like figure was almost pensive but the following themes blossomed into a very enjoyable luminosity. There was a beautiful spontaneity and playfulness of the wind in the little birdsong-like figures that introduce the second movement – you could almost hear the Scottish countryside on a sunny afternoon. The orchestra seemed on totally relaxed form here; every phrase flowed from the one before and was shaped totally naturally. If anything, the third movement was perhaps a little too forthright – there is a degree of ominous mystery implicit in the music that wasn’t quite fully realised here. However, the playing could certainly not be faulted; again, the rhythmic precision was mindblowing. Under Macdonald’s leadership, the counterpoint in the last movement seemed to hark back to the Baroque, yet there were other times when one could hear early Wagner. When the hymnal mood of the first movement returned with increased splendour, it was almost like Tannhäuser. Mendelssohn was thus positioned as a sort of conduit between the Baroque and the Romantic in a most intriguing way. The best case possible was made for the rather tacked-on-sounding coda.

My worry before this concert was that the programme would feel ill-balanced, with the longer Bartók/Bach half outweighing the (relatively) less substantial Mendelssohn in the second. I needn’t have had any concern – Macdonald imbued the symphony with almost every bit of insight possible. There was enough of a palpable sense of Bach’s influence in both the Bartók and Mendelssohn that one could see sense in the rather cheesy concert title, “Bach to the Future”. Based on this performance, Rory Macdonald is a very promising young conductor equally at ease in 20th-century masterpieces and the romantic classics, and I hope to hear more of him soon. It was just a pity about the Bach.