For the first concert in her second year as Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Gemma New elected to feature Mahler’s vast and sprawling Third Symphony, a work that conceptually tries to describe not just the seasons and creatures of nature but the essence of humanity, spiritually and love as well. New certainly has the measure of this work, as she corralled the 100+ orchestral musicians, some 80 choristers and a magnificent alto soloist to a very memorable and moving account.

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Gemma New conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
© Latitude Creative

Because of its length – the longest symphonies in the regular repertoire – Mahler’s opus is generally programmed on its own, but here it had a curtain-opener specially composed for this concert, Tahuri koe ki te maunga teitei by Robert Wīremu. Wīremu is well known as a conductor, arranger and advocate in the New Zealand choral scene and this waiata (Māori song) suitably draws inspiration from the natural world, as does the Mahler. The text honours the mountains, the rivers and the oceans through a mōteatea (traditional chant) intoned by the altos, while the sopranos, individually and together, formed a sung halo over the top, their themes loosely based on one from the following symphony (and from Brahms’ First Symphony before that).

The first movement of Mahler’s Third is longer than many entire symphonies and, as a result, it can sometimes sound disjointed or rambling. It began with a forthright and powerful fanfare, the same theme we had just heard in a very different guise in the preceding work. What followed was a kaleidoscopic series of musical scenes, treated with suitable abandon by New. I also loved how she not only drew out interesting instrumental or phrasing details but also integrated them fully into the whole, so that they never felt disconnected from the overall narrative. She drew out the drama at key moments (some of the pauses were daringly long) but kept the overall pacing fairly steady. The NZSO impressed too. If sometimes I wanted a little more emotional intensity from concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s solos, they were well-sculpted and the principal trombonist David Bremner stunned with the security of his playing and the concentrated passion of his musicality.

New expertly handled the whirling shifts of time signature in the second movement; delicacy and clarity were the bywords here, with wonderfully graceful oboe and flute playing in particular. Birds fluttered through the orchestra in the rustic third movement, New giving the Wunderhorn themes a delicious lightness. The solemn flugelhorn entry took us from frivolity to contemplation but still, the animated reprises of the Scherzo’s theme could not be held back by this introspection for long, even if sometimes the interpretation felt more deliberate than spontaneous.

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Sasha Cooke
© Stephanie Girard

Sasha Cooke was the alto soloist and what a magnificent contribution she made! She brought a Lieder singer’s attention to the text (one could really feel the pain in this interpretation) and her warm, oak-lined tones filled Mahler’s expansive lines beautifully. Both the children’s’ and women’s choirs contributed enthusiastically to the following movement, fresh and cheerful. As wonderful as the preceding movements were, nothing could have prepared for the astonishingly moving account of the finale. The strings brought gleaming tone to their long phrases, the cellos particularly gorgeous and deeply felt in phrasing, and New built each restatement to a glorious and emotional crushing climax. Maybe the brass players were tiring somewhat right towards the end, but nevertheless the final apotheosis was absolutely sublime.