For the first Masterworks concert of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s 2019 year, Auckland audiences were given the pleasure of encountering legendary American mezzo Susan Graham in her New Zealand debut. Even more fortunately, she was featured in her trademark French repertoire, in the wild convulsions of Berlioz’s La Mort de Cléopâtre. Combined with the New Zealand premiere of orchestral movements from the pen of a significant living composer and a gripping account of Holst’s The Planets, this was truly one of the most arresting NZSO concerts in years.

Susan Graham © Dario Acosta
Susan Graham
© Dario Acosta

British-born composer Anna Clyne's 2016 orchestral suite Abstractions is made up of five movements, each of which was inspired by a different work of art featured in the Baltimore Museum of Art. Music Director Edo de Waart chose the three central movements (Auguries, Seascape and River) to open this particular concert. Clyne’s stated intentions was not to literally express each image through music, but to communicate as aspect of each. Auguries consisted of propelling string phrases which the orchestra tackled with significant energy and verve. The flautists offered delectable playing in their lovely meandering phrases in Seascape, followed by some equally delicious phrases for other wind and harp, all over a gently lulling bass than evoked the ocean. River was another movement full of quick scale-like figures, somewhat less drive and warmer than Auguries. There is something of John Adams in the more rigorous sections of Clyne’s music and something vaguely filmic throughout but she remains her own unique compositional voice and this performance was intriguing enough to make one want to experience the remaining movements.

It is a tribute to Berlioz’ creative compositional energy that the opening of La Mort de Cléopâtre felt scarcely less modern than Clyne’s work. This was the composer's third attempt to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1829. Feeling himself a shoe-in after coming second the previous year, he felt free to submit a piece clearly more experimental than his previous efforts with the result that no first prize was awarded at all. It’s a highly unsettling work and de Waart had a strong handle on the wild and agitated opening, the flurrying string phrases pulsing with tension. Also highly radical is the work’s ending with the pulsing heartbeat-like figures vividly evoking Cleopatra’s demise. Graham’s singing completely justifies her celebrity, her remarkably well-preserved mezzo having no trouble with the wide range Berlioz demands. She nailed the virtuosic sections with aplomb and the sudden ascents to high notes were totally on point. Most remarkable of all was her grasp of the text, impeccable French diction married to a keen acting ability. There was a gorgeous wistfulness (as well as creamy tone) as she recalled happier times in the first aria. As Cleopatra’s emotional wellbeing disintegrates before our eyes, Graham employed some truly gutsy parlando effects and extremely intense pianissimi as she succumbed. This was astonishing and gripping vocalism from a true master of Berlioz style.

Focusing on their astrological character rather than anything astronomical or mythical, Holst's The Planets is a work of immense variety across its seven movements and de Waart gave it one of his most remarkably concentrated performances. He really brought out the violence of Mars more than most renditions, centring on the tense horror of war rather than any perceived glories. Venus was of surpassing loveliness, shimmering horn playing and supple cello lines abounding, and Mercury provided a highly contrasted whimsical mood, with the orchestra’s winds and strings dancing with a delightful swing. When it came to Jupiter, de Waart kept it moving but the famous tune at its centre was as soaked in nobility as one could wish, the orchestral strings outdoing themselves in luxurious tone. Suitably roused by Jupiter, the audience was suddenly plunged into a devastating bleak rendition of Saturn which followed. Again, the flutes shone here in their questioning lines and the big climax was gut-wrenching. It is possible to imagine a more boorish take on Uranus, but the orchestral playing continued to be very strong with particularly memorable contributions from the glowing brass section. The offstage singing of the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir's sopranos and altos was befittingly, haunting in the Neptune finale and the slow fading away of their sound to nothing was a suitably enchanting close to a magical evening.

*****