Tuesday 23rd April

CSO's Phoenix concert gives restored venue a real workout - review

Photo credit: Duncan Shaw-Brown

First published on Press.co.nz.
Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd

Lamb & Hayward Masterworks: Phoenix
Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Chief Conductor Benjamin Northey, with Michael Houstoun and Tony Chen Lin (piano), Martin Setchell (organ) and Woolston Brass.

Douglas Lilburn Auditorium, Christchurch Town Hall, March 2.

The star of the show – and make no bones about it, this was a terrific show – was undoubtedly the Town Hall, back in business after an 8-year hiatus following the earthquakes.

It looks and sounds better than ever and I would have to say that in all my years of reviewing concerts, never has the venue received its own applause. The assembled performers gave it a real workout, with a programme that stretched from the most-delicate whisper to the most all-enveloping reverberant wash of sound that was simply spine-tingling. Bravo to the performers but also to the remarkable team of people that put this fractured treasure back together.

Built around the central theme of transformation, each piece had its own distinctive angle. For nailing the brief, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite and Respighi's Pines of Rome take out the prize, ending each half respectively with a flourish, the Respighi being the musical magic I alluded to earlier with Martin Setchell on the Rieger organ and the Woolston Brass augmenting the dynamic to the max.

Firebird still has the power to surprise for both its primal rawness, but I also enjoyed the warmth of the strings and the various woodwind solos. Kudos also to Benjamin Northey who conducted the score from memory. The orchestra handled the sparkling opening of the Respighi well, a neat contrast with the solemn low strings depicting the catacombs. There were several excellent solos, most notably from David McGregor (clarinet), Thomas Eves (offstage trumpet) and Ashleigh Mowbray (cor anglais), and the recorded bellbird calls were an inspired Kiwi substitution for the original nightingale ones.

Opening the programme, Chris Cree Brown's Phoenix blended the nervous energy of the upwardly searching scales with a central episode based on the ethereal sounds of the Aeolian harp. Commissioned especially for the event, Phoenix was a thought-provoking way to be reintroduced to the venue, the outer sections immediately accessible and engaging, the Aeolian harp providing quite a contrasting listen.

Michael Houstoun and Tony Chen Lin partnered up for Mozart's Concerto in E Flat for two pianos, a work of charm and polish, falling short of the profound but, from a technical perspective, providing a textbook example of how to write for this combination. Houstoun and Chen Lin were perfectly attuned, the overlapping cascades of scales and thematic ideas passing precisely between them, Houstoun's calmness the perfect foil for Chen Lin's animation. The reduced orchestral forces and the novelty of a work requiring two pianos also gave the hall chance to show just how well it balances different combinations.