Happy to be back in NZ

Lawrence Renes is looking forward to conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Photo: supplied
Lawrence Renes is looking forward to conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Photo: supplied

Dunedin-born and raised international tenor Simon O’Neill returns to the city for his debut orchestral performance of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. 

Rebecca Fox talks to the concert’s conductor Lawrence Renes about his work and relationship with O’Neill.

When Lawrence Renes stood up on stage with his national youth orchestra aged 14 he had never heard an orchestra live before.

''It was a big deal. I was really quite young. It was amazing at the time.''

The concert was a revelation for the young Dutch-Maltese violinist who had only picked up the instrument because his best friend at school took it up.

''I thought I'd do the same, but quickly came to like it.''

Hearing the strings and wind instruments come together, Renes was totally carried away with the huge emotions of the music.

''The sound was very emotional.''

International tenor Simon O’Neill cannot wait to perform Wagner in his home town. Photo: Supplied
International tenor Simon O’Neill cannot wait to perform Wagner in his home town. Photo: Supplied

His lack of experience around orchestras showed when he approached a conductor to ask how he had interpreted a piece of music.

''Conductors in Europe and the States, you approach carefully. I just went up to him and said what he was doing seemed wrong. He laughed, thought it was funny and asked why I thought it was wrong, so I explained.''

The conductor then planted the seed that shaped Renes' career saying he should consider becoming a conductor since he had all these ideas.

''From then on at every rehearsal I had a score with me.''

Looking back, he can see how unusual it was for him to be conducting orchestras at such a young age.

''It was an incredible road of discovery. Very few had gone before. So I was ground-breaking. Now it's much more accepted.''

The situation had its positives and negatives as really great conductors take a lifetime to develop, he says.

''When you are young you have no experience of life and so much to learn. It takes time to develop.''

However, he feels fortunate to have had the opportunities he has had.

''I feel very fortunate to be doing what I love. I'm one of the few lucky people in the world to be doing what I love most.''

There have been a few defining moments along the way, such as being appointed assistant conductor to Edo de Waart (now New Zealand Symphony Orchestra music director) with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic after graduation.

''I learned an incredible amount and after two years was appointed principal guest conductor - it was a surprise and a vote of confidence.

''We became the closest friends and still are. It was a very defining time for me.''

Another significant moment for him was when he became the emergency replacement for Riccardo Chailly to conduct a 1995 concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

''It was an extremely ambitious programme ... basically it was the start of my international career. From that moment on it took off.''

At 27 he became chief conductor of Het Gelders Orkest (Arnhem, the Netherlands) in 1998, a position he held until 2002.

It was during this time that he developed a love for opera and he now tries to divide his time between symphonic and opera work.

He describes opera as an extreme sport similar to base jumping in its danger.

''It's extremely thrilling and extremely fulfilling work.''

While he misses playing the violin, he believes even the biggest orchestras should be like a chamber music ensemble.

''You need to play in a way you can hear everybody else and listen to each other.''

Musicians in orchestras such as the NZSO are ''consummate professionals'' and as such should be considered in the same league as Olympic champions, he says.

''Not many people appreciate that enough.''

Renes' journey has made him appreciative of the importance of children getting to hear an orchestra, so he often encourages schools to bring classes to rehearsals.

''It's important all young people hear an orchestra.''

He had learned much about life through music and the arts, he says.

''Music gives you so much. As you go through puberty, the love and consolation of music gives you so much.''

Playing an instrument, such as the violin, is also good for children in a world where instant gratification is everywhere, he says.

The travel required of his work could be a struggle when it kept him away from his wife and son.

He also found the solitude of the role challenging at times, so he enjoyed getting out and about when he visited new destinations.

It will be Renes' second visit to New Zealand - the first was seven years ago.

''I conducted the orchestra then. I had a wonderful time. It's such a great orchestra.''

He had wanted to come back to New Zealand, but European commitments made that difficult.

''Now I could finally say yes, I was very happy.''

The programme for his New Zealand concerts involved the Wagner piece, which was ''very close to my heart'', and two Anton Bruckner works - another composer he has a soft spot for after performing the composer's symphonies as a violinist with the Netherlands National Youth Orchestra.

''It's a wonderful fit with the orchestra.''

He has a few days' break while on tour and plans to hire a car and see some of the countryside.

''Nature is important thing in my life.''

Tenor Simon O'Neill is looking forward to working with Renes on such a special concert.

The pair worked together when he performed with the San Francisco Opera in 2012 in John Adams' Nixon in China. Renes was the conductor.

''Maestro Renes was a fantastic conductor of the Adams work and I can't wait to work with him with this NZSO tour of these great Germanic romantic works - Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Bruckner's Fourth Symphony.''

While it was O'Neill's orchestral debut of the Wagner work, he has recorded the original piano-vocal version with University of Otago Prof Terence Dennis. That recording will soon be released by Deutsche Grammphon CD.

During the past 20 years the development of O'Neill's voice and subsequent career has led him to the repertoire of Wagner.

''I couldn't be more grateful for this - Wagner, for me, is the pinnacle. The composing of the Wesendonck Lieder appears in an incredibly important time in Wagner's life and career - the mid to late 1850s - Die Walkure and the first two acts of Siegfried completed, but right at the time of his great romantic opera, Tristan und Isolde.''

It was perfect timing for O'Neill, too, as he has devoted the past year to the preparation of Siegfried and is now starting on that of Tristan for a stage debut in 2020.

O'Neill first fell in love with Wagner while playing EB bass with the St Kilda Brass Band.

''Wagner is an orchestral champion for the brass section - so many significant musical moments of Wagnerian musical library are that where the brass section is in 'full flight'.''

His first memory of hearing the Wesendonck Lieder was not the great German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, but Danish tenor Lauritz Melchoir singing Schmerzen in a 1923 recording for HMV.

''I loved this initial introduction so much that I dreamed about performing the cycle one day, when I too could be a Helden tenor.''

But overall what O'Neill is most looking forward to is performing at home.

''To perform throughout New Zealand is the priority for me, something I want to do whilst my voice is in its prime. I am so excited about returning to Dunedin, a city where I spent much of my years growing up.''

And keeping healthy while touring in the New Zealand winter?

''For any opera singer the biggest challenge is to not get sick or even more serious, laryngitis!

''Touring New Zealand in midwinter can be a real worry, so I will be trying to keep myself in top vocal health.''

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