Vivid exploration of NZ bush receives worthy premiere

NZSO, Benjamin on Britten, Dunedin Town Hall, Saturday, November 4.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra returned to the Dunedin Town Hall stage on Saturday night for the second spectacular performance in its three-day Immerse Festival.

Masterfully led by NZSO principal conductor Gemma New, the Benjamin on Britten concert featured the world premiere of New Zealand composer David Mason’s Pīwakawaka, virtuoso violinist Benjamin Morrison as soloist in Britten’s Violin Concerto, and Brahms’ Symphony No 4.

The Star reporter Brenda Harwood
The Star reporter Brenda Harwood

With the composer on hand to introduce his work, describing his joy in the fantails darting throughout the bush near his family home in the Far North, the audience settled in to experience a vivid exploration of the dense New Zealand bush in Mason’s Pīwakawaka.

The darting movement and piercing call of the tiny birds was wonderfully evoked through ‘‘chattering’’ woodwind, solo violin and strings. Then, urged onwards by a passionate New, the work built through overlapping motifs across the orchestra — cleverly evoking the flitting hunting dance of the fantail, building to a sunset climax, before settling into peaceful night.

In the expert hands of New and the NZSO, this stirring, evocative work received a truly worthy premiere.

Christchurch-born virtuoso violinist Morrison then joined the orchestra for a spellbinding performance of Britten’s emotionally complex and fiendishly difficult Violin Concerto.

With superb support from the orchestra, under New’s sensitive baton, he brought every emotion to the fore, and tackled the work’s many outrageously difficult passages with skill and flair. His handling of the extraordinary solo violin cadenza was astounding.

The audience’s cheers and sustained applause was a just reward for his brilliant performance.

The concert’s second half was given over to Brahm’s Symphony No 4.

Opening with a gentle theme, the symphony gathered force and power, rising and falling in energy and emotion, and building variation upon variation until its darkening conclusion.

New made the most of the considerable forces at her disposal, inhabiting the music and physically urging the players to bring all of the passion and emotion of the symphony to the fore to exciting effect.

The concert was a feast of fabulous music-making, leaving its audience deeply satisfied.