Review: Auckland Philharmonia's Exotic Birds

TAKESHI ITO
Last updated 10:30 28/03/2014

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The prospective of hearing a seminal work of the 20th Century combined with a piano recital in the middle of a symphonic concert drew a good-sized crowd to the Auckland Town Hall on Thursday.

Once again, the Auckland Philharmonia's intriguing and challenging programming made for a very interesting evening of music themed on exotic birds.

Ottorino Respighi's Gli uccelli (The Birds) would be familiar to many. The dove, hen, nightingale and cuckoo depicted within the five movement piece might be rather stylised, Italianate birds but would be recognisable nonetheless. This is how you would expect Baroque or classical composers to depict these birds, their songs and their mannerisms while being absolutely harmonious and tuneful.

French composer Olivier Messiaen would have been pleased with his Wikipedia entry which describes him as a composer, organist and ornithologist. More than any composer before or since, he sought to use birdsong as actual harmonic and thematic material in his music, not just as a stylistic or representative device and he recorded birdsong precisely for that purpose. Oiseaux Exotiques (exotic birds) is one of his best known works and is scored for piano accompanied by a chamber orchestra without strings but with emphasis on wind instruments and percussion.

If you are not familiar with Oiseaux Exotiques or Messiaen's works in general and heard it for the first time, you would have been bewildered and confused. To the uninitiated, it sounds like noisy and disorganised chaos, seemingly without direction or structure. In fact the opposite is true. Messiaen replicates the calls of over forty birds within the piece ranging from minahs, orioles, quails, sparrows, mockingbirds and something called a prairie chicken that makes bagpipe-like noises. Think of the piece as a sustained dawn chorus as the birds compete to make themselves heard.

British pianist Joanna MacGregor is probably the perfect sort of pianist to perform this work. With a vast repetoire across all genres as varied as the birds depicted and a with hairdo that could easily have been home to a robin or two, she attacked the piece, especially the tricky cadenzas representing the Virginia cardinal, catbird and bobolink, demonstrating absolutely secure technique. Equally solid too was the orchestra with particular hat-tips to percussionists Eric Renick and Jennifer Raven for their incredibly dexterous performances on xylophone and glockenspiel respectively.

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You may not have liked it, but the precision and energy was dazzling as well as compelling. An excellent performance throughout.

Immediately preceding the Messiaen, MacGregor had enchanted the audience with a short and quirky recital programme also themed on birds. These included Ravel's Oiseaux tristes, Daquin's Le Coctou and Harrison Birtwhistle's "Oockooing Bird". Her playing here lulled us into a false sense of tonal security, particularly in the Ravel, but also demonstrated what an widely-talented artist she is.

The contrast between first and second half could not have been greater with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. Entrenched in the very familiar, the orchestra did not slip back into complacency.

With sometimes hawk-like glances at the various sections, American conductor John Nelson carefully sculpted a warm, well-balanced and carefully delineated performance from the Auckland Philharmonia, particularly from the strings. How satisfying to hear a good orchestra reminding its audience of the genius of Beethoven.

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