The NZSO's inaugural concert in the Wellington Town Hall, 1946

The NZSO’s inaugural concert in the Wellington Town Hall, 1946

It was 1946 and the film Song to Remember ignited a love of Chopin that led to my first ever live concert in Wellington Town Hall: Australian pianist Robin Jansen in an all-Chopin concert. The ambience of the Town Hall seemed to my 11-year-old eyes to be as grand as a Military Polonaise, as beautiful as a Ballade and as graceful as any of the Waltzes.

The following year, on March 6, New Zealand’s first national symphony orchestra was launched in the Town Hall and I discovered the wonder of orchestral sound, a thrill that has never left me.

On May 12, 1951, the orchestra gave the first performance of Douglas Lilburn’s First Symphony.  This was a historic occasion – New Zealand music coming of age with our orchestra playing the country’s first symphony.

From 1956 to 1974, I was working in London, so when I came back I heard the orchestra and viewed the Town Hall with more experienced but still affectionate ears and eyes. Those large-scale late 19th century, early 20th century works by Mahler, Bruckner, Stravinsky and Shostakovich seemed to particularly suit both the orchestra and the Town Hall.

When the International Festival of the Arts was established, I was drawn back to Wellington for extended visits.

In 1994, the Festival brought out the Budapest Symphony Orchestra to give two concerts of Hungarian music. Later in the same festival, Yuri Bashmet lead the Moscow Soloists in Bach followed by a spell-binding performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht that was as beautiful to look at as to hear. For the 1996 Festival we heard soloists with the Auckland Dorian Choir, the National Youth Choir and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass and Sinfonietta, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Olaf Baer singing Schubert’s Dichterliebe, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Hesperion XX and La Capella Reial de Catalunya.

The NZSO’s Made in New Zealand concert in 2009, sponsored by Victoria University of Wellington, paraded both orchestra and university at their best and sounding magnificent in the Town Hall.

Rod Biss
Music critic