Anna Knox reviews the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Shed Series – Responses and finds that Shed 6 transforms the experience of live classical music entirely.
Last time I wrote about the NZSO, I claimed that hearing them perform was not about the ‘whole experience’. I’d like to say in hindsight that was foolish and I’ve changed my mind. My whole experience of the Shed 6 gig, from the cosy jazz-club setting, to the eclectic mix of patrons, to Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s extraordinary 48 Responses to Polymorphia, to the blue bubble lighting on the wall, was by far one of the best, musically, of my life — and I was in the mosh pit as a 15-year-old at The Cranberries in 1994.
Wherever they play, the NZSO will be sublime, but in this case the location really did make a huge difference. The casual, intimate space brought the audience as close to the music as possible, making it — yes — a lot more relevant, and proving that conductor Hamish McKeich, who conceived and argued for the series, is something of a genius.
In Shed 6 there are two ‘stages’, one at either end. Neither are elevated. The orchestra played the first two sets at one, and the third at the other. The audience was sandwiched in the middle, mostly standing or sitting on the floor, although if you arrived 45 minutes early, as we did, you could nab a seat at one of several small tables out in the middle of the floor, or on one of several long benches set up just a violin-bow away from the performers.
My friend and I sat and watched the shed fill up, sipping on our drinks and occasionally choking on the dry ice, which was the only element of the evening I found weird. A photographer with a great big flash wandered around taking society shots as people drifted in wearing all manner of attire: gym gear, backpacks, running shoes, jeans, khakis, gapingly fashionable dresses with ankle boots. Many had clearly stopped in on their way home from work. One had a violin with him. Several young couples were making a romantic night of it. There were, in fact, a lot of young people, many of them beautiful, and hair colouring was consequently about the most diverse I’ve seen at an NZSO concert so far.
Because we were sat at a table in the middle of the shed floor, and most people were standing, we couldn’t see the orchestra when the performance started. I wondered if it would matter. It absolutely didn’t. In fact, it was better. I was convinced in a heartbeat that the Shed is an infinitely superior venue to a traditional concert hall, if you want to get close to the music. When the first bars of Haydn’s joyous Echo were played, I was gone — off to an 18th century Austrian ballroom of the Esterházy court, brought back to my own reality only by the tapping foot of a woman with a Batik shoulder bag.
During the second movement, members of the audience began to move forward toward the orchestra, as if it were some kind of altar call at an evangelical church service, but by the third, everyone was stopped still, mesmerised by the virtuosic oboe performance. The wooting when the performance concluded was very loud. I wonder how many times Haydn has been wooted for? Probably not many.
When McKeich’s voice boomed into the microphone, like an MC at a wedding, I realised the orchestra had gone straight into the Haydn, without that background-information-foreplay that made me squirm at the Michael Fowler Centre. Now, however, I was happy to hear the conductor’s casual talk, a little after-play so to speak, and learn something about what I’d just heard. This was absolutely the right setting for chatting with an audience, and I appreciated the introduction to Holmes’s Elegy (a response to her father’s death) as well.
When Elegy began, I was not in a ballroom any longer. I was on a beach, in the dark. I was in someone’s memory, and it was splintering. It was mesmerising and terrifying at the same time, as a response to a father’s death must be, and when the xylophone chimed, like light coming in, like childhood somehow, I knew we were approaching the end. As the strings surged, louder and stronger, it was not just the end, but The End, and the final note was a pale, stiff face in a coffin if ever I heard one.
Were my tastes less plebeian, I can imagine being excited to hear a rare performance of Mexican composer Revueltas’ Homenaje a Federico García Lorca (Homage to Lorca), which was up next. My notebook, however, reveals a truly amateur response: The train is coming! The train is coming! The train is here! It was very loud and metallic. But the sense of the train coming was probably apt, I discovered later, given the piece is a response to the assassination of the writer Federico Garciá Lorca and what Revueltas believed this boded for Spain’s future under Franco.
The Ravel, in contrast, was full of light. It is an incredibly beautiful piece. The older couple we shared a table with had come specifically (from Christchurch I believe) to hear it. When I performed Le tombeau de Couperin for piano many years ago, I had a sense of timelessness, eternity even, which came again now.
Perhaps it is because I associate it with my own youth that I find the music to be so young. But the fact Ravel dedicated each of six movements (only four of which were scored for orchestra and played here) to a friend killed in WWI must also be part of that. Like any true memorial, it is unencumbered by time, seeming in some ways new with each playing or hearing.
All this, however, was just a prelude to the highlight of the evening, which was not the spectacle of a man trying his damnedest to flirt with a woman in the dimness and failing miserably, though that was fun to watch, but Polymorphia and 48 Responses to Polymorphia. For these two pieces, played back to back, the orchestra moved to the other end of the shed.
Until this performance, I didn’t ‘get’ contemporary orchestral music. But within the first four minutes of Polymorphia I was a convert. It was like being on a Los Angeles freeway, it was like being in a mall, it was like being underwater, it was like being underground, it was like being carried by a flock of ten thousand birds. It was unlike anything I’ve heard before.
Greenwood’s Responses was similarly effective. We were in the middle of a tornado at one point, then a swarm of bees, then a city street, then an alien invasion. But there was something different too. I think what Greenwood captures, and what makes this piece so poignant, is the anxiety it embodies. The anxiety of daily life, but also the apocalyptic anxieties of our age.
At one terrifying point, a large, dangerous animal rustles through the orchestra, as a beat recalling Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ gathers force underneath. The animal (or is it a robot?) runs back and forth, back and forth, through the orchestral grass for an undue length of time, threatening at every moment to leap out.
I know for sure that hearing the Polymorphia set in a different environment would not have been the same, and to hear a recording of it would have been kind of hideous. More than ever, with this music, ‘the live thing is where it’s at’, which McKeich quoted as something Jonny Greenwood said of orchestral performances in general.
If you haven’t heard the NZSO play in a shed, I urge you to. It’s a whole experience – one that converts not only the audience to the music, but the music to the audience.