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In with the old, in with the new

The new shed series provides a casual platform for music lovers of all ages. Elliot Martin went to check it out.

Shed Series – Unwound
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Shed 6, Wellington
30 November 2019

When I hear the words ‘Symphony Orchestra’, I think of big concert halls, 80 piece ensembles with musicians playing every instrument under the sun, and a conductor wearing a tuxedo preparing for a rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This was not the case when I walked into the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s final Shed Series concert of the year, Unwound (although they did reference Beethoven).

Shed 6 acted as a blank score for conductor Hamish McKeich and his orchestra to experiment with stage setup, lighting and atmosphere. I walked into the venue, local craft beer in hand, and the space was filled with people of all ages. Clearly the Shed Series succeeded in its purpose to move classical music listening into a modern setting. From young families, to students, to the older generation and general music lovers, every box was ticked and not many concerts can do this.

The musicians entered the room and made their way to a space not elevated or segregated from the crowd. We were invited to sit or stand where we chose. No obligation to place yourself in front of the orchestra, no advised minimal space between the listener and the performer, just a freedom to make yourself at home (within reason, obviously). Three 35 minute sets provided breaks for the audience to stretch the cramp out of their legs and the musicians to say hello to family and friends in the crowd.

Accompanying the great musicianship that was on show, McKeich entered Jimmy Fallon mode with his microphone, giving the audience synopses on the pieces played by the orchestra. Duke Ellington’s jazz arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was a light and joyful introduction to the evening. Come the second piece of the first set, our attention turned to a lone harpist sitting away from the rest and McKeich made his way through the crowd to interview harpist Carolyn Mills about the upcoming solo piece by Japanese composer Mayuzumi. 

Throughout the evening the NZSO musicians were required to maneuver their way through the chairs and the crowds to reposition themselves. Towards the end of the evening a trio of musicians, led by violinist Malavika Gopal, popped up towards the right hand side from the orchestra to perform John Mclaughlin’s La Danse Du Bonheur. Mclaughlin’s piece was a surprise having not been mentioned on the programme. McKeich later said to me that adding the two short works showcasing NZSO solo players Malavika Gopal and Carolyn Mills ‘helped stretch the intimacy of the concert and to provide sonic interest.’

The second set was performed with guest instrumentalist Russell Walder, an oboist who received a Grammy nomination for his instrumental album Winter’s Solstice. Walder was given centre stage to perform the world premiere of an untitled work of his. The use of smoke machines, dim coloured lighting, and heavy reverb on Walder’s oboe added to his passionate performance. His expressive dancing around the front of the orchestra, and amazing stamina needed to reach those high notes engaged the audience and kept them from sneaking away to grab another round of drinks from the bar (which was serving continuously throughout the evening) before the second and final break.

McKeich and the orchestra ended their stay at Shed 6 with Derek Beramal’s Canzonas Americanas. These fun and quirky mini pieces saw the crowds woot-ing and tooting their way out into the night. We’re now left twiddling our thumbs till next year’s Symmetries, the first 2020 Shed Series concert. The 31 January concert includes a work by New Zealand Composer Lissa Meridan. Next year the Shed Series also travels outside of Wellington for the first time with Wai and Cadence making their way to Auckland audiences in April and September.

Elliot Martin is a British music writer who enjoys writing opinionated music pieces, whether it be on an artist, or the music industry in general. Having published work back in the UK for arts magazines and managed his own online magazine, he’s now in New Zealand interviewing artists, reviewing live concerts and discovering new talent.

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