Written by: Colin Anderson
James Judd and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra are going great guns, and recording for Naxos … and they’re at the Proms on August 18 playing music by Douglas Lilburn, Mahler songs with Jonathan Lemalu, and Sibelius
Things are going really well ‘down under’ for James Judd, the British-born conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. “It used to be run by the radio, then it separated but maintains its role as the national orchestra; it covers the whole country and the concerts are broadcast. We’re based in Wellington, the capital, on the North Island. We take subscription programmes around the two islands, and we also cover smaller towns with chamber orchestra works. The musicians are teaching a lot, so when we go to the different centres we do educational work, and that includes a lot of mentoring of young players. New Zealand has a great appetite for music, and it still has wonderful music-education in schools. The Prime Minister, Helen Clarke, is a great enthusiast for the arts, and there is tremendous interest in reading and theatre. New Zealand people have a very independent spirit and a very strong connection with deeper issues; I think it’s not unconnected with their love of music. You don’t feel freakish being a musician in New Zealand.”
Having been engaged as a guest with the NZSO, to conduct Elgar and Mahler, James Judd was “struck by the quality of the orchestra and the individual musicians’ fantastic ability, and that they read very fast. I was struck also by the warmth and communication of the orchestra.” From there the relationship developed. When the NZSO hits the Proms on August 18 it will be a significant time for the orchestra and its conductor. “This tour means a great deal. We’ll play at the Proms and in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.” James Judd mentions his gratitude for the tour’s sponsors.
The Proms programme begins with Douglas Lilburn’s Symphony No. 3, an impressive 15-minute single movement. Lilburn (1915-2001), probably New Zealand’s best-know composer, has his Sibelius connections, so the latter’s Symphony No. 2 makes an apt Proms pairing. Lilburn’s Third Symphony is worth getting to know. “I’m an admirer of Lilburn’s work. His Third Symphony has his real voice. It’s a very individual piece, it’s accessible and very concisely argued, and he uses the orchestra rather like Sibelius does – not to project colour for colour’s sake but to project an emotional and musical argument in a very appealing way. It’s probably his greatest orchestral work and it deserves international recognition. He’s the grandfather figure of these incredibly inventive and talented New Zealand composers that often integrate Maori culture and reflect on this paradise-like country. I hope this tour will open people’s minds to be inquisitive about this school of composition.”
James Judd and the New Zealand Symphony record for Naxos and have issued highly regarded CDs – of Bernstein, Bridge, Copland, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and, most significantly in this context, all three of Douglas Lilburn’s symphonies (8.555862: please see link to a review): a real discovery at budget price. “Many of the orchestra knew Lilburn; you feel the spirit of what he wanted. I am sorry never to have met him. He was ill when the sessions took place and he died soon after.” Championing Lilburn is not a one-off, for the NZSO is an adventurous band; “most programmes include something by a living composer.” For release are Naxos CDs of Beethoven’s music for Egmont and Mendelssohn’s for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is more Elgar, a disc “of all the beautiful little pieces”, and the really good news is “we have another Lilburn disc.” James also mentions Zemlinsky’s orchestral tone poem The Mermaid, and expresses hopes that Naxos will record an anthology of those diverse New Zealand composers. Fingers crossed!
Meanwhile back at the Proms, New Zealand bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu will be singing Mahler. “He has been doing so very well and we recorded his recent arias CD for EMI. Mahler is well suited to Jonathan’s voice; he has that marvellous sensitivity and intelligence. Sibelius 2 is something that will show off the orchestra to advantage; and our new Concertmaster is from Finland. This is a tremendous time for the orchestra. I love it here.”