Sound of the Shire: the orchestra behind The Hobbit

Movie soundtracks, island tours and inspiring young maestros – it’s all in a day’s work for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Pietari Inkinen explains how the NZSO is growing under his baton

The players of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra will head into the recording studio this month to lay down the music for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, director Peter Jackson’s follow-up to blockbuster The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The country’s national orchestra will record Howard Shore’s score in Wellington Town Hall, with the release of the movie due in December.

‘It’s great to be working on an iconic New Zealand film,’ says NZSO chief executive Christopher Blake. ‘It also means that our music will be enjoyed by literally millions of people worldwide. People often forget that the film industry is one of the biggest users and disseminators of orchestral music we have today.’

The symphony is no stranger to the silver screen: the NZSO performed the first music recorded for Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings, and more recently provided the soundtrack for the forthcoming Stallone and Schwarzenegger action movie Escape Plan.

Yet the orchestra’s time in the recording studio is just a small part of its busy schedule. The next couple of months will be dedicated to regional touring, with guest conductor Andrew Grams leading the symphony’s ‘Magnificent Mozart’ programme on a South Island tour, and Bulgarian conductor Danail Rachev making his NZSO debut, directing the ‘Heroic Beethoven’ tour in the North Island. ‘For these tours, the orchestra splits into two,’ says Blake, ‘which means we can reach many of the small towns that do not regularly have the opportunity to hear the orchestra in live performance.’

October will see the NZSO joined by former All Black captain Anton Oliver, who will narrate Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. And the final tour of the year will see the symphony work with conductor Joana Carneiro and pianist Plamena Mangova.  Music director Pietari Inkinen will return to open the 2014 season – which includes an ambitious complete Beethoven symphony cycle over four evenings.

The Finnish maestro, also principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, regularly conducts leading orchestras across Europe and the US, including the LA Phil, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Filarmonica della Scala. He has also appeared with the Inkinen Trio at Wigmore Hall and St John’s Smith Square.

‘There is a kind of openness in not having this tradition [weighing] on your shoulders. I can really create my own concept through my experiences’

Inkinen was appointed to the NZ role in 2008 – how has the symphony developed under his baton? ‘Musically it always takes a while with a new orchestra to get to know each other well,’ he says,‘then the hard work can really start and the players can be shaped to my ideas and concept of sound.’

Established in 1946, the NZSO is young by European standards, and Inkinen says this has granted him a certain freedom. ‘My ideal sound has been somehow ‘cooked’ through the great German orchestras that I’ve worked with. That extremely long tradition is wonderful and should be preserved because  it’s totally unique. But the advantage of not having a 400-year-old tradition is that you can really take the orchestra where you want. There is a kind of openness in not having this tradition [weighing] on your shoulders. I can really create my own concept through my experiences, shaping it to  the direction I want to go in.’

‘That’s easier to do against a cultural background  like New Zealand,’ he continues, ‘the orchestra can change its habits and style of playing, which I think has happened. When I started, the orchestra was very crisp sounding; now the sound has developed and has much more depth, which is what I prefer.’

Inkinen feels the orchestra’s sound has gained more gravity, cementing its identity. ‘That’s what I like,’ he says. ‘When a guest conductor comes, it’s already very clear to them that this is how we play, and then they can put their own little flairs on it.’

‘I think it’s a really wonderful thing for both myself and the orchestra, that we have come to this point, that we have created this really specific way of playing. It’s been a very fruitful journey together.’  Certainly Inkinen’s approach in New Zealand seems to be paying off; his recordings for Naxos with the NZSO of the complete cycle of Sibelius Symphonies, and the premiere recording of Rautavaara’s Manhattan Trilogy, have met with critical acclaim. Gramophone said of the Sibelius release: ‘Here’s further proof that Inkinen is a young conductor with confidence and talent to spare… the New Zealand SO respond with conspicuous poise and application for their Finnish chief (they really do sound like a rejuvenated band).’

The NZSO’s growing individuality on the concert stage is matched behind the scenes with distinctive and witty branding. Previous programme brochures have cast the costumed players in a variety of imaginative  scenarios relating to the season line-up: on a New Zealand mountainous landscape, aboard a pirate ship, as part of a Napoleonic battlefield.

‘I’ve never seen anything quite like it,’ says Inkinen. ‘They’ve been very well received; you can see people sitting in cafes with Vogue and our season programmes. And I believe [the marketing campaigns] have brought more interest from people who would otherwise have not noticed the orchestra or have come to a concert.’

The programme itself also tends to be inventive. ‘We play music for all New Zealanders, so crossover music is important for us,’ says Blake. Tan Dun’s Martial Arts Trilogy, and Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s Sieidi: Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra with percussionist Colin Currie, were staged earlier this year.

Supporting the country’s composers is another priority for the NZSO. ‘This year we commissioned and premiered a major new work, The glittering hosts of heaven, by Eve De Castro Robinson,’ says Blake. ‘We also gave a number of performances of Sky Dancer, a theatre work for children by composer Gareth Farr, in collaboration with national children’s theatre organisation, Capital E.’

For Inkinen, developing the talent of NZ conductors is a cause that’s close to home. ‘We’ve been very fortunate in Finland to get opportunities to start conducting and then go professional at a very early age,’ he says, pointing out that prospects on a similar scale simply aren’t available in New Zealand. ‘So we’ve started the Young Originals scheme, auditioning and then coaching young musicians, composers and conductors. I think as the years pass that programme will slowly start to produce more Kiwi conductors, hopefully it will bear fruit in later years. That’s one of my other little contributions to the country, I’d like to always bring the good things we’ve done and learnt here in Finland and pass those on.’