Words/Photos Wal Reid

The stage set, The NZSO magnificently splayed across the stage of the Auckland Town Hall, each department sectioned off dedicated to their instrumental finery, eager anticipation, awaiting the players to the stage. In this case, Kiwi band, The Phoenix Foundation.

To celebrate their 20th year The Phoenix Foundation have joined forces with the NZSO for a series of unique concerts, a feat The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra have maintained, a successful marriage playing with one of the ‘unsung’ heroes of New Zealand’s musical oligarchy. Led by chief ‘Phoenix’ Samuel Flynn Scott, his imposing tall figure looming over the cluttered stage, decked out in retro suit and hat, he recounted to the audience his ‘dream about dressing up like Elton John” and found himself in an interesting quandary with a telescopic duster in hand on their first song Hitchcock.

A smattering of hits ensued, including older tunes like Cars of Eden and the ambling pop catchiness of Black Mould, giving way to newer tracks Transit of Venus or the deliciously titled Miserable Meal all sounding majestic given the NZSO treatment. Having the orchestra backing gave their music a voice, as if the songs were part of the incidental music of a film, each song given atmospheric position on stage, needless to say, the collab between the two was a gamble that handsomely paid off.

The Phoenix Foundation is one of the most iconic New Zealand bands of the 21st century – period. Formed in Wellington in the late-90s, they have been lauded here and overseas and feted by rock royalty, from Neil Finn and Jarvis Cocker to Iggy Pop. Yet here they were, the usual japes shared from the stage between Scott and fellow band cohort Luke Buda, as they kept contact with the crowd at a minimum preferring to let the music do the talking. “You all look great, You’ve done your part” quipped Buda as the swell of the orchestra, signalled the beginning of the next track.

The Kiwi band has also contributed to several movie soundtracks, including film-maker Taika Waititi’s celebrated box office smash Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Drawing from their vast musical catalogue, The Phoenix Foundation and Orchestra performed a unique arrangements of audience favourites and deep album cuts. The rich tapestry of Classical Music fused with swirling melancholic Phoenix songs such as Buffalo or St Kevin were delivered with gusto, having a profound effect on those in attendance.

To say tonight was an experiment denotes a possible hint of failure at any given hurdle. However, there was little doubt that it would be anything but a success. An experiment maybe, but Orchestra Conductor Hamish McKeich’s vision was not only a personal quest of sorts but also a brilliant marketing coup de grâce, opening up a whole new audience to popular music culture, and vice-versa.

If you get a chance to see this dynamic musical event in Christchurch or Dunedin at the end of this month, grab the bull (or Buffalo) with both hands, and let go for the ride that well, has all the elements for a fun night out – Classical Music plus The Phoenix Foundation – win, win. Even though my favourite track (and music video) 40 Years was omitted from the set list, I was still as happy as a pig in muck. Hopefully it won’t be another 20 years before its added to the encore set.