Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Of conflict and tragedy – New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

By , 29/09/2011

IN REMEMBRANCE –

BORIS PIGOVAT – Requiem “The Holocaust”

70th Anniversary Concert remembering the Babi Yar massacre

ANTHONY RITCHIE – Remembering Parihaka / ERNEST BLOCH – Schelomo – Hebraic Rhapsody

JOHN PSATHAS – Luminous

Donald Maurice (viola)

Inbal Megiddo (‘cello)

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Kenneth Young (conductor)

Town Hall, Wellington

Thursday 29th September 2011

I’d only recently been introduced to Russian-born Jewish composer Boris Pigovat’s Requiem, via a recording of a previous Wellington performance which also featured the solo viola of Donald Maurice – so it was with those sounds echoing in my ears that I eagerly awaited this anniversary concert. Of course, we in New Zealand have no comparable history of human tragedy to match the terrible Jewish experience, but the two local works chosen to complement this program presented different kinds of human conflicts in a New Zealand context, also resulting also in on-going grief and loss.

As I read through the attractively presented program (with what looked like a resplendent Ruapehu skyline adorning each page – though perhaps Taranaki’s distinctive contourings might have been even more appropriate), I couldn’t help thinking how surely and comprehensively the whole purpose of the concert’s presentation had been addressed by the NZSM – though a tad long, Professor Elizabeth Hudson’s welcoming speech certainly underlined the occasion’s gravitas and worldwide significance (the programme’s running-order suggested that the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, the Hon.Chris Finlayson would say a few words as well, but he didn’t appear on stage). We were left in no doubt as to the importance of the occasion – a process and outcome that other music performance organizations in the capital might well look at and learn from.

The attendance didn’t quite match the average Vector Wellington Orchestra concert turn-out, though the Town Hall “felt” to me reasonably well-peopled. Perhaps this was a concert whose contents were just that bit too far off the beaten track for some of the “regulars” at subscription concerts. Whether the prospect of listening to a performance by a “student orchestra” was another attendance-inhibiting factor, I’m not sure – as it turned out, no-one would have possibly felt short-changed by the skill and commitment of the young musicians (their ranks judiciously augmented by some  VWO and NZSO players) in bringing these wide-ranging, colorful scores to life, under the guidance of the inspirational Kenneth Young.

Anthony Ritchie’s Remembering Parihaka began the concert, music inspired by the story of a Taranaki episode of Maori resistance to the land-grabbing antics of the Pakeha settler-dominated NZ Government during the final quarter of the nineteenth-century. The “New Zealand Gandhi”, Te Whiti O Rongomai was, with a relative and fellow-protestor, Tohu Kakahi, imprisoned without trial as a result of each man’s passive protests, and tribal lands were confiscated. Ritchie’s music throughout the opening had a quality reminiscent of Shostakovich’s ability to generate tensions from lyricism – foreboding pedal-point notes alternated with lyrical string-and-wind choir lines, interrupted by warning calls from the flute and oboe. Pizzicato urgencies ushered in angular motoric percussion-reinforced energies, Young and his players keeping the textures jagged and sharply punctuated. I loved the music’s inclinations towards using  timbres, textures and colours to engender growing excitement rather than employing sheer weight and force – eventually the sounds did gather, and propelled themselves in the direction of a climax capped by cymbal crashes. The aftermath was elegiac and noble-toned, a solo horn surviving a brief stumble and nobly reaching the top of an echoing phrase of resignation – music, and playing too, I thought, of great understatement and subtlety.

Next came an old favorite of mine – Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, for ‘Cello and Orchestra, subtitled a “Hebraic Rhapsody”. This was volatile, blood-coursing stuff, music that expressed the composer’s despair at what he considered the parlous state of the human condition. Inspired by the words of King Solomon from the Book of Ecclesiastes, the passage beginning “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity….”, Bloch was further moved to sorrow by the horrors of World War I, and sought to give voice to his feelings. After toying with the idea of writing for voice and orchestra he quickly took up the suggestion of the cellist Alexander Barjansky that the solo instrument could be just as expressive as a voice, and, working quickly, finished the piece in 1916. The piece is simply a wonderful outpouring of pure emotion – moments of brooding introspection ebb and flow throughout with full-blooded utterances, the argument tossed skillfully between soloist and orchestra.

Right from her very first note, I was held by the actual sound of Inbal Magiddo’s ‘cello – tight and focused, slightly nasal and exotic, extremely “laden”, with a distinctive “voice-quality”. Even if her attack on one or two of her high notes was slightly astray, the intensity of her sound I found gripping. In full support of her, Ken Young’s student orchestral players gave their all, producing at the first big-boned tutti a remarkably weighty body of sound, and remarkably keeping the level of intensities ongoing. Those big recurring lyrical climaxes I found most satisfying throughout, though equally compelling was the cello’s eloquent focusing, no prisoners taken, no difficulty shirked, everything gathered up and swept along irresistibly. I scribbled things down furiously throughout the performance, some of which I was able to read afterwards – words like “cinematoscopic!” and “incendiary!”, though lest the reader gain the impression of my being some kind of sensation-junkie, I also noted things like the lovely oboe playing of the chant-like figure which the other winds take up and exotically harmonise, and the rainbow-like radiance of the orchestra’s responses to the soloist in places away from the coruscations.

The string-players, I thought, did especially well, digging into those tremendous lyrical outpourings which well up from the depths of the composer’s soul at regular intervals. From where I was sitting I couldn’t help being taken with the contrast in styles and deportment of the two front-desk first violinists during the Bloch Rhapsody, the leader strongly upright, dignified and contained, her partner expressive, fluid of movement, choreographing the music’s every contour with her whole body. The pair, I thought, by turns mirrored their soloist’s vocabulary of intensities beautifully, the trio together expressing the overall flavour of the youthful orchestra’s fully-committed music making.

John Psathas’s Luminous was one of the Auckland Philharmonia’s Millennium Fanfare commissions. It’s not one of the composer’s rhythmically “charged” pieces, but understandably so given that Psathas wished to dedicate the music to the memory of a friend who came to live in New Zealand from China, but wasn’t able to survive the impact made on her by two very different sets of cultural and spiritual values. More like a meditation than a depiction of events, the music grew by osmosis, strings clustering their lines more and more intensely, until broken up by a chiming horn, after which solo winds led the way back to the strings and further deepening intensities – the music reminded me of Ligeti’s Atmospheres, its rise and fall of timbres and tones and intensities, leading to an enormous climax which suggested as much a transfiguration as a surrendering up of life.

It was natural that all of these things seemed but preludial to the evening’s raison d’être, Boris Pigovat’s Requiem “The Holocaust”. This performance of the work commemorated the victims of an event during World War II that had taken place at a place called Babi Yar, near Kiev, in Russia, 70 years ago to the very day when a systematic massacre of Kiev’s Jews by the Nazis left over thirty thousand people dead. Due to official Soviet anti-Jewish policy, the Babi Yar massacre wasn’t acknowledged until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in 1991 a lasting memorial to those Jews who had died was finally constructed on the site.

This was the Requiem’s second New Zealand performance, on both occasions with viola soloist Donald Maurice (who, incidentally, will take part in another performance of the work in Germany next month, the first in that country). Though I didn’t attend the earlier (2008) concert in Wellington, the recording made on that occasion by Atoll Records seemed to me to capture oceans of the work’s visceral and emotional impact, thanks to Donald Maurice’s strong and heartfelt viola-playing, and Marc Taddei’s no-holds-barred approach to the music, brilliantly realized by the Vector Wellington Orchestra. After listening to the recording my predominant memory was of the fearful coruscations of the second movement, the “Dies Irae”, during which the sounds seemed to rip apart the fabric of human existence and leave it in shreds. This latest “live” performance had a different focus, the “Dies Irae” episode being given by these young players rather more audible instrumental detail but less crushing overall weight at the climaxes, to my ears less “apocalyptic” in effect than the Vector Wellington orchestral response. This was the only aspect of the performance which I wanted to call to question, having found it difficult as a listener to establish a true point in the movement to which all perspectives ran and from which all energies dissipated.

The other three movements, Requiem Aeternam, Lacrimosa and Lux Aeterna, were, like the Dies Irae, all familiar titles to people accustomed to the standard concert requiems of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi and Faure. The sounds of the opening Requiem Aeternam (Eternal Rest) evoked vibrant spaces into which were drawn various tensions, solo clarinet expressing an overall feeling of uneasy peace, together with the strings setting the scene for the solo viola’s appearance. chant-like lines at first eloquently ruminating, urging calm, faith and hope, while aware of darker, more threatening impulses.  Young got lovely orchestral detailings along the way, here, beautiful string sonorities, underpinned by brass both muted and warm-toned, with everything gradually curdling into weirdly-clustered string-and-wind grotesqueries, the music’s shadows looming threateningly and frighteningly, the menace all too palpable.

After the incendiary “Dies Irae”, whose last few pages brutally depicted the stilling of the composer’s “pulse of a human heart”, we were suitably transfixed by the Lacrimosa’s cry of anguish, the playing of both soloist and orchestra conveying all the bewilderment, anger and grief of the composer’s words; “It is possible to shout with strong anger or to groan powerlessly, or to go mad, and only then appear tears….” The viola rejoined the orchestra, helping to rebuild a context in sound from which a life-force could once again be heard to begin to flow – I noted the strings’ beauty of resignation, supported by bleached-sounding winds and secure solo horn-playing. Kenneth Young’s direction sure-footedly led the players through these osmotic rebuildings without a break into the transforming ambiences of the final “Lux Aeterna”, Donald Maurice’s instrument again “speaking volumes”, with dark tones and grief-stained astringent strands, but also with an encouraging surety, echoed and reinforced by an instrumental backdrop of heartfelt voices that maintained strength and purpose right up to the concluding phrases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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