RICHARD STRAUSS – “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome”
ARJUNA OAKES – “Safe Way to Fall”
JOHN PSATHAS – Zahara
BELA BARTOK – “The Miraculous Mandarin” Ballet
Arjuna Oakes (singer)
John Psathas (piano)
Valentina Michaud (saxophone)
Orpheus Choir, Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday June 3rd, 2023
“Myth and Ritual” was something of a concept-bending title, to my initial way of thinking, as a description of the programme Marc Taddei and his musicians put together on Saturday evening (June 3rd). Myth brings to mind legendary figures and events, while ritual suggests some kind of rite to do with religion or culture.
However, with the boundaries pushed out wider, as here, we saw that the concert’s range and scope took in both individual and societal aspects of the human condition, involving both transgressors and victims.
Bookending the evening’s presentation were portrayals of obsession matching that of any mythical hero – while the two central items presented conflict of diametrically opposed kinds, one in terms of individual resolution, and the other in epic, broad brush-stroke happenings putting groups of people at risk.
Not only was the evening‘s content far-flung, but the means by which the performances worked their magic were varied, which was part of sustaining our interest through spectacular orchestral, solo vocal, instrumental, choral and theatrical means. Perhaps it wasn’t everybody’s “cup of tea” in toto, but it did have a readily-welcomed “different strokes for different folks” sense.
Things began spectacular with the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” written by Richard Strauss for an episode in his opera “Salome”, which was a setting of Oscar Wilde’s play (written in French) whose subject was the eponymous Biblical character, the beautiful step-daughter of Herod, the Judean king of around the time of Jesus Christ. Strauss’s set both French and German texts of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome” which makes mention for the first time of the “Seven Veils” (in Matthew 14 she merely “danced for the guests”).
Wilde designated for Salome a kind of growing sexual obsession with John the Baptist (Jokaanan, in the opera), one which, along with the erotic nature of the Dance Strauss readily took on for the entirety of the character, presenting her as no less an obsessive figure than any mythical hero or heroine bent upon achieving great deeds.
An extraordinary tour de force of composition, the Dance brought forth from Marc Taddei and his players a brilliant response in both corporate orchestral and individual soloistic terms. From the frenetic opening, through the most languid sequences and right up to the final whiplash chords, the playing caught every mood, superbly voicing the chameleon-like progressions with that unique combination of sensuousness and “edge” to themes, rhythms and textures.
What particularly held my attention was the spaciousness of the phrasings in the early stages of the dance by both solo players and sections, Taddei and his musicians enabling the music’s essential bitter-sweet character to emerge, setting the strings’ almost decadent voluptuousness against the winds’ piquant flavourings, the latter pungently activating the dancer’s growing excitement and urgencies, leading to the unbridled excitement of the concluding section’s abandoned flourishes, the knife-edge wind arabesques, and the cataclysmic whiplash chords at the end – stunning!
Nothing could have been further from these excesses than the concert’s second item, a song for voice, piano and orchestra called “Safe Way To Fall”. Written as a collaboration between singer/songwriter Arjuna Oakes and composer/performer John Psathas, the work grew from a “springboard” award from the NZ Arts Foundation which enabled Oakes to choose Psathas as a mentor, and led to a creative partnership between the two. The pair shared a desire to explore ideas that would “make musical ideas hit home emotionally”, and the song was one of four tracks that emerged from this initial collaboration.
With Psathas himself as the pianist (his debut as a performing pianist in public, he told us afterwards) and the orchestra providing backing of what seemed a “filmic” kind of orchestral texture, Oakes delivered his song via a microphone, words expressing the idea of feelings of vulnerability giving rise to strength in relationships. Psathas’s most telling comment afterwards. I thought, was that collaboration seemed a way for an individual to grow stronger, or in other words, a “Safe Way to Fall”, considering that any creative journey will involve occasional failings and fallings. What I got from the item and its presentation was an insight into creative process that’s outside popular perception of that process, but nevertheless produces a result, whatever one might think of the same as heard here.
John Psathas’s other (somewhat more substantial) contribution to the concert was in a more traditional “inspired by various stimuli” kind of mode, in this case a two-part synthesis of other people’s literary and musical skills. The composer was entranced by author Dean King’s “Skeletons on the Zahara” outlining the historical shipwreck of a group of American sailors off the western coast of Africa in 1815, and their subsequent travails in a hostile desert landscape and at the hands of nomadic tribesmen – so when saxophonist Federico Mondelci, who in turn had been inspired by an earlier concerto for the instrument by Psathas, approached him to write another concerto, it was Zahara which came into being.
Saxophone soloist for the concerto’s performance Valentine Michaud provided considerable visual as well as musical stimulus, appearing on the platform in a stunningly voluminous (social-distancing-style?) orange-crimson dress whose undulating folds seemed to become as desert sands as she launched into the first of the concerto’s four movements, her instrument straightaway “possessing” the ambience created by the long lines of the ambient orchestral accompaniments, denoting rituals of both physical and spiritual identification.
The concerto moved through these exotic realms with considerable variety, a second movement establishing ostinato-like rhythms as the soloist’s playing gradually “enlivened” the music, the exchanges massively and dramatically irrupting and falling away almost to nothing in attention-riveting ways; and a third movement prayerful and ethereal, the music’s haunting aspect enhanced by the soloist’s playing of multiphonics (two notes played at once) above what seemed to me like enormous blocks of air, as if one was a bird soaring over a landscape far below, before the ostinato rhythm was re-engaged and the soloist rhapsodised with the orchestral winds, oboe, bassoon, and clarinet.
The final movement straightaway re-invoked the whole scenario, creating in my mind a desert environment through winds and brass, over which the strings soared as the sky and beneath which the percussion rumbled as of the deep earth. Valentine Michaud used a soprano sax to scintillate through the movement’s first part, then returned to her tenor instrument to deepen the “earth-connection”, the orchestra keeping the ostinato thread going throughout, and lifting the ambiences into a “cheek-by-jowl” fusion of excitement and oneness with the soloist, all scintillation and coalescence to finish!
Michaud returned us to our lives at Zahara’s conclusion with an encore, playing a fun work which she told us was called “cuku” (a chicken), and further demonstrating her virtuosity with multiphonics, as if two birds were simultaneously calling to one another – a very “rustic farmyard” piece which entertained us most delightfully!
And so, after the interval, we entered the very different world of Bela Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin”, having, incidentally, been warned at the beginning by a “voice-over” announcement that the work we were about to hear contained scenes of rape and sexual violence (one might imagine the present-day general cultural entertainment scene well-versed in such antics, though of course government health warnings are still bandied about, and “live” performances might still shock the unsuspecting with the unexpected!)
Musically, I found the performance as enthralling and satisfying as was the Strauss work in the concert’s first half. The opening vortex of bedlam-like sounds – “humanity’s mad, inhuman noise” (as Alan Jay Lerner wrote in “My Fair Lady” in a somewhat different context) – was superbly and sonorously delivered, though it was disconcerting how, for me, the advent of the dancers (members of “Ballet Collective Aotearoa”) radically changed the focus of my attention to the visual drama (the result of having previously “immersed” myself in the music via recordings).
Each of the clarinet solos depicting the girl’s “luring” of prospective clients to be robbed by her cohorts was superbly wrought as was the orchestral support, given that the visual aspect constantly took one’s focus away from what one was “hearing” to that which was being “watched”. Bartok’s evocation of relative “innocence” in the case of the young boy was touching, as was the girl’s response to him, a situation brusquely ended by the ruffians (who, at one stage seemed to morph as a group into a quartet rather than the original trio).
The dancers conveyed what they could of the different scenarios, hampered as they were by the lack of space which a proper stage would have otherwise afforded. Dramatically, the most effective moment was the appearance of the Mandarin, who emerged from a trapdoor centre-stage, dressed in a red robe and bathed in bright light. That, and the impact of the sickly green light which illuminated the Mandarin’s transfixed form after his stabbing by the ruffians were theatrical highlights of the presentation – I only wish someone had thought of deploying an additional light upon the mandarin after he had “embraced” the girl and “satisfied” his desires, at which point his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies – a blood-red spotlight would have provided an apt contrast to the colours that had been previously used.
In all, I thought the presentation was a great success, and especially from the orchestral point of view, in which the flow of the story, the drama and the tension never let up. The Orpheus Choir, too, sonorously and atmospherically played its part, beautifully accompanied by the orchestral violas as the voices gathered intensity, helping to breathe life back into the Mandarin so as to fulfil his destiny with the girl – musically, a scalp-pricking moment, even if hardly the visual embodiment of erotic consummation of desire we had been “threatened with” at the outset.
A definite “feather in the cap” of Orchestra Wellington, then – and the success of “The Miraculous Mandarin” left me longing for the point at which Marc Taddei and his players might again enlist some dancers and give us Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloe” – just a thought, but meant as a compliment for all concerned.