NZSO demonstrates a century of New Zealand music

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: In a New Light

Concert of New Zealand music by Arnold Trowell (The Waters of Peneios), Ross Harris (Violin Concerto; The Floating Bride, The Crimson Village), Claire Cowan (Legend of the Trojan Bird), John Psathas (Seikilos)

Conducted by Tecwyn Evans with Anthony Marwood (violin)

Wellington Town Hall

Friday 7 May, 7.30pm

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra made a striking contribution to New Zealand Music Month.  It attracted a pretty full house, perhaps many freebees, but at least they came.  And I spotted a couple of Auckland music critics too. Instead of the usual concert of New Zealand music, devoted to music of the past 20 years, at most, this exposed a near-century-old work by a very obscure composer who was a much more famous cellist, and one born in Wellington: enterprising!

A common thread was Greece, as three of the pieces had reference to Greek myth and music.

I was greatly intrigued by the unearthing of this very interesting piece by the Wellington-born composer Arnold Trowell (his real name was Tom – he adopted Arnold as a more ‘artistic’ name), who was the object of largely unrequited adoration by the young Kathleen Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield), a year his junior. He was already a gifted cellist and inspired Katherine to take it up; Trowell’s father was the teacher and she displayed considerable talent too, to extent that music as well as writing became a serious ambition. Both Trowell and Beauchamp went to London around 1903 and the relationship continued for about six years, he sending her his compositions.

As a student I remember cello pieces, either composed or arranged by Trowell; I still have one.

The Waters of Peneios (the river that flows through the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly) was written when Trowell was about 30, by then a renowned cellist, and Katherine had only about five years to live.

It proved an attractive tone poem of quite singular accomplishment. If it suggested orchestral colours of Debussy, perhaps a facile (in the listener’s mind) connection with Debussy’s faune, as shimmering strings in the opening passages underlay a flute, and then oboe, that is fair; but just as conspicuous were touches of Delius and Strauss and of the climate of the more advanced music to the First World War.

In a time when originality is something of an obsession, audible influences of predecessors are sometimes deprecated, but in all previous eras it has been the way a composer learns his trade; and it is surely to be expected of a composer who had not written much orchestral music. In the central stormy episode there were strains of melody and orchestral colour that were Straussian, and the later river evocation might have been akin to Siegfried’s Rhine episode.

According to the pre-concert talk by the work’s discoverer, Martin Griffiths, it was first performed in 1917, and as many as 27 times since then, including one by New Zealand conductor Warwick Braithwaite, and last in 1976. He said there were many other extant orchestral pieces by Trowell. Though his New Zealand connection obviously became tenuous, their exploration and recording by the NZSO could be an interesting exercise.

It offered musical images of water, of a river in calm and turbulent modes, though hardly of the character that were displayed on the big screen behind the orchestra – mountain tops, mighty waterfalls, racing clouds: to my mind an unfortunate, distracting, even quite misleading element.

The music seemed to show a composer fully conscious of the need for careful shaping of ideas and of the overall structure. And so it held the attention, offered much delight, throughout its revelatory quarter hour.

The playing of New Zealand music or at least music by New Zealanders, needs to reach back to earlier generations. The orchestral music of Alfred Hill, 20 years older than Trowell and whose string quartets are now getting attention, is still ignored by our orchestras: there are a dozen symphonies. There are other composers of the years before Lilburn and in two decades after him who are neglected, giving the false impression that Lilburn came out of nowhere and that it has taken till the last quarter century for composers of comparable talent to appear.

Though the screen was used again to accompany both the music of Claire Cowan and John Psathas, with little more purpose, it was thankfully absent from the first performance of Ross Harris’s Violin Concerto. Here in fact was a highly impressive performance – a huge credit to orchestra and conductor – of a highly impressive work, commissioned by Christchurch arts patron Christopher Marshall.

Its opening called up more hints of a 20th century violin concerto such as Berg’s, Szymanowski’s or Ligeti’s than of neo-romantic examples by Barber or Korngold, Khachaturian or Shostakovich: its quiet opening in wide-spaced pitches, from harmonics to sonorous G string bowings, then a more lyrical comment on similar material from clarinet. These fragments slowly coalesced with the increasing involvement of the rest of the orchestra, heaping layer on layer till a full, almost opulent, string chorus took over.

Written in one movement, through a 20 minute span, its story passed through phases of fragmentation and reassembly, in predominantly fast tempi and highly virtuosic writing both for the violin, brilliantly realized by English violinist Anthony Marwood, and for the orchestra under the assured command of Tecwyn Evans. Contrasting episodes of agitation, even frenzy, and lyrical, pensive moods and later a magnificent, rich brass chorale, in which scraps of themes slowly came to be recognized, maintained the feeling of a narrative, and of a satisfying form; the violin often adorned, with dancing, Mefisto-like, the ideas as they evolved in the orchestra.

The common device of employing the opening ideas in modified form at the end did indeed serve the piece well, bring a sense of peace and resolution.

After the interval Jenny Wollerman sang Harris’s orchestral incarnation of the set of songs to poems by Vincent O’Sullivan, inspired by Chagall’s paintings. I heard her sing these in Nelson at last year’s Adam Chamber Music Festival, accompanied by Piers Lane at the piano. Naturally, the richness of an orchestra transformed them into songs of more immediate attractiveness, and it was easy to be seduced by the beauty of the scoring, transparent, very supportive both of the imagery in the poems and of the voice. Silly as such a comment might seem, there was a quality in the orchestration that brought reminders of another work inspired by paintings – Mussorgsky’s in Ravel’s garb: in the fourth song, The Rabbi, for example. The orchestration of Give me a Green Horse was particularly entertaining, while the evocation of As the Night in low woodwinds helped form a picture of deep Chagall blue.

Wollerman’s voice is in fine shape, and carried easily over the generally discrete orchestra; if sensuousness was not very required or available, her singing was expressive and her diction clear, though the words, sensibly, were in the programme.

The concert ended with two further programmatic or narrative works. Claire Cowan’s Legend of the Trojan Bird was accompanied by no mention of the significance of a Trojan bird, or a source in Homer: I can recall no mention of a bird in The Iliad; yet the music stands on its own feet. One was free, perhaps with the help of some poetic lines by the composer, to conjure one’s own pictures; what was not helpful was the reappearance of someone else’s images on the screen, either sadly literal or irrelevant.

The music was tonal, skillfully orchestrated, coloured by several excellent solos from orchestral principals, episodes that were variously aerial and ethereal, earth-bound and ominous, droll and sensuous.
Finally a twelve-year old piece by John Psathas, written for performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, based on a verse etched on an ancient Greek tombstone with rudimentary hints of its accompanying music. The message of the verse is ‘live for the day’; Seikilos is vintage Psathos, rich in orchestral effects, especially percussion, strong, complex rhythms, it radiates boisterous joie de vivre, and this was really the only time that the visuals, mainly a sparkling sphere that exploded like sunspots from the sun, and swelled and contracted to reflect comparable emotions in the music, its outbursts of delight and their subsidence.

I don’t think I had heard the work before and was intrigued to contemplate the endurance of the orchestral hallmarks in his music. Psathas is a striking example of a composer who found a voice fairly early and has seen no reason to abandon it significantly.  It serves very well to create images through tuned percussion and the more subtle metal and wood percussion instruments, as well as often beautiful string choruses. Its success as a piece of latter-day impressionism lay in the inconspicuous construction of its musical evolution, ending in fading undefined murmurings.

Visuals accompanying music are almost always a distraction and an irritation, especially moving images. I doubt that many composers would really have welcomed it, and wonder whether these composers were particularly happy with an idea that may have sprung from an effort to popularize the music – i.e. to dumb it down, to protect the little darlings in the audience from being bored by plain music.

Static images might have been acceptable, and a friend remarked that the one opportunity to use the screen sensibly was missed – to display the Chagall paintings as each was sung. I agree.

Otherwise, this was an enterprising concert of worthwhile music that demonstrated the reality of a century or more of serious composition by New Zealand composers; it deserved and got a large audience.