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Made in New Zealand – Enchanted Islands

By , 13/05/2011

MADE IN NEW ZEALAND – ENCHANTED ISLANDS

Music by Ross HARRIS, Anthony RITCHIE, Douglas LIBURN, Lyell CRESSWELL,
Gareth FARR, Chris GENDALL

Stephen de Pledge (piano)
Kirsten Morrell (soprano)
Tama Waipara (baritone)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wellington Town Hall

Friday 13th May 2011

In a real sense this concert epitomized what a “Made in New Zealand ” concert ought to be about – presenting its listeners with plenty of excitement, frustration, argument and satisfaction, putting life alongside art in fine style. Everybody will, of course, make up their own cocktail mix from the aforementioned ingredients when recalling the concert and its afterglow (some will add other things, while others will make do with less, or even with none of the above). But I thought there was a palpable buzz within the audience at the start (a peculiarly “Town Hall” phenomenon, it seems to me) followed by plenty of effervescent discussion at the interval in the wake of a first half of colourful composition and splendid music-making. Even at this stage of the proceedings there was excitement aplenty, all that one could wish of a contemporary music concert’s effect upon an audience.

As for the frustration, I’m sure there will be people, like myself, with their own list of favorite, neglected pieces of New Zealand music hoping for the same to be given an airing via these concerts – perhaps next year, or the year after? It could be that we listeners don’t drop enough hints to those who are the musicmongers that sort out the catch brought in by those trawling the creative currents in this particular ocean – maybe I need to tell twenty times the number of people I already do how much of a crime I think it is that some of our “founding symphonic documents” are unaccountably ignored by our orchestras year after year after year. If I mention David Farquhar’s First Symphony in particular (no public performance since its premiere in 1959!), I’m equally determined that I’ll be fair and report back to these pages any response, written or verbal, to my piece of opinionated partiality, so that others can have their say as well about what they might like to hear in subsequent “Made in New Zealand” concerts.

I mentioned argument as an ingredient of the occasion; and conversations at the concert’s end seemed to have a different tenor to those during the interval, largely thanks to Gareth Farr’s Sonnets, settings for two singers and orchestra of a number of Shakespeare’s eponymous poems. This work divided opinions I heard into not just two camps, but a number of sub-groups, with discussions freely flowing. For myself, I thought the piece didn’t work well within the normal concert-hall setting that was imposed upon it – as if the musicians were trying to perform something like Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Given that both singers (soprano Kirsten Morrell and baritone Tama Waipara) were “miked” because neither seemed to have the vocal “heft” to compete acoustically with the orchestra, I thought the concert’s organizers ought to have taken their cue accordingly and emphasized the piece’s rather more mainstream popular-music-genre. I would have liked the singers not only in their own performing-space away from the conductor and players (even perhaps individually separated for antiphonal/visual effect and spotlit with appropriate lighting), but also have them given properly-modulated microphones that would enable their voices to be actually HEARD. With the precedent in mind of last year’s “Made in New Zealand” concert with its spectacular, if somewhat ill-conceived, visual imagery accompanying most of the music, I would have imagined such a recreation to be perfectly possible this time round.

What’s ultimately most important, however, is the degree of satisfaction given by the music and the music-making – and despite these diverse ingredients, or perhaps because of them, the concert gave to us the feeling as though it had indeed satisfied by the end. It started with a wonderful wallop, courtesy of Ross Harris’s Fanfare for the Southern Cross, a work for brass ensemble whose sombre, almost Brucknerian opening blossomed spectacularly into a brilliant toccata-like display. The music seemed to scintillate like a comet crossing the night sky, before disappearing, much too quickly! – would that it were a prelude to a suite of movements, or something, so that our pleasure at the composer’s exuberant mastery of those radiant textures could be enjoyed for longer!

I took great pleasure also in Anthony Ritchie’s A Shakespeare Overture, a thirty year-old work from the composer’s student days receiving its first-ever performance (with revised touches). I found myself admiring the young Ritchie’s exuberant orchestral writing and sure sense of balance between passages of chamber-like delicacy and piquancy, often involving winds, which were set against more heavily-scored strings-and-brass episodes, occasionally rhythmically spiked with percussion. My notes contain phrases such as “colourful scoring”, “energizing percussion”, and “beautifully dovetailed motifs leading the ear onwards” – besides such detail, I had a sure sense of the piece being well-organized throughout, so that the orchestral forces at the end were able to unerringly build things towards a thrilling climax, a grand exposition of sounds. In all, I thought the piece a worthy addition to this country’s home-grown concert repertoire.

Has any performance of Lilburn’s Four Canzonas featured more beautiful string-playing than what we heard on this occasion? – I doubt it, even if I thought Hamish McKeich’s tempo for the Willow Song (Canzona No.2) a tad quick, Donald Armstrong’s lovely solo playing for me not quite “laden” enough with foreboding at this speed, as befits the work’s original inspiration.I was struck anew by how Sibelius-like the third Canzona sounded, like something out of the latter’s Rakastava, certainly Nordic, rather than Shakespearean in atmosphere. But these were certainly very beautiful performances.

With Lyell Cresswell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (significantly, not entitled a “piano concerto”) the evening’s music-making lurched well-and-truly into relatively unknown territories, soundscapes of the heart and soul, it seemed, considering the circumstances under which the music was written. The work was commissioned by that generous patron of the local arts, Jack Richards, for pianist Stephen de Pledge to play at this concert, so that the performance was a world premiere. It seemed that Lyell Cresswell wanted more of a concertante than a concerto-like work, and this was shown in the extent to which the orchestra reflected and extended what the piano did, very much a concourse rather than a contest.

The work commemorates the memory of a friend of the composer, who actually died while the piece was being written, but whose terminal illness overshadowed the work’s entire conception. No wonder, then, at the extent to which both piano and orchestra gave voice during the work to harsh, jagged outpourings, in grief and anger at a friendship’s loss. Even so, Cresswell found plenty of scope for expression of episodes whose eerie beauty astonished the ear, by way of both recollection of times past and resigned reflection in the wake of death. The work’s seven movements had an intensely volatile quality, indicating parallel strands of feelings and instincts as likely to be in violent opposition as in an uneasy accord. I scribbled phrases like “jagged defiance” and “tolling pulses” while listening to the opening Funeral March, then “bird-song piano figurations” and “ethereal string ambiences” during Adagio 1. And I noted the savagery of the brass attack and the dominance of the heavy artillery throughout Scherzo 1, all the while marvelling at the compositional virtuosity of Cresswell’s writing for orchestra.

The work’s centre, Addolorato (meaning upset or distressed), was the work’s emotional core, expressing both quiet and violent grief by turns, while throughout the following movements variants of the relationship between head and heart were further explored – a characteristic contouring might feature the piano playing the visionary, creating a rapt, magical atmosphere more of the mind than of the world, echoed by Ligeti-like string chords before being splintered by vitriolic brass with toccata-like textures that curdle without warning into amazing air-raid siren-like sonorities. Some of the orchestral figurations might well have owed something to Messiaen’s similarly visionary sound-worlds, but in this case one felt the tones and textures were exploring a very real emotional context of their own. Again my scribblings attempted to capture aspects of this incredible set of soundscapes – “maniacal instrumental energies in a ferment”, or “brass cackle like hooting harridans”, or even “strings become swirling stinging bees”…..all of which hopefully serves to give the reader an idea of the range and scope of sounds created by the piano/orchestra combination. The final presto, though flung at the listener almost peremptorily was able to link briefly with the opening in the midst of its toccata-like tagging, indicating (as the program notes suggested) that from questions can come still more questions rather than answers.

Wanting to earn my keep as a critic, naturally enough, but struggling to offer any comment of sufficient worth in a critical sense about the piece, all I could think of saying was that the music did seem to me to begin to overwork the material towards the end – but then the composer would confound my reaction by producing yet another magical sonority which opened up a fresh vista of wonderment – and despite my occasional instinctive feeling of there having been enough said, I couldn’t bear the thought of any of those sounds being excised! I hope someone moves to have Stephen de Pledge record this work before too long, so that we can get to know it by hearing it often and gradually unlocking at least some of its secrets. I thought it a very great work indeed.

As for Gareth Farr’s Sonnets, somebody I spoke with briefly at the end of the concert said that the performance of the Farr work seemed to them a pale shadow of the music’s previous incarnation as The Holy Fire of Love, which on that occasion featured the vocal talents of Rima Te Wiata and Kristian Lavercombe. It would seem from the reviews I’ve read that these singer/actors projected the songs rather more successfully and theatrically than happened with the fatally straight-laced quasi-classical treatment accorded the words and music on Friday evening in the Wellington Town Hall. To me it seemed all so wrong-headedly presented, to the extent that to comment any further would, I think, be to do the composer and his music an injustice.

Finally in the concert, one of the country’s most exciting younger composers, Chris Gendall, was represented with a work that in a sense was a foil for the Lyell Cresswell concerto in the first half – this later work Gravitas was tough, uncompromising and unyielding, abstracting orchestral sounds and their meaning where the older composer sought direct, straight-from-the-shoulder emotional engagement from his audience with his instrumental tones. I thought that Gendall had written some kind of Etude for Orchestra here, an idea emphasized by the composer’s own note about the music, describing the relationship between a piece’s construction and its most audible elements. Less cerebrally-minded listeners, such as myself, would probably register and enjoy more readily the sharply visceral aspects of the music, its cutting-edge accents set against both deep-throated sonorities and troughs of pregnant silence, its obsessiveness with repeated notes and an interval of a third, and the feeling of these and other notes eventually breaking free of such hegemony and enjoying episodes such as “chaos of delight” pizzicati passages and volatile hide-and-seek scamperings across the orchestral blocks.

As with many a “tough” piece I’ve come to enjoy, it’s necessary to live with the music for a while and get used to the sharp edges – I hope Chris Gendall’s piece gets its chance to be heard rather more often than has been the case with other works I’ve mentioned from time to time, one of them (David Farquhar’s First Symphony) earlier in this review. Gravitas certainly played its part in helping to make the occasion one of the best and most interesting “Made in New Zealand” Concerts of recent years. All credit to conductor Hamish McKeich, to pianist Stephen de Pledge, and to the orchestral musicians, for giving us such magnificent playing throughout the evening.

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