Celebrating the rugby, with Beethoven, without the violence

Kaitiaki by Gareth Farr; Choral Symphony by Beethoven

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with the Orpheus Choir and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir.
Soloists: Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Jonathan Lemalu (bass baritone)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 22 September, 6.30pm

A relatively short piece was needed for the first half of a concert that was to be dominated by the Choral Symphony. A new New Zealand piece using the same soloists as in the symphony was sensible, and the choice of Gareth Farr was unlikely to prove a deterrent for those allergic to music after 1900. With this in mind, Farr could actually have risked offering something a little more challenging, even more adventurous than what he was invited to do, in association with a text by Witi Ihimaera, which Farr described as ‘vibrant, patriotic and passionate’.

Farr goes on to remark on the problem of setting such words (that reflected to some degree the Schiller poem that Beethoven set), ‘without mimicking Beethoven or letting patriotism turn into sentimentality’. It is a bit unusual to encounter the word ‘patriotism’ these days, since it’s been besmirched by so many tyrants and dictators (even as far back as Samuel Johnson who wrote: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’). But both writer and composer worked in the context of the concert: in the Real New Zealand 2011 Festival for the Rugby World Cup in whose atmosphere national rivalries and shallow stereotyping are rampant.

Without access to the text, a mix of English and Maori, the words I could catch sounded like a somewhat portentous shadow of the universalist spirit of Schiller’s ode, An die Freude.  Bearing in mind the possibility that a wider, less classically-accustomed audience, might be present (it was a sell-out), Farr was probably right to set them to music in the tradition of 19th century religio-patriotic choral works, foursquare tonal writing, much attached to the major triad; where, rather than the musical influence of Beethoven, one could hear late Victorian voices like Parry and Stainer, a touch of The Pines of Rome, as well as John Adams and the flavours of film music.

There was nothing saccharine or sentimental in the choirs’ singing, for the character of the music presented no apparent difficulties; their singing, rehearsed by Orpheus director Mark Dorrell and Voices director Karen Grylls, was full of colour, accurate and beautifully balanced.

The quartet of soloists entered after a quiet, evocative strings-led introduction; together or individually, they made an attractive contribution, in particular, with lines for Jonathan Lemalu that suited the colour and range of his voice very well. Simon O’Neill, after a somewhat cautious start soon opened his voice to deliver some grandiose passages that lent the words and music the splendour they had been seeking. Both Madeleine Pierard and Sarah Castle, even from the hardly-advantageous position behind the orchestra, in front of the choir itself, revealed strong and attractive voices, perfectly at home in such an environment.

In case readers feel that I am implying criticism of Farr’s music, I should refine my view. I feel that there is a tendency to commission from the composer, ‘occasional’ works of this kind in the knowledge that he can turn out music that does not turn people away. That is important but there is a happy medium. Here, I fear that Farr was induced to take his brief too literally, pitching his work at too straight-forward an artistic level, a level that doesn’t call for much audience input and which, accordingly, is unlikely to reveal more secrets, magic and beauties in repeated hearings, which is what we long for from ‘classical’ music.

Beethoven more than filled the second half. It was one of those occasions, not uncommon with this orchestra, where one sat, attempting half-heartedly to behave like a critic, to spot, not flaws, but aspects of interpretation, dynamics, pace, and that overall sense of shape and a sustaining of tension and drama. All I could do was feel that I was in the presence of a performance, by orchestra, chorus and soloists, that was of world class, commanding, profound, thrilling; one that might have accompanied one of the great historic occasions for which the symphony has often been employed. The sound, I couldn’t help feeling, was the equal of the finest European orchestras.

The assembly of what must be regarded as four of the most distinguished younger New Zealand singers at present on the international stage was a great coup and clearly proved a big draw-card. Soprano Madeleine Pierard’s career is finding a nice balance between concerts, recital (both the Wigmore and Cadogan Halls) and the opera house, now in the Royal Opera’s young artist programme; and she has enjoyed a number of interesting concert performances in Britain and New Zealand. Mezzo Sarah Castle had been cast quite recently in the mezzo role for this concert in place of Wendy Dawn Thomson. Though she’s a bit less visible in New Zealand, she has consolidated an opera career in important roles in many opera houses in starry company in Europe and America, ranging from Moscow to Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Madrid, Munich, London, Bayreuth and Brussels, to Philadelphia, Seattle and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.

Simon O’Neill’s career has had an even more spectacular trajectory, gaining a remarkable reputation in Wagner,  with roles at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Milan, Berlin and Covent Garden. Parsifal is becoming a calling card, starting with the memorable performance at the 2006 Festival in Wellington, and now at Bayreuth, Rome, Valencia and Barcelona; and the list of conductors with whom he has worked is dazzling. Jonathan Lemalu’s path has taken him more to the recital hall (from Athens to Vienna, Salzburg to San Francisco, Cologne to Carnegie Hall in New York, and a CD with Malcolm Martineau) and concert platform, but his opera record is also impressive with performances at festivals like Tanglewood, Ravinia, Edinburgh, BBC Proms, Munich, Glyndebourne, and a number of leading opera theatres.

Where I was sitting, I enjoyed the strength of cellos and basses, placed by Inkinen behind the first violins, for there is much in this and other Beethoven works where a strong bass foundation is essential to the way music takes root in one’s mind – or is it ‘soul’? The Scherzo, again, danced its way through its hedonistic, peasant-inspired joy, pursuing a perfect pace, sonorous and spirited; and the Adagio was rapturous, deeply spiritual, prolonged but never really long enough, expressing a deep contentment that was raised to a plea for universal peace, presaging the subject of the poem in the last movement.

The choral last movement, in a basic sense, is a series of distinct episodes that pits the real world against the ideal world of Platonic philosophy, and the orchestra, chorus and soloists, moving through changing metres, in forms that troubled its first audiences, with a sense of inevitability and conviction that took possession of the audience.

There are many challenges, for chorus and soloists, which were imperceptible because so disguised by artistry and skill. After the tumultuous, dissonant opening, Lemalu takes command in tones that actually strained his accuracy, yet his sober tone of authority carried all before him. Pierard’s striking voice was the next to make an impact and then the chorus, demonstrating a marvellous homogeneity of tone and ensemble.

I loved the lengthened pause before the onset of the Allegro energico, and the deliberate, sombre insistence that Inkinen drew from it rather than mere martial pomp, after which O’Neill took command in the heldentenor voice of a Siegfried, which he now owns.  Though Castle’s voice has not the same solo opportunities or moments of drama, her opulent voice simply fulfilled its part with sufficient distinction to make its presence quite indispensable. Four solo voices do not always blend beautifully; here they did, though beauty is not necessarily called for; rather, a unanimity of impulse and purpose.

At the end of the final Maestoso coda as the chorus uttered its repeat of ‘Tochter aus Elisium, … Götterfunken’, the audience erupted with prolonged clapping, whistling and shouts: about as frenzied and ecstatic as Wellington audiences ever get.

There was a sense of victory over oppression and evil that far exceeded the kind of victory that might have been felt after the All Black’s win over France which I have just seen the last half hour of after listening to the symphony’s last movement broadcast from Auckland: I delayed posting this all day Saturday in order to hear it on radio. The ecstasy and grandeur that I felt on Thursday was reinforced hugely in this splendid broadcast (on fairly decent equipment) which Auckland had the pleasure of hearing from the kind of auditorium – their Town Hall – in which such a work really thrives.

Those at the Town Hall account of Elisium could have considered themselves far more blessed than those engrossed by the brute physicality at Eden Park.


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