Jenny McLeod’s “Peter Pan” music on Naxos


The Emperor and the Nightingale (narrator and orchestra) / Rock Concerto / Three Celebrations for Orchestra

The Emperor and the Nightingale: Helen Medlyn (narrator) / Kirstin Eade (solo flute)

Rock Concerto: Eugene Albulescu (piano) / Bridget Douglas (flute)

Conductor: Uwe Grodd

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

 NAXOS 8.572671

After the splendid concert given by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra featuring Jenny McLeod’s The Emperor and the Nightingale as part of the NZ International Festival of the Arts Series, it was interesting re-adjusting one’s thoughts towards an audio-only presentation of the work, included on this splendid recent CD. In fact, coming back to it in the wake of the concert enhanced my enjoyment of both experiences, and stimulated a lot of thinking regarding the respective merits of sound and vision as communication tools in themselves.

Jenny McLeod has herself been a nightingale of sorts, one whose song has taken a variety of tones, characters and intentions over a compositional career which has seen her delve into and work through a number of stylistic preoccupations. Formative studies in Europe with Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen advanced her early avant-garde impulses, alongside of which she was able to identify and explore aspects of this country’s bicultural heritage with music-theatre works like Earth and Sky (1968) and Under the Sun (1970).

She concerned herself for a while with attempting to integrate popular styles of music into classical forms (e.g. her Rock Sonatas for piano), but then became interested in an innovative harmonic theory propounded by Dutch composer Peter Schat, the “Tone Clock” Theory. McLeod based a number of her compositions on this method. More recently she has become involved with writing church music for use by Maori groups, an involvement which led her to being asked to write a piece about an historical event involving an ancestor of Whanganui Maori, Hohepa Te Umuroa (the result being the recent NZ International Arts Festival opera Hohepa).

Here on this new CD, it’s McLeod’s “popular neoclassical” period that we’re largely concerned with, music whose approachability would surprise anybody whose experience of the composer’s work hadn’t included her “pop-influenced” output. As McLeod herself put it in her program notes, “this is the music of a composer who for a time refused “grow up”, declaring that writing and performing music should be “enjoyable”…”

That enjoyment comes across in spadefuls throughout McLeod’s setting for narrator and orchestra of Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story The Emperor and the Nightingale. The Arts Festival concert referred to above paired the work with perhaps the most well-known of “narrator-and orchestra” stories, that of Peter and the Wolf with music by Prokofiev – though comparisons were scarcely in order, as the latter was completely reworked, dispensing with a narrator and featuring an animated film to present the story along with the music.

In McLeod’s Anderson setting, Helen Medlyn’s storyteller-delivery bars no holds, her projection as vivid and as wholehearted as if she were performing the piece for a packed auditorium – rather than overpowering the listener in a domestic environment, I found the larger-than-life characterizations she evokes a perfect match for the orchestral panoply with its multifarious colorings and textures and its extremes of loud and soft, weight and delicacy – in fact her voice is used as another orchestral instrument, and the Naxos recording comes to the party most satisfyingly (unlike some other “speaker-and-music” recordings I’ve heard which seem to deny the participants any sort of sonic relationship!)

McLeod cleverly differentiates the music for the “clockwork” as opposed to the real nightingale: the clockwork bird’s melodies are proscribed, angular and turning in on themselves, as opposed to the freer, more improvisatory figurations of the real bird – and the sense of everybody “taking-up” the mechanical tune is splendidly conveyed, with weight and colour. It’s all the more shocking, then, when the clockwork begins to malfunction, and the bird’s song ceases – the music characterizing the emperor’s resulting malaise could have come from Kodaly’s Hary Janos.

I’m pleased flutist Kirstin Eade is credited in the booklet with the flute solos depicting the nightingale, because they’re wonderful – gorgeously turned, and deftly characterized with so many colourings. Alongside her, the orchestral detailing, so magically and unhurriedly wrought by the composer, is here beautifully realized by the NZSO’s contingent of star players.

Three Celebrations for Orchestra date from 1983, though the work was revised by the composer a couple of years ago. The opening “Journey through Mountain Parklands” is classic “road music” at the start – sounds which push forward and throw their ambiences in all directions, defining the range and scope of what’s to follow.  It’s all gloriously tonal and accessible, with strands of texture that arrest the ear, such as the saxophone solo lines, which lead to gentler,more settled evocations before the scene’s underlying grandeur takes over again, percussive textures adding their voices to the driving momentums.

Nostalgia informs the gentler second movement, an invocation of Pukerua Bay, near Wellington. A kind of wistful tenderness winds through the opening, the music allowing for occasional irruptions of pleasure and excitement – would Malcolm Arnold have written in a similar vein had he visited the country and concocted some “New Zealand Dances”? The third episode has the title A&P Show –  the opening a riot of glittering energies, combining the bustle of visitors with the strut and swagger of performers and showpeople – there are Copland-esque, rodeo-like touches at one point! The music allows for both reflection and purposeful impulse, with the final pages generating plenty of colourful activity, the “rodeo-motif” prominent again just before the whiplash close.

Last on the disc is the Rock Concerto. The music actually began life as a “Rock Sonata” for solo piano, written for the gifted seventeen year-old pianist Eugene Albulescu at the instigation of his teacher, Bruce Greenfield; but Albulescu subsequently requested that McLeod recast the work as a concerto. McLeod calls aspects of the music “very much of our own time”, while referring in both spirit and style to composers of earlier times – “distant friends” as she calls them.  The spirit of Gershwin colours some of the more reflective, lyrical moments of the work, though I confess to finding other parts of the writing surprisingly slight of expression. McLeod warns the listener, it’s true, that “those in search of something deeper and darker must look elsewhere…”

Not so the middle movement – subtitled “Elegy for Charlie French” (a friend of the composer’s who died of Aids), the music gradually colours its deceptively simple opening with darker hues, the expression eventually reaching a point of utterance whose candor and sobriety are appropriately moving. The darknesses dissolve somewhat, as the poise of the opening returns, though l liked the bitter-sweet strands the composer threaded though the utterances of the closing pages.

The finale is all angular energy – the composer marks the music allegro giocoso, and translates it herself as “swinging and robust”, an apt description. In true pragmatic, Baroque-composer fashion,  McLeod indicates that each of the movements of the work can be played independently. Is it all too much of a good thing? One senses that, as with whatever she was engaged with, McLeod was “on a mission”, the music enthusiastically encouraging her dictum “it should be enjoyable”. And there will be plenty of music-lovers prepared to go along with that.






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