WONDERLAND – MADE IN NEW ZEALAND 2012
CREE BROWN – Celestial Bodies
CRESSWELL – Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet
WHITEHEAD – Alice
New Zealand String Quartet
Helen Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Wellington Town Hall
Friday 25th May 2012
This was a “Made In New Zealand” concert which packed a real wallop, featuring three substantial pieces of music by different New Zealand composers – all of whom, incidentally, were present. While none of the performances on this occasion were premieres, each one seemed to me to freshly unwrap the music, and square up whole-heartedly to the technical and emotional challenges of each of the pieces’ different physical and spiritual worlds.
It seems to me to be important that any orchestra can play and sound as if it “owns” music written by composers who live in the same geographical space, however “global” or “multi-national” an outlook certain forces of darkness seek constantly to try and impose on our lives. And, as Douglas Lilburn was fond of pointing out, there are aspects of the New Zealand experience which even Mozart, for all his music’s greatness and universality, couldn’t express – and an orchestra such as the NZSO which both encourages and can brilliantly play music by local composers that CAN express these things, is, purely and simply, above rubies. At least, in the expert hands of conductor Hamish McKeich, this was certainly the case throughout Friday evening’s concert.
While I’m still convinced of the need for integrating New Zealand music into “normal” concert programs and schedules, rather than treating it as a kind of separate species confined to its own enclosure (open to the public only at certain times throughout the year!) I’m certain that having a “Made In New Zealand” concert gives additional opportunities for the NZSO to (as orchestra CEO Chris Blake puts it) “support and stimulate the creation and development of a New Zealand symphonic repertoire”. And it’s fortunate we have conductors such as Hamish McKeich and Kenneth Young who can, when given opportunities to do so, make good that statement of intent with fully-committed advocacy.
Without wanting to “limpet-mine” this review with any suggestion of a subaqueous agenda, I feel nevertheless compelled to mention, quite offhandedly, that one of the greatest (in my opinion) of New Zealand symphonies – David Farquhar’s first, performed in concert in 1960, a year after it was written – still awaits its SECOND public performance. Ironically, the work has enjoyed two recordings throughout the interim, and thus can’t claim to be completely neglected – but how else would one characterize something that’s had a single public airing in fifty-two years? To my ears the work urgently has a part to play in any such “development of a New Zealand symphonic repertoire”.
Back with the business in hand, I was interested to read that the first work on the evening’s program, Chris Cree Brown’s Celestial Bodies, was first presented in 2005 in Christchurch as an audio-visual collaboration with the artist Julia Morison. It would have been interesting to have experienced something of the composer’s original conception for this work, though previous “Made In New Zealand” concerts which used visual elements encountered a good deal of criticism from concertgoers, myself included, which might have been off-putting for the organizers. However, it must be said that the criticism was directed almost exclusively at instances where visual elements were imposed on existing music, not where it was part of the composer’s own initial scheme.
This accounted for those parts of the work so readily and cheerfully dispensing entirely with the “live” orchestra (the whole of the fourth section “Dark Matter” for example.) Having visual imagery interacting with the taped material would at this point have, I feel sure, removed some of the incongruity for me of having to watch an entire orchestra sitting on a concert platform listening to prerecorded sounds. For the rest I enjoyed the players’ skilful acoustic dovetailing with some of the sounds on the tape throughout (a sign of the times being a reference to an “electroacoustic CD” instead!).
Celestial Bodies is a work in ten sections, the parts named for various phenomena found throughout space, the composer describing them as “overwhelming in their size, awe-inspiring in their diversity and breathtaking in their beauty”. New Zealand composers have written outer space-inspired music before, an example being Edwin Carr’s ‘The Twelve Signs”, though Cree Brown’s work avoided any astrological reference-points. Instead, his pieces unfolded for us, one by one, aspects of the cosmos with titles such as Galaxy, Globular Cluster, Pulsar, Nebula and Supernova, as well as those with a more sinister ambience like Dark Matter and Black Hole.
These were brilliantly crafted sounds, atmospheric and pictorial, with plenty of variation, and readily suggesting their subject matter in practically every case. They were not for everybody, as I discovered when talking with people, some of whom said they struggled to feel any connection with the music, while admiring the composer’s craft and skill. I felt involved in almost every episode, and particularly enjoyed the orchestra’s interactions with the pre-recorded sounds, a process which I thought set up interesting performance tensions in places and pushed my listening boundaries outwards, towards places that felt quite eerie – the second piece, Globular Cluster, worked on my imagination readily in that respect.
I also enjoyed the pieces’ contrasts, for example, when going to the following piece, Pulsar, and encountering those strongly-etched rhythms pulsating through spaces that had seemed up to this point pleasantly nebulous. Black Hole was another piece whose elemental irruptions gave a real sense of menacing power, thrillingly at odds with one’s accustomed sense of vast stillness when looking at the night sky, the orchestra’s heavy batteries making splendidly frightening noises, complete with a startlingly anarchic chord at the end.
Where I didn’t especially “connect” with Cree Brown’s music was, as I’ve said, with any “pre-recorded only” episodes of any length – the fourth piece, Dark Matter, the most ready example. I’m certain that, had we seen Julia Morison’s images, the sequence would have told more readily and maintained enough interactive tension – perhaps a soloist or group of soloists from the orchestra needed to play ad lib with the pre-record, in the absence of any visuals, to keep the impulses alive and flowing.
Interactive tension was the name of the game with Lyell Cresswell’s Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet. In one continuous movement, the work spun its listeners excitingly through what seemed like an endless variety of episodes involving interchange between the performers – in this case the New Zealand String Quartet and the orchestra. Although this concerto wasn’t written for the NZSQ, (it was premiered in Scotland by the Yggdrasil Quartet and the Scottish National Orchestra in 1997), Cresswell has written other works specifically for the group, a piano quintet And Every Sparkle Shivering, first given here in 2000 with Michael Houstoun, and a string quartet, Kotetetete, which the NZSQ performed last year in the City of London Festival. Cresswell has described the NZSQ as “a quartet that can play anything”, and felt that whatever demands he made of the players in writing the Quartet, they would relish the challenges.
The group has played the Quartet Concerto before, the first time in 2001 with the BBC Scottish Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young. From the start, Cresswell wanted to write a piece that was a genuine partnership between quartet and orchestra, and not merely with the latter group providing some sort of “accompaniment”. And neither did he want the piece to be a kind of Concerto for orchestra, with string quartet. On the “genuine partnership” count alone, the work seemed to me a truly egalitarian tour de force – one noted a constant flow of creative happenings between solo instruments, small groups and larger forces, a kind of all-encompassing concerto grosso, with all the attendant tensions and resolutions which one might expect would throw up between such elements.
Cheryl Hollinger’s magically-phrased trumpet-playing, introduced by scintillations of percussion and airborne, ethereal orchestral strings, got the work way to a suitably “storyteller-like” beginning, the theme hinting at a kind of unfolding aspect, as in the best tales. And though the quartet’s viola-led instrument-by-instrument configurings, supported by the orchestra strings and commented upon abruptly by brass punctuations, were carefully terraced by the composer, the effect seemed always natural and organic, never forced or contrived. As with genuine human interaction, the exchanges occasionally flared up excitingly, the music expressing its fair share of marked contrast and volatility, but was then balanced by slower, more reflective and meditative episodes midway through the work. Here, I loved the heartfelt duo lines between various pairings of solo strings from the quartet, seeming to me expressing great beauty against what felt in places like a backdrop of ambient desolation.
There were places throughout the final section during which I wondered whether the writing fell back on itself every now and then, and could have benefitted from some “tightening” by the composer – but always a succeeding episode would scoop up and whisk away my misgivings, generating so intense an excitement of quicksilver exchanges of texture, colour and rhythmic patterning between quartet and orchestra. Cresswell’s orchestral writing in particular I thought so very virtuosic in places, the music’s occasionally vertiginous momentum creating exhilaration aplenty. The quartet players, as always, gave their all, and each section of the orchestra, directed and balanced with admirable skill by conductor Hamish McKeich, seemed switched-on to razor-sharp mode with the timing and focus of their rapid exchanges.
After the interval came intensities of another, more directly human kind, Gillian Whitehead’s setting of poet Fleur Adcock’s retelling in verse of an ancestor’s emigration from Britain to begin a new life in New Zealand in 1909. Twenty-three year-old Alice Adcock, showing symptoms of tuberculosis, and hoping that a change of climate would help effect some kind of cure came to this country from Manchester, to the consternation of her family. She lived for a further fifty years, during which time she lost her husband and was then rejected and dispossessed by his family, having to relocate with her children to another part of New Zealand and start a new life.
Fleur Adcock felt Alice’s story was, in a sense, that of all those who came across the seas to establish a new life, the commonalities having, in her words, “the resonances of a universal myth, known to all of us who live here”. Making the most of the deceptively simple poetry, singing with great power and beauty, and relishing occasional forays into a kind of sprechtgesang, Helen Medlyn here became the heroine, Alice, body and soul, pretty much as she would have done when she “created” the role in 2003 at the premiere performance. She brought out all the different elements of the text – its humor (much talk of lice, using terms like “gentle creepers” and “big crawlers”), positive energy (revelling in the clean air of a new country), unflagging optimism (happiness at finding a man to marry who will take and accept her child) and a sense of loss and grief over deaths of loved ones (father and husband) – but also gave the sung lines plenty of theatrical (even operatic) presence and vibrancy.
No praise is too high for orchestra and conductor, Hamish McKeich, living the different scenarios with Medlyn every inch of the way throughout the story-line, and continuing to deliver, right through the unfortunate contretemps which quietly erupted in the gallery, where an audience member suddenly took seriously ill ten or so minutes before the end of the piece. This, of course, occasioned a flurry of piteous activity (those on the ground floor, along with many of the musicians, largely oblivious to what was going on) – but evidently the revival efforts of those brought to help were successful.
A stimulating and colorful “Made In New Zealand” concert then, with three substantial works whose effect will have won for the orchestra, its conductor, and the special solo performers many plaudits from a delighted audience and from three grateful composers.