On ANZAC Eve
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tecwyn Evans with baritone James Eggelstone and narrator Peter Elliott
Reading from letter from Private Roy Denning, WWI; Ross Edwards: Symphony No 1, Da pacem Domine
Reading from John A Lee’s ‘Civilian into Soldier’; Christopher Blake: Till Human Voices Wake Us
Elgar: Enigma Variations
Michael Fowler Centre
Wednesday 24 April, 6.30pm
Musical recognition of ANZAC Day (apart from ritualised hymns) has not been a common thing, as far as I can remember. And looking back over the record of reviews in Middle C, I can find no significant concerts, at least since 2008, that attempted to mark the day. The last with any sort of connection was a small chamber music concert that accompanied an exhibition of Gallipoli paintings by artist Bob Kerr, at Pataka Museum in Porirua in 2010; they in turn were inspired by Kerr’s coming across a diary of soldier at Gallipoli, in the Turnbull Library; in addition the words of a Turkish soldier offered what has become a common way of expressing today’s attitude to war: the soldiers of neither side as other than tragic victims of mindless rulers.
Thus it struck me that, if the first two works were by a New Zealander and an Australian, the second half might interestingly have included a piece by a contemporary Turkish composer.
Instead Elgar’s Enigma Variations ended the concert. It was hard to perceive the relevance of a piece written fifteen years before Gallipoli in a country whose leaders were among those who might have stopped the mad slide into the war itself and were responsible for the monumental blunder of the ill-planned and wretchedly equipped landing on Turkish soil in 1915.
The variations include moments of sadness and some kind of mourning, but so do scores of compositions by composers in every country, though before the 20th century, war was more glorified than deplored.
But that aside, this was a very human, sympathetic performance that seemed to focus on feelings of affection, sometimes wry, sometimes amused, sometimes simply expressing the depth of Elgar’s feeling for his friends, his wife, and perhaps a former, even unforgotten, love.
My earliest memory of Elgar was hearing this work, in the fifth form, on 78s, played by our music master; I particularly remembered his saying that Elgar was one of the greatest orchestrators. Whenever I hear the Enigma it is still the facility with a symphony orchestra, of a largely self-taught composer that strikes me. And conductor Tecwyn Evans exploited the NZSO’s riches of opulent string choruses, scintillating woodwind passages, the dynamic, argumentative timpani in Troyte, the trembling grandeur of the brass in Nimrod and the delicious woodwind and viola solo that describes Dorabella.
Evans left the audience in no doubt that this remains a masterpiece and that the orchestra has more than enough resources to demonstrate all its colour and emotion.
We are assured that Christopher Blake’s Till Human Voices Wake Us had been scheduled before his appointment as the orchestra’s chief executive. Whatever, it was a very appropriate choice for the occasion, though the title has little enough to do with the tragedy of war apart from its use as the title of Ian Hamilton’s book of the same name about the treatment of a pacifist during World War II.
But it’s the last line of TS Eliot’s early poem, The Love-song of J Alfred Prufrock, a poem full of phrases that have entered the language almost invisibly and, judging by the absence of reference to its source in the programme note, unknown to the programme writer. (“Let us go then, you and I, /When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table”, “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo”, “Is it perfume from a dress/That makes me so digress?”, “Should I say, ‘ That is not what I meant at all/That is not ir at all’”, “I grow old … I grow old … /I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”, and the last lines: “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea … /Till human voices wake us and we drown”.)
The piece was commissioned for broadcast by the NZSO on New Zealand Music Day in 1986; Blake linked it too to the International Year for Peace, and used an invocation derived from Philippians 4:7, in both French and English to connect with the recent Rainbow Warrior bombing by the French secret service.
Thus there are extra-musical meanings, which can easily get in the way of the music and its impact on the listener; but it does not. Though I don’t recall hearing it when originally broadcast in 1986, I have the seminal 1995 double-CD on the Continuum label (NZSO under Kenneth Young, with Christopher Doig singing the words of the Blake piece; so this present performance was offered in Doig’s memory) containing a number of significant New Zealand orchestral works; I have always felt that Blake’s piece was one of the most arresting and important works on that compilation.
The performance was introduced again with a reading by Peter Elliott of an extract from Archibald Baxter’s memoir of his terrible treatment as a conscientious objector in the first World War. The work itself contains settings of two Dreams from Baxter’s book, sung by Australian tenor James Egglestone; he sang all three texts with conviction. For me, it was the orchestra that spoke with greatest power and meaning, in scoring that was epochal; sudden explosions from brass and timpani, then trumpets crying out in martial fifths. He scoring, though relatively light on percussion apart from conspicuous timpani and later, an insistent side drum, might sound fairly dense in places by today’s standards.
But regardless whether one can find evidence of Prufrock or of musical connotations of the title, this was a highly persuasive performance of a well-crafted work that could well have come from a respectable central European composer of the past few decades.
Finally, Ross Edwards’ Symphony, subtitled Da Pacem Domine. Edwards is one of Australia’s most approachable composers; many will be familiar with his hauntingly beautiful violin concerto, Maninyas, recorded by the Sydney Symphony under Stuart Challender; it appears on the same ABC Classics CD as this symphony, there conducted by David Porcelijn after Challender, its dedicatee, had died.
It’s a disc I got in Sydney in the mid 1990s and treasure.
Not far into the elegiac symphony one is strongly reminded of Gorecki’s Third Symphony; again, it is scrupulously, delicately scored, the evocative monothematic substance endlessly repeated in subtly, ever-changing forms, with occasional full-blooded tuttis, moments of sunlight breaking through pervading darkness and clouds. .
Edwards is quoted in the CD booklet, describing his work as “a massive orchestral chant of quiet intensity into which my subjective feelings of grief and foreboding about some of the great threats to humanity: war, pestilence and environmental devastation, have been subsumed into the broader context of the ritual”.
It is refreshing to hear music that has its origin in important issues, which transmutes the matter into artistic forms that are moving and beautiful rather than portraying the topic in a determinedly brutal, literal way.
It is likely that Edwards had heard the Gorecki symphony when he composed his work, and that its patterns lingered in his head as they did with almost all who heard it after it hit the charts in Dawn Upshaw’s momentous recording in 1993. For me, that vitiates it as little as does the kinship between Brahms’s first symphony and Beethoven’s ninth.
I found it powerful and moving and it prompted me to delve into my quite big collection of recordings of Australian music which I have always felt deserves much more attention in New Zealand for perfectly objective reasons.
So, though another hearing of the Enigma is never likely to be a problem, the other two works in the programme held my attention and moved me far more.