New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir conducted by Tecwyn Evans.
Soloists: Jenny Wollerman, Richard Greager, Paul Whelan
John Adams: Harmonielehre;
John Psathas: Orpheus in Rarohenga
Wellington Town Hall
Friday 10 May, 6.30pm
[A review by a colleague did not materialize and this is based on my review that appeared in the Listener of 16 May. It could not be courteously published until that issue of the Listener had gone off sale. It is here somewhat changed and expanded]
Not long ago a concert of music written in recent decades, especially by a New Zealand composer, would probably have attracted a smallish audience. But things are changing.
The comfortably filled Town Hall at this concert of two pieces of music of the past 30 years was a moderate surprise.
Perhaps it’s a pointer to two linked phenomena: as in most other artistic spheres, more composers today realize that an attractive, accessible and well-made product is the only likely path to success; and it is to be observed that audiences respond accordingly.
(In this context I am bemused at the habit of publicizing a new piece of music by describing it as the ‘world premiere’, suggesting that concert promoters from Helsinki to Buenos Aires will be clamouring for performance rights. A more persuasive statement would be ‘second (or tenth) performance’).
Those elementary facts needed to be explained to neither of this evening’s composers.
John Adams’s Harmonielehre is written in open rejection of Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, yet he pays his respects to the great if misguided composer by using the title of his famous treatise urging that ages-old tonality, which evolved organically from ancient times, be replaced by an invented system.
Adam’s piece is a brilliant example of often maligned American style, of ‘minimalism’. It is music of energy, pulsing momentum, colour, yet with a dramatic shape that galvanised the audience for 40 minutes. It starts with a throbbing outburst from brass and timpani; then marimba, xylophone, and the rest of the orchestra that includes two harps, two tubas, piano; electrical and mesmerizing, it accelerates, mutates rhythmically and generally maintains its hold on the audience.
Under Tecwyn Evans there was far more excitement than in the recorded versions I’ve heard (maybe that’s just the difference between live and recorded music). The middle of the first movement calms to a beautiful, if filmic lyricism, but recovers its opening motoric obsessiveness to the end. The middle movement, The Amfortas Wound, recalling Parsifal, relates to the creative block that Adams had experienced before writing this; more strings-led, a sort of neutral, trapped emotional state dominates. Part III resumes the throbbing rhythms but with light and calm, in tones that hint of Martinu or Nielsen; pulsating excitement returned, bringing boisterous applause.
I was intrigued to find recordings of the work on You-Tube were illustrated by abstract expressionist paintings by the likes of Rothko and Barnett Newman which, though minimal enough, hardly suggest the strong pulse that drives the music.
John Psathas’s oratorio Orpheus in Rarohenga seemed to yearn to be opera: I looked for visuals.
Accordingly, I also looked for surtitles for not all singers managed to produce the words with clarity. The programme booklet for the 2002 premiere performance, which had celebrated the Orpheus Choir’s 50th anniversary, printed the full libretto; but the notes here gave only a very generalized account of the story. Apart from the wonderful contributions of Richard Greager (Cook) and Paul Whelan (Orpheus), the words were largely inaccessible. However, Mark Dorrell had trained the choir to sing with ardour and energy as well as clarity and precision, with very few flaws. Jenny Wollerman, singing the cross-cultural role of Venus (Cook’s observation of the Transit at Tahiti was another bit of the jig-saw; but we missed Mercury, whose transit Cook observed at The Coromandel Peninsula), was beautifully musical.
The text was by Auckland poet Robert Sullivan. It was often poetic and vivid, though it handled the widely spaced episodes without really creating a sense of time passing, from the first sighting New Zealand in 1769 to Cook’s death in Hawaii ten years later.
In a review for The Dominion Post in 2002 I wrote that I was not sure about the success of this combining Greek legend in a rather far-fetched association with Cook’s contact with Maori and the Hawaiians. For I could not avoid the feeling that Orpheus (whether god and choir) had been strong-armed into some sort of accord with Maori deities and an exploratory expedition some thousand years later.
I remain uncertain
The music however is powerful, exhibiting all Psathas’s orchestral virtuosity, melodic and rhythmic inventiveness; Evans led the large orchestra, organ, choir and soloists through this tough work with impressive finesse, accuracy and huge energy. There was spirited ovation.