Contemplations of life and death from disparate times and nations

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 2, Op 72
Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death with Jonathan Lemalu – bass-baritone
John Psathas and Warren Maxwell (vocals and guitar): Pounamu, a ‘concerto’ for voice, guitars and orchestra

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 28 July, 4pm

In 2008 Warren Maxwell, frontman of Little Bushman, collaborated with John Psathas and the Auckland Philharmonia in a concert entitled Little Bushman meet the APO; and in the following year, the NZSO also staged the Little Bushmen collaboration, again with Psathas, and on a film score, The Strength of Water.

Psathas approached Maxwell again suggesting the idea of a collaboration that would become Pounamu. It was performed with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in May 2011 and later that year the contemporary music ensemble Stroma took it on in a reduction from the original score for full orchestra. The orchestral original has awaited a performance in Wellington and it found a place filling the second half of a concert by Orchestra Wellington.

It was understandable that not all of the orchestra’s usual audience showed up although it was by no means a poor house. Judging by the style of the acclamation from a significant section of the audience a good representation of the followers of Trinity Roots/Little Bushman was on hand.

What Wellington heard was an expansion of the original, heard in Auckland; a sixth part was composed for this revival. Maxwell described the work in his programme notes as well as in an engaging interview with Eva Radich on Radio New Zealand Concert’s Upbeat programme in the preceding week. In six sections, it contemplates shortcomings of our society, neglect of disadvantaged groups such as the homeless and unemployed, the elderly, those with hard-to-manage addictions and so on: those on the outskirts of the community (as he puts it).

In his unmistakable, hushed and breathy voice, often in an alto, falsetto register, accompanying himself on regular or bass guitar, he sang/delivered in sprechgesang, sometimes addressing us, sometimes third parties, sometimes the universe. In ‘Grandma’s Tears’ we heard a recording of thoughts and memories of his grandmother(?) in her 90s.

In light of the normal practice of reproducing the words in full, often in the original and in English of liturgical works and songs, it was a pity not to have printed at least the essentials of what he spoke (which was done with the four Songs and Dances of Death).

It was not entirely clear from either the notes or what he told Eva Radich, how much of the music was conceived by him and how much was originated by Psathas; or was Psathas’s contribution largely orchestration?

It was moving, poignant, capturing the nature of the  words and subject matter; just occasionally, and more, I thought, in the closing phase, it suggested a film score, a shade too elaborate and sophisticated, and expressing less sincerity as it did so. It was long – some 35 minutes – but did not outlast its interest, and the eventual impression was of a partnership between equals even though the idioms themselves – the symphonic and the Maori-tinted rock/popular worlds – might have been very far apart.

The other vocal work on the programme was astutely chosen, for it touched on certain of the same human concerns, four poems by a friend of Mussorgsky’s, one Golenishchev-Kutuzov. Mussorgsky, like Psathas/Maxwell, set them in music that often, at least in the first song, approached Sprechgesang, singing without apparent strict notation, though the voice seems to find telling pitches which I’m sure could be notated if one were disposed to try.

Though my first hearing of these songs was from an LP I bought at a sale in the 1950s, purely on exploratory impulse, sung by Jennie Tourel, with the Bernstein at the piano, which has remained a sort of bench-mark, there is no doubt that a dark bass-baritone delivers them with more immediacy and realism.

There could hardly have been a more powerfully sympathetic singer than Jonathan Lemalu, of these dark though not really despairing songs, for Death is depicted mainly as friend, offering peace in place of suffering. Lemalu’s Russian sounded as if he were singing in his first language and his entire demeanour and vocal quality expressed their sombre but richly musical quality with utter conviction.

And the orchestration by Shostakovich gave them wonderfully appropriate, almost too particular accompaniment, leaving little to the imagination. Under Taddei the orchestra did them vivid and detailed justice.

Finally, the first work on the programme was one of the four overtures that Beethoven wrote for the various incarnations of his troubled opera, Leonore/Fidelio.

Just to refresh memories, No 2 was probably the first written, and was the one played at the opera’s first production in 1805; No 3 was a modified version of it which was played at the revival in 1806; in the latter, the trumpet call was moved from near the end in No 2, to nearer the middle of the piece. No 1 was found among Beethoven’s papers after his death (and carries the posthumous opus number 138), perhaps intended for a performance in Prague that did not eventuate; possibly, judging by the abrupt ending, it was unfinished. The Fidelio Overture was written for the revised version of the opera produced in 1814, less than half the length of either Nos 2 or 3.

This was a spacious, stentorian performance, opening with huge dramatic chords, nothing like the relatively polite chords one can hear on some recordings; and later, Taddei created great, suspenseful pauses between arresting scene changes. The blazing, victorious trumpet leading to the finale made a marvellous impact, played from the back of the gallery by Chris Clark.

Though Taddei held tempi under effective tension throughout, all that changed in the last stretta bars in which the orchestra hurled themselves, chocks away, into the peroration that proclaimed Florestan’s rescue.

The orchestra’s adventurous programme was entirely vindicated.


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