James MacMillan conducts NZSO in his own and Cresswell’s music of the past twenty years

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James MacMillan with Jonathan Lemalu (baritone)

Lyell Cresswell: The Clock Stops, settings of eleven poems by Fiona Farrell
James MacMillan: Woman of the Apocalypse
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 9 May, 6:30 pm

The second of the pair of concerts from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra devoted to music of the past thirty years was a musical success, even though, again, it drew a smaller audience than the orchestra normally attracts. However, given the absence of any standard, familiar music in the programme, it was very encouraging, probably more than might be expected in most cities of comparable size in other parts of the world; and it won, particularly the final work, a noisy ovation with many bravos and a number coming to their feet.

Oddly, the programme note about Cresswell’s The Clock Stops didn’t refer directly to the subject of the poems – the physical and human impacts of the Christchurch earthquakes. It was chief executive Chris Blake’s foreword that mentioned Christchurch, though the language of the poems could easily be read as reflecting the disaster. The tone of the poems, each dealing in the most economical way with different aspects, found their ideal interpreter in the voice of Jonathan Lemalu, for it was the poetry that imposed itself on the composer’s imagination.

In fact, the music seemed to be constrained by the words, throughout the cycle. Not constrained perhaps, but giving rise to what sometimes seemed to me almost too detailed musical responses, and those responses were an orchestral canvas that was subtle, infinitely resourceful, surprising, loud, magically still.  Alongside the engrossing orchestral effects, the actual vocal line, often seeming rather in the nature of Sprechgesang, secondary to the less literal nature of non-vocal music which did the real work of expressing the wide-ranging experiences and emotions.  Each poem created its own unique sound world: ‘Fog’, with shimmering strings, under the image of ‘a woman waking’, while woodwinds echoed the words ‘The bird sings’, an image that returned later, as ‘the bird sings on a broken wall’.

In the poem ‘Map’, every word chiming on the short vowel ‘a’, supplied first an aggressive tone, and then the fragile sounds of two solo violins. The orchestra became transparent, movement absent, in ‘Lullabye’ with pizzicato strings and muted trumpet and Lemalu’s voice, in spite of his throat infection, shifted momentarily to a falsetto. In contrast, the image of ‘Downtown’ called Lemalu up staccato brass and then timpani as Lemalu’s voice coarsened in its low register. Two poems recalled the history of ancient cities that met either a violent end (Jericho) or disappeared under millennia of decay and conquest (Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia).

Each offered substance to the notion of time stopping, bringing the cycle to its strange end. The last words, ‘Tick, tock’, left one with a sense of futility in the face of human and terrestrial catastrophe.

The score called for an orchestra of great refinement and virtuosity, and MacMillan certainly found such an orchestra at hand.

Contrary to the announced programme, the interval was taken at that point and the two MacMillan works were played in the second half. That might have seemed tidy but it did not really serve the composer well. Though written twenty years apart (Gowdie in 1990 and Apocalypse in 2012), the fingerprints were similar. Cresswell’s scrupulous and discreetly used orchestral palette contrasted strikingly with the insistent and sometimes over-blown orchestration in MacMillan’s works.

MacMillan wrote that Woman of the Apocalypse was partly inspired by paintings ranging from Dürer and Rubens to Blake and Gustave Doré, each of whom treated the subject. Its five parts followed each other without break, each offering the reason for tempo and emotional contrast, like symphonic movements. Interest was held, up to a point, through the opportunities these pictorial-based ideas offered: battle, with ferocious timpani and side drums, brass and percussion fanfares, frantic scampering strings to depict the eagle’s wings, and finally her ascension to Paradise that ends with a sweeping Adagio-like passage. Yet the composer’s main concern seemed to be with the exploiting of orchestral colour and power, and while there were distinctive and striking passages and orchestral effects, in the end the work didn’t engage me emotionally, to leave a memorable musical impression.

The earlier work inspired by the torture and murder of Isobel Gowdie as a witch, with hideous barbarity in the 17th century engaged me rather more. It opens with haunting chords from clarinets, bassoons and horns before strings entered, evolving slowly in a way that was more recognizably symphonic. The brutality of her end, of course, provided the stuff of a more complex, agitated and drum-dominated narrative, though my notes remarked that the overwhelming intensity of the percussion, including three sets of drums/timpani at one point, was too much.  However, the intervening passages for violas and cellos, and then for celeste and tubular bells led to a calm, almost lyrical phase during which, rather movingly, the music simply fell away.

So I could understand how this work has gained renown, with many live performances and recordings.

However, at the concert’s end I found myself wondering whether larger numbers might come to a concert of new music if the programme had included one rather more familiar work of the past half century.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *