NZSO scores a success in recent music delving some of the world’s tragedies

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Sara MacLiver (soprano)

Body: Little Elegies
Sculthorpe: Memento Mori
Gorecki: Symphony No 3 (‘Sorrowful Songs’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 3 May, 7:30 pm

The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
The spectre of a half-filled auditorium for a major NZSO concert featuring Gorecki’s famous symphony which had filled this same hall, and halls all over the world, through the 1990s, came as a shock.

Though its first performances outside Poland in the 1980s were roundly abused by most critics, in a typical review, “simply adding to the decadent trash that encircled the true pinnacles of avant-gardism”, it was much better received by audiences. It was the performance recorded by David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw as soloist that propelled it into the charts, even the pop charts.  The phenomenon was widely seen as a sign that decades of domination of classical music by ‘experimental’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘complex’ music that alienated audiences, were at an end; music that was ‘original-above-all’, music that avoided melody and any sign of musical antecedents, unless of the most radical kind.

Indeed, this symphony played a big part in the reaction against music that drove audiences away whenever a contemporary piece was programmed, and the years since have slowly seen the emergence of composers who knew that all art needs to be grounded in what has gone before, both for its own sake and for it to make sense to its listeners.

There are, nevertheless, still sceptics, of whom I am not one.

The orchestra’s performance under Hamish McKeich was stunningly beautiful, with spellbinding suspense maintained though the long, slow passages that begin and end the first movement in a huge arch, as section after section of the strings enter and later depart with its repeated elegiac phrases in elaborate canon.

One of its significant features is the use of a conservative orchestra, with no percussion and limited numbers of wind instruments; though four flutes/piccolos, pairs of bassoons and contra-bassoons, but no oboes or trumpets. There is a prominent piano part, hinting at bells, and of course the remarkable role for soprano, the splendid Sara MacLiver, singing Polish religious songs, folk songs and a setting of a graffiti prayer left by a victim on the wall of a NAZI prison.

MacLiver’s voice was for the most part well balanced in the orchestral texture, though parts of her range seemed to project less well; nevertheless, she captured the emotion, its moments of contrasting despair and hope, most movingly.

It is uniformly in a lamenting mood, though it is also remarkable for the moments of well-being, that arise through beautifully judged modulations at various points. The second movement, though it was where Gorecki set the graffiti prayer by the 18-year-old girl, provided the richest source of hope, expressed so poignantly by voice and orchestra, with quite limited musical means.

Memento Mori by Peter Sculthorpe
The first half of the concert comprised elegiac pieces by leading Australian and New Zealand composers. Both drew on ‘programmes’ that have strong political and environmental implications, not merely trite, nationalistic reflections on the heroism of war.

Of course, we are singularly starved of opportunities to hear Australian music, and I expect the same is true in the other direction. However, I have tried to compensate on trips to Australia with visits to the Australian Music Centre in The Rocks, Sydney, to get recordings. So I was familiar with the performance of Sculthorpe’s Memento Mori by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under David Porcelijn, a disc mainly filled, not the least incongruously, with his Sun Music.

There were hints of Gorecki in the opening passages of Memento Mori, not an impossibility as it was written in 1993, a year after the famous Dawn Upshaw recording.  But Sculthorpe’s main inspiration was the plainchant, the Dies Irae, which appears, matter-of-factly, after the sombre, Gorecki-like introduction: treading even-paced in both the opening and closing phases of the quarter-hour work. Between those passages was a less bleak evolution of the same music, horns prominent, petering out.

Sculthorpe has made explicit the ‘programme’ underlying this music. He uses the history of the collapse of Easter Island’s society and economy as a metaphor for the approaching degradation of the entire planet, faced with the reckless, comparable exploitation of finite resources.

Yet the piece lightens and the pervading elegiac tone slowly evolves with a sense of calm, offering a possible emergence from catastrophe, given intervention by rational and understanding forces. Though hardly a legitimate gloss for this performance, the notes to the Australian CD refer to echoes of another Sculthorpe piece, Sun Song, which is included on the same CD as Memento Mori.

With the Adelaide performance as a comparison, what I heard on Saturday was better, more simply beautiful and integrated in terms of balance, and in the generation of an elegiac mood as well as a lyrical quality and, in particular, more polished sounds from strings and brass.

Little Elegies
Jack Body’s Little Elegies is nearly 30 years old. Yet its vocabulary is rather more emotionally powerful and elaborate than Sculthorpe’s.

Little Elegies was commissioned by the then General Manager of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Nisbet, for use by TVNZ to celebrate 25 years of television in New Zealand. In his programme note, Body described how he had succeeded in having the music used in an experimental video, directed by Peter Coates, that “inter-cut slow motion gestures of the conductor with what were sometimes quite harrowing topical television news clips”.

The quote in the programme was taken from words included in the Centre for New Zealand Music (SOUNZ)’s listing of the work, which included a few details omitted from the programme, such as the title of book that had inspired Body’s composition: Dith Pran’s The Killing Fields. And interestingly, SOUNZ records that, in addition to its original performance, it has been played again by the NZSO in 1994 and by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2012.

The commission and the TV programme itself of 1985 underlines the degeneration and intellectual decay of television in New Zealand in the subsequent 30 years.

Body succeeded in writing a gritty and politically hard-hitting piece that drew attention to television’s trivialisation of human tragedy, specifically the terrible events in Cambodia at the time. His note in the programme recorded his bemusement that his project was accepted, though he could not recall what, if any, response it had stimulated. Yet today, even such a suggestion for a commission would probably be met with scorn and incredulity.

Body noted that the title, ‘Little’ Elegies, referred to the insignificance of his musical statement alongside the enormity of the events he referred to.

It opened with hints of sirens, and an atmosphere of chaos was evoked by the rattle of tom-toms and thud of bass drum, as glissandi strings uttered screams of pain or anger. Gongs along with soft trombones, xylophone and marimba created an Asian scene; piano and celeste contributed surprisingly to that landscape.  The orchestration was often dense but it sounded carefully judged and I sensed that, if tackled, the composer would have given persuasive reasons for scoring each of the instruments in the sonic texture.

It was interesting to be reminded again, what an imaginative and resourceful orchestrator Body is, as I listened while writing this to some of the pieces on the newly released Naxos recording of Body’s music, reviewed by Robert Johnson in RNZ Concert’s CD review programme, midday Sunday: particularly the arias from his formidable opera for the 1998 Festival, Alley, evincing similar orchestral mastery.

So the music of the concert was interestingly linked; themes of human stupidity, either with regard to the environment or driven by political fanaticism (Sculthorpe and Body) or both of those in an undefined meditation that contemplates, ostensibly without topical significance, landscapes of loss and bleakness that afflicts the world at some times and in some places.

Composer of the Week
And Jack Body, turning 70 this year, is Composer-of-the-Week on RNZ Concert this week, the start of New Zealand Music Month.

(And you will have heard the news item on Radio New Zealand on Sunday in which popular-music critic Simon Sweetman questioned the value of this focus on New Zealand music. He is probably right regarding popular music of most kinds; but classical music does not have such an easy ride, and the Month might still be of value.

(One major step would be to improve the quality of music broadcast by National Radio, including discreet items of New Zealand ‘classical’ music; the choice of music is a serious impediment for me when I tune in to its generally excellent spoken programmes: classical music seems to be wholly banned; but neither does it seem particularly good pop music. Are all its listeners musically illiterate?).


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