The Orpheus Choir – music of here, and now……

Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents
A concert dedicated to the Pike River Miners

Ross HARRIS – If Blood Be the Price
Dave DOBBYN – This Love
James McCARTHY – 17 Days

Dave Dobbyn (vocals and guitar)
Katherine McIndoe (soprano)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Wellington Young Voices
Lyrica Choir, Kelburn School
Wellington Brass Band

Christopher Clark (conductor for Harris)
Mark W.Dorrell (conductor for Dobbyn and McCarthy)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 10th May, 2014

I’m normally accustomed to encountering seemly, well-regulated conversational tones and discreet movements of habitually circumspect classical concertgoers at Michael Fowler Centre concerts. However, I was aware straightaway of something different and palpable in the air when entering the doors of the same venue on Saturday evening to attend the Orpheus Choir’s concert “Dreams lie Deeper”.

Here were vibrant swirlings of people thronging the foyer, staircases and mezzanine floor of the erstwhile concert venue, people whose dress and demeanour proclaimed their expectation of being witness to something which suggested promises of glamour and glitter – so, was I in the right place, or had I perhaps gotten my dates or the venue confused?

Amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces I caught sight of somebody I recognized, behind an official-looking table – “Ah, Peter!” he cheerfully hailed – “I was told to expect you…” – this was encouraging! –  “and I have here a ticket for you!” I took it gratefully, not REALLY expecting a kind of instant stylistic makeover, transforming my outer persona, but at least feeling that this talismanic touchstone had transferred a kind of “imprimatur” onto my presence – I was now one of the chosen, as it were……

As if I hadn’t been taken aback sufficiently at this stage, I caught my breath upon entering the auditorium – I haven’t been to a “pop” concert since my teenaged years (a gradually receding memory….) – but I fancied I recollected enough of those ambiences to glean that I was in for a different kind of concert experience to that which I’ve become accustomed. It was then that the thought “Will I be up to this task?” suddenly struck me!

It was all very theatrical – the choir was already seated on-stage, their figures outlined in the half-light and no more – the atmosphere was attenuated by what seemed like a kind of “nightclub haze”, though it obviously wasn’t cigarette smoke! Occasionally a billowing of freshly-conjured mist (probably dry-ice) would well up, thermal wonderland style (though not as aromatic!), catching the play of the spotlights and intensifying the mystery and ritualistic aspect of it all.

In the aisles were technical-looking people with what looked like television cameras and microphones on the ends of long poles. Some filming was going on already – it seemed as though people were being interviewed. A glance at my programme told me what was happening  –  that this concert, or at least part of it, was being filmed for television as well as being recorded by radio.  So it was, in effect, a kind of media event.

I guessed the subject matter of the music we were to hear was  largely what had compelled attention – the two New Zealand works scheduled were each inspired by a specific event involving mining activity. Ross Harris’s work consisted of settings to music of words written by poet Vincent O’Sullivan, dealing with the Waihi Miners’ Strike of 1912, during which a miner, Fred Evans, was clubbed to death by government vigilantes for allegedly shooting at a policeman during a demonstration – New Zealand’s first serious casualty of an industrial dispute.

Following this came Dave Dobbyn’s song “This Love”, written to commemorate the deaths of 29 miners in the 2010 Pike River mining disaster, on the West Coast. The singer wrote both words and music, and a supporting choral part was devised by the choir’s music director, Mark W.Dorrell.

The third item of the evening’s program was the work of an English composer, James McCarthy. Entitled “17 Days”, the work explored the events and associated emotions of people involved surrounding the collapse of a mine in northern Chile, also in 2010. Unlike what happened at Pike River the Chilean miners were rescued, word coming to the surface on the 17th day after the collapse that the men were still alive.

Wellington City Councillor Ray Ahipene-Mercer began proceedings by speaking to the audience, briefly telling us of his Welsh mining ancestry, and of his family’s involvement in mining in this country on the West Coast. The latter part of his karakia was expressed in Maori, both welcoming people from different part of the country to the concert, and farewelling the spirits of the dead, invoking the “mauri-ora” the “breath of life”, to come forth and give life to the gathering and the performances.

Ross Harris’s work came first, consisting of settings of words written by his long-time collaborator Vincent O’Sullivan. In seven separate sections, the work is inscribed “In memoriam: Fred Evans”, though none of the sections actually describes the events of the killing. In one of the songs, a brash, over-bright waltz with the title ‘Here’s a Toast!”, the brutal methods of the gangs formed by the anti-strike forces are compared with the methods of both Tsarist Russia and the British ruling class in dealing with protest or insurrection – so we have “Massey’s Cossacks” (the name of the New Zealand Prime Minister of the day), as well as a reference to the “Tory batons”, weapons associated with the murder of the unfortunate Fred Evans.

It seems to me that Ross Harris has deliberately gone for a more direct and unequivocal approach with this music – the tunes have an immediate and relatively unvarnished impact, matching Vincent O’Sullivan’s words in their relative economy and no-nonsense manner of expression – they could be called Workers’ Songs, in that they forcefully conveyed the Socialist ideologies of the miners and their unions, in sometimes brutal conflict with the established consortium of business interests supported by the Government of the time.

Vincent O’Sullivan used the strike’s best-known slogan in the work’s final setting, called “The Words on the Banner” – I actually remember these words from a photograph of the strikers which was displayed of the front cover of a book “THe Red and the Black” written in 1the 1970s about the strike – on a banner one could clearly read the words: “If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, Good God, we have bought it fair!” The directness of the writing of words and music was brought out with considerable impact by singers and instrumentalists under Christopher Clark’s focused direction.

Though the technical apparatus and technicians were a “presence” of sorts throughout these opening parts of the concert, they didn’t swing fully into action until Dave Dobbyn walked onto the stage to introduce his song “This Love”. There were ambient scintillations of lighting, colonnades of hues and colours bedecking the ceiling and walls of the auditorium, and (most disconcerting of all) a wondrously elongated “dinosaur-head” of a camera which, with neck protruding from its upstairs gallery “lair” swooped backwards and forwards over our heads like a curious brachiosaurus surveying a swampful of delicious succulents. I didn’t actually register any kind of rhythmic pattern to the beast’s – sorry, the CAMERA’S movements, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been.

Technical jiggery-pokery apart, Dave Dobbyn’s song was a direct and heartfelt appeal to the emotions to “honour our 29”. Before the song the singer read out the names of all those who had died in the mine and whose bodies are to this day unrecovered. The subsequent audience response to the singer’s, the choir’s and the accompanying musicians’ efforts was properly and palpably life-affirming.

With the departure of the “technical people” and the migration to another undisclosed swamp of our friendly brachiosaurus (having presumably captured the “frisson” of Dave Dobbyn’s live performance of his song) one could focus more readily on the music scheduled for the concert’s second half. This was James McCarthy’s “17 Days”, commissioned originally by London’s Crouch End Festival Chorus and premiered by them at the Barbican in 2012. Tonight’s was its first-ever performance outside of the UK.

McCarthy’s work used largely traditional, essentially tonal harmonies and melodic structures throughout. It was music that didn’t to my ears make any cathartic demands of an interpretive nature on either performers or listeners – there were no grinding, shattering, shell-shocked moments of terror, panic or bleak despair depicted in the writing for either voices or instruments. The evocations were more reflective than immediate, though some sequences of the music “told” instantly and effectively, such as  the rhythmic chattering of the children’s choir depicting the broken, piecemeal nature of the first news reports concerning the tragedy.

The texts chosen largely reinforced this reflectiveness (one of the poems, “Do Dreams lie Deeper?” by Charlotte Mews gave the work its title), though a different poet’s words later in the work brought forth what I thought the most interesting music from the composer – the poem “We live in mud” by Carol S.Lashof. In this work the all-pervading choking opacity of the mud, dirt and dust endured by the miners was contrasted with their thoughts of the radiance of their feelings for their loved ones above the ground, waiting. I thought this desperate love-song the most touching and telling moment of the piece, though Katherine McIndoe’s lovely solo soprano voice sounding from within the choir gave an added poignancy to parts of Charlotte Mews’ poem “A quoi bon dire”.

There was no doubting the work’s whole-heartedness at any given point – and the response by the forces, singers and instrumentalists, under Mark W. Dorrell’s enthusiastic direction was as radiant and forthright as could be imagined, with the Lyrica children’s voices in particular making finely-focused contributions to the setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Hope” such as with the words “And sweetest in the Gale is heard….” The performance deservedly brought forth at the concert’s conclusion enthusiastic acclaim from all sides.




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