NZSO and Sydney Symphony Orchestra in moving shared ANZAC concert of new works by composers of both countries

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey

Spirit of ANZAC
Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
Michael Williams: Symphony No 1 Letters from the Front (with Madeleine Pierard – soprano and George Henare – narrator)
James Ledger: War Music (with the New Zealand Youth Choir)
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 22 April, 6:30 pm

Note that this review is for the most part what I wrote and posted on this website two days later on Friday 24 April, but now modified in various ways in the light of listening to its broadcast by Radio New Zealand Concert on Saturday evening.
I delayed further, to listen to the broadcast on Monday afternoon of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s performance (presumably also performed on the Wednesday).

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has joined forces with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to present the same programme, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. The SSO’s two performances of the concert take place on the same evenings as this concert in Wellington and, on Friday, in Auckland. Dominating the programme were the two principal works, commissioned by the two orchestras from prominent composers in each country.

A further link with Australia was through Australian conductor Benjamin Northey who has been seen here before, conducting both the National Youth Orchestra, in February 2014 and the NZSO in November last; and he takes over as Principal Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra this year.

Fanfare for the Common Man
The concert began with a shattering performance of Copland’s brief Fanfare for the Common Man, a title that reflects his humane, left-wing sympathies. (He was classed as subversive by the House of Representatives committee on Un-American Activities in the early 1950s and black-listed by the FBI, one of the 150 American artists so classified during those paranoid years).

It opened with a frightening seismic thunder-clap on timpani and bass drum, and continued with brilliant, spacious brass playing: a monumental performance.

Symphony No 1 by Michael Williams
Michael Williams has composed this, his first symphony, ‘Letters from the Front’, on commission by the orchestra. The commission may well have been prompted by the success of his opera, The Juniper Passion, about the Battle of Monte Cassino in the second World War. My first knowing contact with him had been a moving performance, featuring Paul Whelan, Joanne Cole and Stephanie Acraman, in his earlier chamber opera, The Prodigal Child, at the Taranaki Arts Festival in 2003.

His symphony opens with the rattle of a side drum, and the orchestra expands to create a trembling, fearful, chaotic environment which was much more than heterogeneous noise: it was music. There were snatches of melody, barking brass, rippling flute, poignant cor anglais; and short breaks of calm where beautiful strains of music emerged.

In the second and third movements, the orchestra was joined by soprano Madeleine Pierard who sang lines of Wilfred Owen’s poem, Arms and the Boy, interspersed with extracts from letters from New Zealand soldiers in the first World War read by narrator George Henare; one of the letters was from Williams’s great-grandfather who was killed at Passchendaele in 1917.

Henare’s delivery was carefully paced, reflected the grim pathos of the poem, without succumbing to any exaggerated or false sentiment. Pierard’s voice was perfect for the Owen poem, lyrical in a thin, penetrating way; I couldn’t help being reminded of the quality of voice and orchestra in Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs; in addition, Pierard injected an unearthly, intense vibrato that lifted it to a spiritual realm.

The third movement starts with a sort of excitable mockery of a bugle call; oboe and cor anglais feature again, but their human dimension is obliterated by a depiction of a terrifying artillery bombardment, as Pierard resumes the poem accompanied by a trembling flute. There were moments, as it moved on, when a less penetrating voice might have been obscured by the orchestra. The relationship between soprano and the various instruments was tested throughout, somehow dramatising the pathos of the fates of the men whose lives were taken.

James Ledger’s War Music
It was Australia’s turn after the interval, with James Ledger’s War Music.

But here I am revising what I wrote following the concert and posted on Friday morning. These remarks follow my hearing the broadcast of the concert’s recording by RNZ Concert on Saturday evening. Though I usually argue that it is much more rewarding to listen to live music than via the radio or from recordings, I had to concede that I was getting a clearer impression and rather more purely musical enjoyment on the small radio at our bach at Waikawa Beach than at the concert.

First, the following is part of my original review:
The first movement was entirely orchestral, portraying the subject through a multitude of instrumental devices, some familiar, some unusual, such as patting the mouthpiece of the brass instruments to produce soft, muffled tones, passages of pulsating, throbbing sounds evoking fusillades, screaming glissandi by strings, the rattle of tom-toms. Though the composer’s note states that he recognised the difficulty of attempting a realistic picture of war, and concentrated on ‘the broader aspects of war’.

I had written that the use of so many unusual articulations and ‘extended’ instrumental techniques seemed to draw attention away from the subject to focus too much on unusual instrumental articulations and combinations, perhaps too much striving for the literal sounds of battle and so on. Nevertheless it was an interesting, colourful adventure in contemporary orchestral writing, brilliantly executed by winds and percussion in particular and handled spiritedly, with precision by Benjamin Northey.

And of the second part I wrote:
The second part depicted the horror and grief of war: the choral element called up music of a very different character from that in Part I; it had an impact that was moving and awakened a real emotional response. The youth choir’s participation and its music turned the work in a direction in which music can be more successful than words, the setting of a poem by Paul Kelly, of admirable simplicity and directness: its last two lines, poignant and unaffected: “Remember us, we died in smoke / We died in noise, we died alone”. The words, unless one was reading the words in the programme, rather escaped attention for they were not very clear but their force emerged through the music they inspired from the composer. The choir’s performance was extremely beautiful, suggesting the most careful and sensitive rehearsal under David
Squire and the evening’s conductor.

After hearing the broadcast, however, I found myself with considerably more admiration for both the commissioned works.

Michael Williams’s symphony was a thing of more vivid reality and immediacy, and I was paying more attention to the expressive orchestral writing and the way it supported, commented on what the voices were doing. Henare’s readings had more heart-wrenching impact, while my impression of the force of Madeleine Pierard’s singing was strongly confirmed.

But it was hearing Ledger’s music for a second time, through a different medium, and without the ‘distraction’ of watching the orchestra to see how some of the unusual sounds were created, that enhanced my appreciation. Rather than feeling that the highly sophisticated orchestral effects detracted from the emotional power of the music, I was moved simply by the resultant music, its coherence,and what is called (a little pretentiously I always feel) the ‘architecture’ of the music quite engrossed and enchanted me.

In fact, I was entranced now by the remarkably imaginative sounds that Ledger had created. The need to revise my views came as something unsettling, yet illuminating once I had removed myself personally from the process.

Tallis Variations
The choice of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis to conclude the concert was inspired. Here, regardless of the meaning of the Latin text, we have a work, written well before the world descended into the catastrophe of the first World War, that seemed to capture a profound lamenting that could represent an emotional depiction of any horrendous, man-induced disaster such as the Great War which ended by killing millions of people. For strings alone, it demonstrated how a composer can produce the most powerful, deeply-felt response through the simplest and most economical means.

As a final comment, now able to compare the two performances, the Wellington performance seemed just a little more robust, vivid and fully realising the horror and tragedy of the subject the than the Sydney one.

Considering the absence of a big popular work, there was a large audience in the Michael Fowler Centre that responded with great enthusiasm at the end.


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