NZSO and Madeleine Pierard with Ross Harris’s anguished Second Symphony to mark ANZAC Day

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
‘Spirit of ANZAC’

Frederick Septimus Kelly: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke
George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for Orchestra
Ross Harris: Symphony No 2

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 21 April, 6:30 pm

I have been heard to utter unpatriotic feelings about the seeming endless attention paid in New Zealand to war and in particular the First World War and Gallipoli, which took place around 100 years ago. I have no problem with the stimulus the centenary has given to serious re-examination of the political background to the war, its pursuit and the catastrophic results of the Treaty of Versailles that sought to fix the world afterwards. But I wish more attention was given to those other aspects, involving other parts of Europe and the Middle East, for it is the outcome of the war in those spheres, and the self-seeking, diplomatic manoeuvering, the persistent imperial ambitions of all the main players that have created today’s ever-more insoluble crises, particularly in the Middle East. We are still led to believe, at least in much of the English-speaking world, that the war was all about Gallipoli and parts of the Western Front.

However, this evening’s music was concerned mainly with the war’s impact on individual people – soldiers and their families.  Not just with an amorphous ‘loss of life’ and ‘national tragedy’.

In Memoriam Rupert Brooke
It began with a string composition by one Frederick Septimus Kelly, an Australian, who was with his friend Rupert Brooke when he died and was buried on the Greek Island of Skyros. It was rather a moving piece, echoing some of the music of the early 20th century, Vaughan Williams, perhaps Elgar: pastoral, warm and reflective. An elegiac viola melody in the middle lent it a certain strength. It achieved its purpose very well, as McKeich led the orchestra through a sympathetic, unaffected though expressive performance.

George Butterworth, who was killed, with Kelly, at the Somme in 1916, has become a more famous name and his better-known A Shropshire Lad, for full orchestra, demonstrated a gift that might have had him rated with Bantock, Ireland, Moeran or York Bowen, perhaps even in the class of Holst, Howells or Vaughan Williams if he’d lived.

It begins in the character of Butterworth’s lovely The Banks of Green Willow, with strings and solo entries from clarinet, bassoon and cor anglais and follows an emotional path that reflects much of the pervasive emotion of Housman’s poems. In the middle section it expands notably with heavier brass and its pastoral charm is lost. This rather vivid section might have felt a little at odds with the character of many of the poems, though, admittedly, many in the big collection extend far beyond nostalgia and the English countryside, and are primarily reflections on mortality, on the loss of young lives in war (though of course they were published 20 years before the First World War): nevertheless, the rather extravert brass felt a shade too literal and specific.

Harris: Second Symphony
The major work was Ross Harris’s 2nd symphony. Like all his symphonies, this was commissioned and premiered by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, in 2006. It has rather surprised me that neither Wellington-based orchestra has commissioned a symphony from this major Wellington composer, as one after another has been written for Auckland; this one has even had a second playing in Auckland. (His sixth is scheduled for APO performance later this year). And I don’t think any have even been performed here; if so, this was a momentous occasion – the first Harris symphony to be played in Wellington.

This was one of the earlier collaborations between poet Vincent O’Sullivan and Ross Harris. Though cast in four movements, and obviously with an important orchestral element, it could as well be described as a song-cycle, as a symphony. There are eight stanzas, distributed through the four movements.

It tells a story, based on a newspaper report, of a young soldier in France, falling in love with a local girl, deserting, having a brief love, and coming to a sad, predictable end. I suppose it’s superfluous to say it reminds me of M K Joseph’s poignant novel, A Soldier’s Tale.

On stage was a large orchestra including large percussion, with tubular bells, though just double winds, under conductor Hamish McKeich who confirmed quickly his commanding grasp of the score and delivered a taut, dramatic and very moving performance.

Also on stage is Madeleine Pierard who sings the poetry through all the movements, taking first the soldier’s, then the French girl’s roles. It’s vividly descriptive music, starting in hushed strings, cor anglais, interrupted shockingly with mighty bass drum, violent brass, with military sounds, ironic marches; while the poem speaks soon of dreamy advances through poppy fields, with flashes of soldiers’ graves and snow and the sudden awakenings to reality. Pierard’s earthy, penetrating soprano kept the story anchored to real people and their emotional crisis, and even to their brief ecstasy.

The second movement deals with the love story, and the music opens in spell-binding unreality, in dread presentiment of its brief span, employing a limited tonal range, a momentary, almost subliminal echo of one of the Sings Harry songs. There were moments when the music seemed to strive too hard to reflect the words, though it was still the music that made the deepest impact, sometimes heart-stoppingly awful; so it was in the third movement where the violence of the soldier’s capture and killing are dealt with swiftly, violently, and the orchestral tumult is all that’s needed to understand.

In the fourth movement, poem 7, tubular bells, clarinet, strings, express the tragedy and the girl’s grief, perhaps better than the clarity of words can ever do. Though the last stanza, “Who, who is this young man…” with a cello solo accompanying the girl’s stricken loss, and her slow walking from the stage, to the fading music, was inevitably the most affecting part of the composition. The last lines are sung from back stage, as if from the grave.

Predictably, there were many empty seats, though the audience responded enthusiastically to soprano, conductor and orchestra, as well as to poet and composer who filed onto the stage.


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