Aotearoa Plus from the NZSO set alight by Gareth Farr premiere

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

PIERRE BOULEZ – Mémoriale (….explosante-fixe…Originel )
GARETH FARR – Cello Concerto “Chemin des Dames” (world premiere)
JOHN ADAMS – Naive and Sentimental Music
Sébastien Hurtaud (‘cello)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 5th May, 2017

A concert with the name “Aotearoa Plus” begs the question of how an orchestra might best support and present the music of native composers – the title is one which, in my artless way, I thought might have fairly been expected to accompany rather more homegrown examples of composition than were allowed for here.

Thank goodness, then, in my view, for Gareth Farr’s work, and its performance, which delivered a kind of visceral wallop and emotional candour that dominated the evening’s listening, putting even the quasi-Brucknerian symphonic-in-situ explorations of John Adams which took up the second half, in the shade. Before all of this, opening the concert was an ambient, beautifully-breathed work of Pierre Boulez’s, which might have surprised many people with its accessibility, considering the composer’s reputation as a once “stormy petrel” of the contemporary music world.

Boulez was a creative musician whose career followed a kind of predictable pattern – a firebrand in his youth, he presented an uncompromising anti-establishment series of stances marked by outrageous aphorisms seized upon by the media, such as “All opera houses should be blown up”, and “Anyone who has not felt the necessity of the dodecaphonic (12-tone)system is OF NO USE!”. Some of his contemporaries weren’t spared, either, when he remarked on a contemporary composition style that it “amounted to frenetic arithmetical masturbation”. Music for him had a “tainted past”, necessitating the creation of a “new world” of musical expression. As he got older Boulez seemed to mellow, and acknowledge that works like his own Le marteau sans maître DID owe a great deal to music of the past that he had previously railed against. He also forged a new career as a conductor, becoming known for his interpretations of Wagner (he actually directed Bayreuth’s own Centenary production of The Ring in 1976, to the musical world’s astonishment), Mahler and Bruckner, acknowledging the music of the last two composers as having a “real influence” on his own work.

There may have even been some kind of convoluted disappointment in the minds of some people expecting to be repelled by anything written by Boulez, invariably something which would be angular, discordant and downright unpleasant to listen to. We were, instead drawn into a world of beauty and whimsicality, rather like birdsong with many different variants (Bridget Douglas demonstrating her complete command of the flute’s textures and timbres, here). These variants were a series of exhalations, in which the solo instrument, the strings and two horns here and there breathed the most delicate and finely-wrought impulses, in between advancing engaging short-term rhythmic trajectories.

Basically the piece came about through the composer’s habit of re-working scores, and in the process generating what the programme note liked to call “a constellation of related satellite pieces”. In 1972, Boulez produced a work honouring the memory of Igor Stravinsky who had died the previous year, a work called explosante-fixe…Originel (“Exploding-fixed…original”). Written for solo flute, chamber ensemble and live electronics, the E-flat pitch with its German notation Es signified Stravinsky. In 1975 parts of the music resurfaced as a tribute to composer Bruno Maderna, entitled Rituel – and ten years later another reworking of the piece was published as a tribute to the flutist Laurence Beauregardflute, with whom Boulez had worked. The composer seemed to lose faith with the electronic-tape component of the piece due to the unreliability of the technology, and went on to produce an “acoustic” version of the music, one in which the flute dominated, and the accompanying sounds either mirrored or ambiently complemented what the flute did.

One of these “complementations” I really liked came from the horns, playing what I like to think sound like “electric lines,” an idea which came from my fascination with those marvellously evocative railway lines and accompanying lights, besides and along the main road just north of Huntly and between Meremere and Mercer. These lines and lights always seemed to me to “hum” their held notes with vibrant accord as if impulses were coursing up and down those tracks, watched over by those solicitous single-note sentinels. By way of variation, there were occasional flashes of increased prominence, but really little more than micro-versions of triple-time tip-toeing. And, just when things seemed to be getting more involved, the composer called a halt to the piece’s quiet irruptions, on a long, somewhat resigned note.

As the performing area needed to be re-organised for the increased numbers of players required by the next item on the programme, conductor Hamish McKeich took the opportunity given by the hiatus to bring its composer, Gareth Farr, onto the stage and talk with him about the oncoming performance (a world premiere, incidentally). This was a ‘Cello Concerto dedicated to three of Farr’s great-uncles who were killed in the First World War in France at a place known as “Chemin des Dames”, in 1917. Farr wanted to commemorate both their deaths and the effects of the loss of so many young lives upon families such as theirs. The name of the battle-place “Chemin des Dames” (Pathway of Women) underlined for Farr the involvement of women in such conflicts, both as casualties themselves and as bereaved sweethearts and wives, mothers and sisters, with their ongoing loss and grief over the years that followed.

It was an interview with “moments per minute” rather than the other way round, profound regarding the work’s subject matter, but also entertaining with Farr’s quicksilver responses to McKeich’s focused enquiries concerning the writing of the work. Farr praised his soloist, Sebastien Hurtaud, for the latter’s collaboration, telling us in no uncertain terms that, for this reason, a concerto was far easier to write than would have been a purely orchestral work because of the vibrancy of such an exchange, and the relief for the composer afforded by this “working together”, instead of the latter having to be a “dictator” with the musicians.

McKeich raised the question of Farr’s music being regarded as “loud”, which the latter agreed with! – stating by way of explanation that, as a percussionist, he had come from “the loud end of the band”! Again, Farr emphasised that when writing a concerto, the music is about the soloist and his/her instrument – in this case the ‘cello, whose tones approximated those of a baritone! Rather than make an impression via loudness, Farr sought to make a kind of “hole” in the orchestral texture for the soloist to fit into, therefore negating the possibility of any orchestral “loudness” cross-cancelling the soloist’s tones, and therefore preserving the musical argument’s clarity – most interesting!

I would have happily listened to these two conversing for longer, but things were obviously now “set to go” regarding the performance! – so, with the word about to be made flesh, the orchestra entered, followed by the soloist and conductor, and the work was begun.

A brief subterranean percussion rumble, followed by soft strings and arpeggiated keyboard (celeste?) notes prepared the way for the solo ‘cello, singing, lament-like around a single note, like a weeping voice in the middle of a barren landscape. Various orchestral detail – a brass chord, soft, chirruping winds, and longer brass notes led up to a huge percussion crescendo, music of devastation in the wake of some terrible event.

I was struck by the way the solo ‘cello dug into the notes in much the same way as at the opening of another work lamenting the tragedy of war, the Elgar “Cello Concerto, the solo intstrument here expressing a similar kind of amalgam of anguish and anger. Another composer evoked was Shostakovich, with a solo trumpet and side-drum suggesting militaristic activities – these evocations of other works didn’t, however, sound contrived or “tacked on”, but instead set up a thoughtful resonance of reference to similar responses to human conflict.

The work expressed so many different emotions, delineated by a number of figures which seemed to recur as motifs – determination and bravery (the ‘cello soaring upwards, answered by the strings and echoed by brass and percussion), excitement and fear (the ‘cello agitatedly playing running passages punctuated by energetic pizzicati and tremolandi, and the occasional roar of full percussion), and homesickness and nostalgia (tender, ruminative explorations from the ‘cello, lyrical birdsong-like figures from the winds). Then there was what sounded like music of conflict – the ‘cello energised with running, toccata-like figures, picked up by horns and winds, and augmented with motoric driving strings, and occasionally baleful brass, pushing a three-note figure repeatedly and mercilessly, with what sounded like woodblocks and tambourine sounds adding to the driving fray.

Then there were passages where conflict and lament seemed to coexist, as if the privations of warfare and grief seemed to intermingle and become as one single tragedy – the ‘cello agitations brought to my mind parts of Bloch’s “Schemolo” anguishing and lamenting amid the tumltuous orchestral irruptions, a relentless onslaught whose struggles left the soloist momentarily exhausted, though still imbued with sufficient life-force to renew the lament via a cadenza-like passage, filled with extremes of bitterness and deep sorrow, at the end of which the orchestra returned us to the work’s beginning, to a world where the futility of what had happened was demonstrated, and the cost was laid bare for all to experience.

I’ve given more attention to the work than to its performance, but with the proviso that, in this case, the work WAS its perfomance, very much so with the soloist and the orchestral and conductor being the ones the composer specifically had in mind when writing the work. Its overwhelming impact was a tribute to all concerned.

At this point, going back in my mind over the concert, I remembered asking myself both at the time (and beforehand), why, in a presentation entitled “Aotearoa Plus” the orchestra had then programmed so much non-New Zealand work…..had I read the programme’s title incorrectly? – Was it in fact “Aotearoa Plus-PLUS”? What was more, what we were about to hear was the SECOND work programmed by the orchestra of this particular contemporary composer’s work this season! Given Resident Music Director Edo de Waart’s historically significant association with American composer John Adams, I’m certainly prepared to accept that we might hear more than usual of his music….but why should so much figure in the one programme the orchestra specifically tags as having New Zealand content, one not even directed by de Waart?

In any case, after hearing Gareth Farr’s piece given such stunning advocacy, I really felt like connecting further with something else that was home-grown, something whose sound-world had been wrought from similarly cultivated and nurtured material, if of an earlier milieu. I thought of several works which would have easily fitted that prescription, music which deserves to be know better and played far more often (in one case almost embarrassingly so!). To tackle the mooted “embarrasment” first-up, I would have plumped for programming one of the finest pieces of exploratory orchestral writing (after all, THIS was the raison d’etre of the John Adams work we heard – Naive and Sentimental Music – parts of which, in my opinion, flirted with over-inflated bombast) to come out of this country, David Farquhar’s First Symphony. The awkward part is that the NZSO, after giving the public premiere of this work (and, most ironically, subsequently recording it TWICE!) has never performed it again at a concert. I wish somebody who knows would quietly take me aside, sit me down, and explain to me just why this remarkable music hasn’t been played by our National Orchestra in public for nearly sixty years!

Still, ours is not to reason why, or lament what didn’t happen, but, instead, as reviewers, to report on what actually took place when Hamish McKeich stood in front of the NZSO and set in motion this astonishing piece of music created by John Adams – Naive and Sentimental Music? Just what did the composer mean by it all? In a programme note, Adams himself outlined his self-described “tortured” reasonings, drawing from an eighteenth-century essay by Schiller, “Über Naive und Sentimentalische Dichtung” (“On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”), in which all creative activity was characterised as either “naive” (natural, direct, unselfconscious, brought about for its own sake), or “sentimental” (seeking to restore something that has been lost, indulging in self-analysis in order to “find” an ideal, or resorting to parody or satire as a means of demonstrating the “chasm” that had opened up between sense and sensibility in artistic creation).

Adams further cited Anton Bruckner as an inspiration, when contemplating his approach to symphonic form in writing this present work, shortly after hearing a live performance of that composer’s Fourth Symphony. Of course, Bruckner was and still is popularly regarded as something of a “naif” in the ways of the world, though it’s a label the composer seems to triumphantly ride above with his music. I can’t imagine how anybody but a genius of staggering intellectual capacity could recast his symphonic material so readily in response to critical vituperation, which in itself would have poleaxed a lesser man! However, maybe Schiller in theory (and Adams in practice!) would each ascribe a “naive” set of impulses to the composer’s unique processes, thus keeping Bruckner on the side of those creatures of pure impulse, the angels!

So, in short, we got from Adams a symphonic work of near-Brucknerian proportions in three movements, one in which the composer seemed to use as a kind of creative theoretical workshop for processing different kinds of musical ideas. I found the journey pushed my sensitivities to their limits in places, most obviously in the first, eponymously-named movement, which for me outstayed its welcome in the long run, falling back upon itself towards the music’s end and reworking veins of exhausted paydirt. Up to a point I thought the music charming and fecund in how it treated the lyrical theme, which began the work, with the utmost freedom and variety of means. The orchestra most expertly dealt with everything Adams threw at the players, apart from an untypical “did we dream you or did you dream us?” sequence of uncertain syncopation between brass and strings at one point. Conductor Hamish McKeich was like an experienced campaigner controlling the ebb and flow of the various arguments, one minute encouraging a lyrical blending of strings and wind, and the next minute riding the footplate of what soulded like a great machine coming to life and moving onto the main line out of the siding!

The second movement “Mother of the Man” featured, along with murmuring strings and haunting percussion harmonics, a guitarist contributing piquant sounds to gentle, patient unfoldings and oscillations. I imagined flecks of light falling in gentle shoals onto a landscape, the players under Hamish McKeich’s firm control “drifting” their sounds with the utmost delicacy, creating miracles of stillness. Such was the rapt atmosphere that when the strings began their series of crescendi, the sudden change in dynamic intensity was almost knife-edged, repeated rising scale motifs piling on the upward pressures to a point where the strings suddenly silenced the tumult and allow things to wind down.

Church bells rang out over a galumphing bass at the finale’s beginning, the volatilities building through great glow-ball-like swathes of sound and strings and scintillating percussion racing along together, rushing up to the feet of great off-the-beat percussive crashes, and the heavy chortlings of big-boned brass. As the instruments took up the patternings and add their particular accented notes, the patterns kept changing, giving the listener the feeling of something beginning to cohere and fragment at one and the same time – so many voices, so many syncopations. One couldn’t think a composer could go any further – and then the rockets of sound began shooting up! Pandemonium! What a guy!

Very great credit to Hamish McKeich and the NZSO players for bringing such a saga off so resplendently – not so much in terms of length but of relentlessness of musical argument, the piece taking no prisoners and giving the performers nowhere to hide! Even so, I would have liked to have heard the work in a different context – it should be that, in our orchestral programmes, we don’t have to sacrifice our music to get to hear the rest of the world’s.

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