Outstanding concert to mark disasters at Aberfan and the Pike River: music by Schubert and Karl Jenkins

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Simon Brew and Jonathan Griffith

Massed adult choir, children’s choir and screen projections
Solo voices: Jenny Wollerman (soprano) and James Clayton (baritone)
Solo instrumentalists: Ingrid Bauer (harp), Monique Lapins (violin), Buzz Newton (euphonium), Lavinnia Rae (cello)

Schubert: Symphony No 8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’
Karl Jenkins
: the Benedictus from The Armed Man and Cantata Memoria for the children of Aberfan

Michael Fowler Centre

Monday (Labour Day) 23 October. 2 pm

Concerts by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in the past, in my experience, have been poorly promoted and have played to an audience numbering just a few score.

This one was very different. Hand-bills had been thrust into the hand at most concerts in the previous fortnight and there were interviews on radio and in the press drawing attention to the tragedies that the orchestra had decided to commemorate.

The concert came about through the conjunction of separate elements. Last year a concert in New York had performed a cantata by Karl Jenkins commissioned by, among others, a Welsh Television channel, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster.

The result was Jenkins’s Cantata Memoria: for the children of Aberfan. It was performed by United States conductor Jonathan Griffith, the conductor of Distinguished Concerts International New York. Among the performers there was Wellington resident Wim Oosterhoff who conceived the idea of bringing the work to New Zealand. The project was a formidable one; Oosterhoff persuaded Griffith to come to Wellington to conduct the Wellington Youth Orchestra and a 300-strong choir that included 60 children, arrayed behind the orchestra.

It was to combine the work in memory of Aberfan, Cantata Memoria, with music to mark the Pike River disaster seven years ago: a movement, the Benedictus, from Jenkins’s choral work, The Armed Man, a mass for Peace (which had been written to mark the advent of the new millennium in 2000).

The Unfinished Symphony
The concert began however, with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, chosen no doubt because of its focus on a work that the composer left incomplete; a composer whose life too was incomplete: it is hard to think of a composer, even among the many who have died young, of such genius that he would probably have produced the greatest music written since Beethoven, having already come close to that point when he died.

The symphony was conducted by the orchestra’s permanent conductor Simon Brew who had also rehearsed the Aberfan oratorio and the piece from The Armed Man.  It was a fine performance of the Schubert, one that could well have come from a totally professional orchestra, such was the remarkable elegance and pathos of the conception. And there was strikingly beautiful playing by violins, then cellos, horns, choruses of majestic trombones and each woodwind section in turn. The contrast in spirit between the sombre opening and the more sanguine Andante con moto second movement, marked a performance of real sophistication.

Benedictus for Pike River
Jonathan Griffith took over after the interval with the Benedictus from The Armed Man, employed sympathetically to commemorate the Pike River disaster. It is dominated by one of Jenkins’s most gorgeous creations, the solo cello episode which was played exquisitely by Lavinnia Rae; lovely children’s voices. The massive attack by brass and percussion towards the end had the required shock impact.

Curiously, unlike a reference in the Aberfan work later, no context was found to refer to the culpability of the Pike River mine owners whose guilt and prosecution seems quietly to have been forgotten.

The Cantata Memoria for Aberfan 
The Cantata Memoria was strikingly accompanied by images projected on a large screen behind the performers, and they were successfully related to the subject of the relevant passages. Rain rippled down a window to the delicate accompaniment of Ingrid Bauer’s harp; there were landscape scenes from the air which seemed to be a mixture of New Zealand and Wales.

The two soloists, James Clayton and Jenny Wollerman delivered important and moving passages; after the baritone’s grief-laden lament, the children’s choir (impressively, they sang their parts without the score) turned to face a photo of Aberfan engulfed by the collapsed mountain of mine tailings.

As choir members chanted the names of the victims of the catastrophe which were also projected on the screen one by one, with a pointed reference to a culpable National Coal Board (what about the private owners of the coal mines?). Later the euphonium, played by Buzz Newton, accompanied Clayton, in a telling sonic association, and the euphonium had several significant later episodes. Elsewhere, Monique Lapins’ violin led the emotional journey, along with the children’s choirs repeating the Agnus Dei, with Wollerman and Clayton repeating some of the most powerful words from the Latin Mass, ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’.

Then the Lacrymosa from the Requiem Mass, was accompanied alternately and impressively by euphonium and James Clayton’s voice, though the impact to my ears was not especially grief-laden.

Jenny Wollerman’s major part in the performance arrived with the bright, consoling words, ‘Did I hear a bird?’, the orchestra accompanying onomatopoeically as swans flew across the screen and that spirit was sustained as the two solo singers shared the singing of a Welsh folk song in a calm, reflective manner.

In a school playground, as children played hot-scotch and other games, harpist Ingrid Bauer accompanied, tapping the wood sounding board of her harp.

The concert attracted a good-sized audience, probably among the biggest I can recall for a WYO concert, and a standing ovation greeted the highly impressive performances by adult and children’s choirs, the Wellington Youth Orchestra, special involvement by singers Jenny Wollerman and James Clayton and by instrumentalists Ingrid Bauer, Monique Lapins, Buzz Newton and Lavinnia Rae; plus the thorough preparation and leadership by Simon Brew and Jonathan Griffith.


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