Robert Wiremu’s REIMAGINING MOZART
(dedicated to Helen Acheson)
Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand
Karanga to the Composer – Melissa Absolum (Voices Chamber Choir)
Composer – Robert Wiremu
Instrumental Ensemble – Liu-Yi Retallick. Joelia Pinto (violins), Johnny Chang, Helen Lee (violas)
James Bush, Sarah Spence (‘cellos), Eric Renick (vibraphone)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Music Director – Karen Grylls
St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington
3:00pm Sunday, October 29th, 2023
Apart from it all having a superlatives-exhausting effect from a critical point of view, I found as an audience member, composer Robert Wiremu’s “reimagining” of sequences from Mozart’s final work, his “Requiem”, a profoundly engaging and deeply moving experience. It was thus on so many levels, though naturally the presentation exerted its fullest and deepest effect with all things considered – the atmosphere of the venue (the beautiful St.Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington), the cultural merging of ritualistic procedures, European and Maori, the idea of a “requiem” in the presence of karanga (call), kaupapa (matter for discussion) and poroporoaki (leave-taking) relating to and delivered by the composer in relation to his subject matter, the use of both specific and “re-presented” parts of the Mozart work, both the overall and specific parts of the presentation’s “narrative”, the technical prowess of the performers, the beauty of their singing and playing, and, of course the skills and complete authority of Music Director Karen Grylls. All of these things interacted to present a work whose range and scope was breathtaking, both when experienced in situ and in subsequent resonant reflection.
Earlier this same month (October) Wiremu had outlined in a radio interview certain aspects of the presentation which conveyed a real sense of what we would subsequently hear in its performance – and to the production’s credit the printed programme available at the venue further enabled the listener to clearly follow the general organisation of the work. Wiremu recalled that the idea of using Mozart’s Requiem as a kind of “starting-point” was part of the commission given to him by CMNZ’s chief executive at the time, Gretchen la Roche, and that he was able to then sublimate the kind of universal human grief for the dead in Mozart’s work as a statement focusing on a more specific and immediate tragedy involving this country, the Mt.Erebus plane crash which claimed 257 lives late in 1979.
Wiremu was given certain specific directives regarding the commission. because the piece was going to go “on tour” – his resources were limited accordingly, thus the use of a chamber choir and a limited-sized instrumental ensemble . Along with a small group of strings Wiremu chose the vibraphone as an ideal instrument of evocation particularly as the thought of the Erebus happening took shape in his mind. Though he himself remembered the news of the actual incident (he was nine years old at that time), Wiremu decided he would make no reference in the work to any specific person or organisation involved in the incident in any way, his purpose being to emphasise the idea of sorrow and grief in universal human terms of loss connecting the Mozart work and the Erebus disaster. He also resolved that he would not change the actual notes of Mozart’s that he used, instead adapting different instrumentations from those of the original.
Interestingly Wiremu developed in his mind a tenuous link between Mozart’s work and the Erebus accident via a tape cassette player called a “Walkman” (available in 1979) and the Requiem thereby being recorded on a cassette and becoming part of the event of the plane’s destruction and the deaths of the plane’s occupants – all of which regarding the player and its cassette being pure conjecture on the composer’s part, with no ACTUAL evidence of a tape of any of Mozart’s music on the plane. However Wiremu imagined the notes of the music on the mythical tape carried into and through the same “fractured, scattered, broken, distorted, twisted (and) disfigured” process as all else on the aircraft, and in places the notes are thus subjected to similar kinds of treatment. At the beginning and end of the piece there is birdsong reproduced by the instruments and by the choir members actually whistling some of Mozart’s own notes from the work as they walk to and from their places – in Wiremu’s schema the piece also features a dedication, remembering a singer in the group, Helen Acheson, who was involved with this project but who died earlier this year – this was Mozart’s last completed work, and Wiremu introduces its performance by the choir with 43 bell-notes played by the vibraphone and accompanied by major-minor chordal undulations from the strings, a note for every year of the dedicatee’s all-too-short life.
Each of the seven movements of Robert Wiremu’s piece was given a Maori name, the opening KARANGA here performed arrestingly and sonorously by alto Melissa Absolum from the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, welcoming the composer to the place of performance and inviting him to speak about what we were going to hear this afternoon. Wiremu then greeted us, explaining something of the grieving ethos of human loss in Mozart’s work as being redirected and reimagined to reflect a tragedy in the South Pacific in similarly non-specific terms.
The instrumentalists began the work, creating eerie harmonies from “bowing” the keys on the vibraphone, the sounds of birdsong realised in a variety of ways, from glissando notes on the string instruments to vocalisings (whistlings) from as the singers as they entered down each of the side-aisles and congregatged with the instrumentalists at the front, followed by Music Director Karen Grylls. Amidst these ambiences the strings and vibraphone began the instrumental introduction to the Requiem, joined by the choir, the singing sonorous and clearly-lined, with the Kyrie Eleison fugue gloriously articulated, those treacherously dramatic ascents thrown off with great elan, leading to the powerfully dramatic concluding ELEI-SON!
The opening having captured the growing excitement of the plane nearing Antarctica, the following RERENGA (flight) features the driving rhythms of Confutatis Maledictis depicting the aircraft’s propulsion, with contrasting emotions represented by the interspersed, gentler Voca me cum benedictis from the choir. A culmination came with the ecstatic response of the voices in their great, unaccompanied cries of Sanctus! as the icebergs were glimpsed from the aircraft, along with the breathless exultation of the unaccompanied Hosanna fugue. By contrast the HINGA (descent) which followed used part of the Recordare in a blurred, unclear way as the flight entered a clouded-over unknown world, the strings expressing confused, discordant progressions, with downward glissandi depiction a descent into the gloom. The vibraphone briefly evoked dislocation and confused suspension before the strings plunged the scenario into darkness and confusion, unisons attacking and blurring each other’s lines, the sounds strained, stretched, stressed and tortured until the process gradually abated, the punishing clashes and dissonances drawing back, and leaving only confused silence – TE KORE, the emptiness, is all that is left…..
Into the silence burst the Dies Irae, here fantastically realised, the lines at once powerful and knife-edged, with both instruments and voices throwing themselves at the notes Mozart wrote! The vibraphone’s sudden interspersed moment of terrible nothingness and emptiness compressed and eventually fractured the Dies Irae utterances, the words broken up into whisperings and single word gesturings, the chant then reduced to ghostly, spectral whisperings of both the Dies Irae and Quantus tremor verses. It is over – there are no survivors of the crash.
In the ensuing silence the vibraphone played the Lacrymosa, joined by the voices only, the strings silent, the voices rising in grief and sorrow and anger – the vibraphone took us to strange tonal realms as if the music was denying its own home key and annihilating its own essence, the voices sounding similarly estranged, with individual notes stuttering and halting, and the vibraphone having to reinvent harmonies for the voices’ melody. As for the choir’s singing of the “Amen” – such a cathartic moment, sounding a kind of run-through realisation of an awful finality.
MUTUNGA stands for completion, here accompanied by anguished string chords and bell-chiming descants from the vibraphone as the chorus sang the Agnus Dei, alternating forthright opening phrases with gentler replying Dona eis Requiem utterances, to which the instruments played a gentle contrapuntal accompaniment. We were led back to the beginning, with strings and bowed vibraphone notes joined by the choir, the plaintive vocal lines turning vigorous as the words Requiem and Dona eis Domine were repeated, all so very wondrously and ardently realised. The awful inevitability of nature’s processings of the tragedy were duly acknowledged by Wiremu as Mozart’s response to the words in the Requiem seek to console all those who suffer the anguish of loss in all its forms.
As if bringing into individual human focus these archetypal processes of grief, Wiremu concluded his work with a Dedication given the title MARAMA (light), with a performance of Mozart’s last “finished” work, his “Ave Verum Corpus”, one integrated into the earlier-expressed, more collective consciousness of tragedy through a kind of “summons” via bell sounds, here given no less than the 43 strokes in commemoration of the life of Helen Acheson, a friend and colleague of Wiremu’s who as previously mentioned died earlier this year. Strings and vibraphone played a contrapuntal accompaniment of some glorious singing from Voices New Zealand under Karen Grylls’ inspirational direction, leaving all of us in no doubt that we had witnessed something unique and special, and to be remembered and appreciated for a long time to come.