Spirit of ANZAC
Voices from the Field
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Thursday 21 April 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Hamish McKeich, conductor
Madeleine Pierard, soprano
In Memoriam Rupert Brooke, Elegy for String Orchestra – Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916);
A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for Orchestra – George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Symphony No.2 – Ross Harris (b. 1945)
With this concert, the audience could be forgiven that a format or pattern has to be observed with commemorative works. All three pieces began with hushed pianissimo chords. Each finished with hushed pianissimo chords. The concertmaster had a violin solo in each piece and the clarinet, oboe and cor anglais were featured. But these works were completely different in their expression of the horror and the consequence of World War I.
Kelly was an Australian, born in Sydney, but educated in England at Eton College. His close friend, Rupert Brooke, died from septicemia while travelling to Gallipoli and they buried him on the island of Skyros. The funeral inspired him to compose an elegy for string orchestra. The work begins with an adagio with slow moving, alternating chords – basically, an elongated trill. The modal melodies are not quite grounded – shimmering, unsubstantial. Hamish McKeich held the string orchestra back and the first proper forte was three-quarters of the way through of the movement. A beautiful, ethereal work.
Butterworth, an Englishman, was educated at Eton College too. One of his many successful compositions was A Shropshire Lad, a setting of eleven poems by A E Housman. This 1911 Rhapsody was an orchestral epilogue for the song cycle. Again, the strings were pianissimo before the violas and a clarinet answered each other with a stepwise arpeggiated chord. A cor anglais solo led to the main theme from the complete ensemble. The pastoral nature of the music was unquestionable, but there was a plaintive quality too. A crescendo led to a surprising change of chord sequence and the solo violin, viola and clarinet responded. Just before the end there was a noteworthy passage. The harp and the double basses were accompanying the violin solo. They were opposite sides of the orchestra, each side of the violin. We heard the harp’s bell-like quality on our left and the double basses’ percussive pizzicato thunk on the right. Stereophonic! The beauty of a live performance.
Ross Harris and Vincent O’Sullivan have collaborated with many pieces: two operas (including Brass Poppies), three song cycles, Requiem for the Fallen and this symphony. Ross is like a Pacific Shostakovich (and a pacifist too, I expect) writing about conflict, war and the human ramifications of these events. In New Zealand, thankfully, Ross has no need of the ironic concealment that Dmitri had to undergo with his Cold War symphonies. In this symphony Ross has set to music a poem by Vincent detailing a incident in the First World War when a soldier deserted the army for the love of a French woman. The soldier was shot.
The strings were pianissimo at the beginning – stunningly so, pppp. A cor anglais solo, lontano (at a distance – in fact, in the wings) had a variation of a reveille motif, repeated with a muted trumpet onstage. Abruptly, shockingly, the orchestra entered with blaring brass and percussion sound – fortissimo, ffff – before introducing the soprano soloist. The dynamic lowered for the singer but flared up again. After the other two works in the programme, this was a ‘wake up’ call, a stand to attention. With a lyrical melody, the soprano announced:
“It is lovely, you know, just marching
Through the fields, through the fields,
The spatter of poppies …”
but the audience understood the double entendre. The orchestral phrases were fragmented and the rhythms were unsettling and pugnacious. When the soprano rephrased this comment,
“It is so lovely, you know, just walking,
Walking away through the fields…”
she had a wistful, melancholy air. The movement ran out unexpectedly with the comment “...his name is death.”
Movement II had spare chords with plucked strings and contrasting themes from brass and clarinet accompanying the singer. She was singing from the soldier’s point of view:
“‘Sois sage [be wise]’, she will tell me, ‘sois sage, mon brave.’
I am walking towards her. I am walking away.”
The pathos, the anguished cry was palpable. It led to a recollection of peacetime with rapid tempo and dancing melodies, but after a pause the sorrow returns. The music of Section 5 in the libretto had an echo of the Section 2 theme, the ‘…lovely, you know, just marching Through the fields...’ but it was infinitely sadder. When the soprano sings
“And we stand in the dark,
And we hear the thud, the thud of the gunning…”
Ross used a remarkable texture spanning the orchestral tonal range: a piccolo tune with accompanying tuba, double bass and timpani with a background of hushed strings. As the movement closes the singer announces
“We shall saunter in the summer
You have never had.”
With a flurry of rhapsodic strings the movement is over.
Movement III begins with a complex rhythmic structure. The strings bowed synchronously – a battle march of their own. The ensemble, including the singer, was embroiled with the turmoil of war and retribution. The soprano’s tone was dejected, bleak, as she detailed the execution of her lover. The orchestra was violent and combative with savage swings of dynamics.
The last movement began with the soprano longing for a vanished future, for a New Zealand and its beauty. In his music Ross conveyed a sense of our landscape. A semblance of normality that was not to be. The melodies collapsed into angular phrases, but a cello solo emerged with a delicate, poignant theme. In the last part, the soprano came from despair to hopefulness, from the sadness of
“Who, who is this young man walking, Into my life, across my land…” to
“My child, my love, my hero, Fill the earth and sky!”, from anguish to ecstasy.
At the coda, the soprano left the stage, and her final phrases were lontano (in the wings) – a subtle structural counterpoint. She soared above the muted orchestra – her tone was suspended and potent. The orchestra responded with a surprising final resolution, pppp.
Hamish McKeich galvanised this performance. He didn’t use a baton in the concert and his gestures and directions were direct and clear, especially within the symphony. The orchestra was magnificent – earnest and committed. Madeleine Pierard was superb. Her artistry was controlled and her presence inspired confidence. Her luminous voice conveyed pathos, anguish, passion, longing and ultimately acceptance.
I was particularly looking forward to Ross’s symphony. As expected, the first three movements impressed me – effective and affective. But Movement IV moved me. I expected the sadness, the horror and the consequence of war but the transformative, the transcendental nature of the last section was marvellous and profound. It hinted – no, established – that love conquers all and the spiritual transcends earthly matters.
An ANZAC commemoration, but life-affirming.