NZSO: Aotearoa Plus

Aotearoa Plus
Boulez, Farr & Adams

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Friday 5 May 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Hamish McKeich, conductor
Sébastien Hurtaud, cello

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Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel) – Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)
Cello Concerto – Chemin des Dames (world premiere) – Gareth Farr (b. 1968)
Naïve and Sentimental Music – John Adams (b. 1947)

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The short story:
Spectacle for the ears!!!
A sonorous chamber work, a heartfelt concerto, and an mesmerising, stunning, philosophic, sonic masterpiece. The performances were superb – exacting, committed, engrossing. I was enthralled by the whole programme.

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The long story:

This concert was almost a history of the orchestra: nine players for the Boulez (almost a chamber group),  to fifty odd for the Farr, to a more than 100 players for the Adams.  The pieces were all ‘contemporary’ compositions by most people standards – meaning that they were composed or performed in the last 40 years!

The conductor, Hamish McKeich’s style is very direct and precise – flowing gestures or chopping motions, grand body language or minimal indications. Clearly ‘contemporary’ music is his forté and every part of him was ‘rhythmic’.  He moves around his platform like a dancer – a bouncy, bebopping, rhythm-bunny – and I mean that in the most enjoyable and favourable way!

Given the number and composition of players: flute, three violins, two viola, cello and two horns – the Boulez composition, Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel), was intense and subtle. It was a memorial for a flute player, so the rest of the ensemble was carefully chosen to maximise the reflective nature of the piece. The flute, played by Bridget Douglas, led the rest of the ensemble and the expansive melodies, the bell-like timbre, her trilling and flutter tonguing, were echoed and muted by the strings and horns. The modality was given by a tone row, the Originel in the title, so the audience was treated to a different tonality – no major/minor sonority. The piece had a start/stop quality to it  – movement and stasis – almost like rubato but more measured than that. Often times, and particularly at the end, the solo horn was ‘a niente‘ – decreasing to nothingness.  Hamish McKeich, the conductor, and Bridget have performed many times before in contemporary groups like Stroma, and their affinity was perceptible.

I guess that Gareth Farr, born on 29 February 1968, has only 13 birthdays but Chemin des Dames, his Cello Concerto, was a mature work. The heartfelt depth of feeling was ever-present over the four movements.  The orchestra was mid-sized but heavy in the bass section, particularly in the woodwind and brass. The cello playing from Sébastien Hurtaud was committed and poignant. The piece began with a quiet, chant-like section from the solo cello with a glissando downwards in a pathetic, desolate gesture – almost like a karanga or a karakia. In the second allegro movement he covered the whole range of the instrument – pizzicato, tremolos, harmonics in quick succession. Moved to the middle and lower register his tone was sonorous and impassioned. The cello ‘cadenzas’, in the first and last movement, were achingly anguished. Clearly, for Gareth Farr, this composition was a personal statement. I could be wrong or mistaken about this, but I thought it was an apt and ANZAC response to the horror and the devastation of WWI: 1900’s New Zealand, so ‘innocent’ and unsophisticated confronting and engaging with an overwhelming, profligate European War. The humanity of the cello was swallowed up by the callous  and insensitive pall from the orchestral texture.

The pre-concert talk from Michael Norris was so worthwhile (and, AGAIN, I urge the audience to take the opportunity of the pre-concert talk when they are available.) We learned about the gestation period of the polymath Boulez’s composition, a video from Gareth Farr, and the possible connections of musical history lying beneath Adams’ Naïve and Sentimental Music. We learned that the title was a quote from a 1795 paper by Friedrich Schiller on poetic theory and the different types of poetic relationship to the world. And again, the programme notes from Frances Moore and the foreword from Christopher Blake, NZSO Chief Executive, were incredibly invaluable and informative.  I quote from Chris Blake’s notes:
“The title alludes to a once-influential essay by Schiller where he defined artists as ‘naïve’ or ‘sentimental’. The former creates art spontaneously without self-analysis, the latter is self-aware and conscious of their’s art’s place in history.” 

I have often thought about that. Michael Norris’s pre-concert talk suggested that the ‘Artist’s Statement’ usually defines the influences or intentions behind the work of art: fine art, dramatic, film, photography … or music. Myself, sometimes I think an ‘art work’ should stand on its own, not supported by a proclamation or a narrative, but usually the artist statement enriches the experience of the art work. In my reviews of the concerts, I wanted to focus on the MUSIC. As an  audience member, I would like to have a ‘naïve’ response to pieces of music, but I think this is not really realistic now. The historical imperatives and the interconnections from my experience to all sorts of music make it nigh well impossible to do that.

For example, the Adams composition fleetingly reminded about Ravel’s Bolero or J S Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. Each of the three movements had a simple beginning, a genesis of an idea. Adams worked on the idea, teasing all sort textures, timbres, dynamics, rhythmic devices – like Bolero‘s sustained orchestral ‘crescendo’ or Bach’s exploration to find EVERYTHING he could transform about a original motif. And I couldn’t leave my music teaching career behind either. The three movements:  Naïve and Sentimental Music; Mother of the Man; and Chain to the Rhythm – were neatly focussed on three of the musical elements: Melody, Harmony and Rhythm.
So, scrub my ‘naïve’ approach!

The first movement (and the title of the piece), Naïve and Sentimental Music, opened with three flutes and oboe sounding a wandering melody, accompanied with harps and guitar. that was followed with a counter melody in the cellos with looping, slowly-changing accompaniments from the rest of the orchestra. The piece continued to build up with a sustained crescendo and disintegrated with frenetic activity from the whole orchestra including stabbing chords from the brass and woodwind. Then the first theme was played again, three flutes but with clarinets not oboe. It was same but different – the accompanying music was more detailed and complex.

After the sonic tumult of the first movement, the second movement – Mother of the Man – was completely ‘other’. The relentless rhythm was replaced by slow chords from the strings accompanied by two bowed vibraphones – an other-worldly sound. It featured a extensive solo bassoon, played by Robert Weeks, an eloquent and expressive solo.  The  tension built up again with a sustained crescendo, all of the string taking in turns up-bowing vigorously – a marcato accent in reverse!  The pleasure of live music – the spatial acoustics, not mono or stereo but quadraphonics, octophonics! Again, the movement returned to the beginning, but the accompaniment was more intricate.

The third movement, Chain to the Rhythm, and as you might think from the title, the rhythm was a focus: varying meters, accents, syncopations, hocketing melody and harmony, layering – memisring. Even the pedal timpani had a soloist spot – building augmented descending scales.

I have listened to a lot of music in my 58 years, all sort of things: Western ‘classical’ music, early music, jazz, popular, old music, young music, Oriental, Middle Eastern, world music …. but I have never heard a work like this before. I was enthralled by the whole programme, but the Adams piece in particular.

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