New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
James MacMillan, conductor
10 May 2014, Auckland Town Hall
Review by Alex Taylor
As a lover and advocate of contemporary music, I have found the NZSO’s last two ventures – ostensibly efforts to integrate the twentieth and twenty-first centuries into their programming – a hard slog. Last week’s We Remember was a dreary attempt to correlate pretty, slow music with profundity and remembrance. This Week’s Hear & Far (sic.) was even more deluded in forcing the “Scottish connection” between Lyell Cresswell and James MacMillan. There were no musical reasons for this pairing – contrasting works can be highly effective, but the grandeur of MacMillan’s language brooks no opposition. Despite – perhaps because of – the exquisite economy of the Cresswell, the concert came across as a lopsided offering to the gods of Wagnerian excess and self-indulgence.
What these programmes have done, nevertheless, is show the quality of the New Zealand works and the composers who wrote them. Last week Jack Body’s Little Elegies was fiercely confronting while maintaining a deft lightness of touch. And Lyell Cresswell continues to show he is one of our most original composers – his other orchestral works deserve a wider hearing in New Zealand. But the inane programming and non-sequitur marketing (jewelled hairless cats, anyone?) have only succeeded in putting off potential audience members, and confounding those who do turn up.
Lyell Cresswell makes no concessions to his audience. The Clock Stops stripped back the orchestral canvas to its doom-laden skeleton: the kakapo booms of the bass clarinet, a juddering mass of hammer-on pizzicati, the unnervingly high-tensile combination of high timpani and harp. The listener gets none of the immediate lushness that might be expected, but instead has to draw his or her own connections between finely etched gestures and sharp transformations of colour and texture. Cresswell’s high-wire orchestration act was all the more spectacular for its sensitivity to the vocal line. Despite baritone Jonathan Lemalu’s limited dynamic range due to a viral infection, the orchestra rarely smothered the singer. However his smoothness of tone and propensity for swallowing consonants meant that even in the sparsest passages the words were not always clear. While Lemalu is one of our very finest singers, I felt that Cresswell’s vocal writing, often concise to the point of terseness, required a different approach.
The work teemed with powerful moments: the energetic swoop of strings to answer “a woman waking”; the penetrating beam of unison trumpets and horns; the usually-comic vibraslap shading monolithic tutti chords with a startling death rattle. The NZSO displayed a characteristically fine attention to detail and the brass in particular were impressively synchronous. Lemalu’s wordless lament near the end of the work was intimate and understated, drawing us down to the bottom of the singer’s range, echoing the starkness of the opening bass clarinet solo.
But too often Fiona Farrell’s text with its tangential wordplay jarred against the velvety seriousness of Lemalu’s baritone. The moments of comedic lightness felt cringingly “hip”, with descriptions of young skaters “riding the rubble” and a city that “rocked [and] rolled”. These were literary excursions to more concrete poetic genres that undercut the narrative and translated poorly to the operatic voice. Nevertheless Farrell accumulated a wealth of historical and contemporary references, from Jericho to Christchurch, giving the work a strong sense of context and dynamism.
Where Cresswell focused his attention inwards to orchestral minutiae, James MacMillan’s music was directed firmly outwards, a grand public façade replete with all the clichés of the genre, from Berlioz to John Williams via Stravinsky and Holst. Trombones for every occasion. MacMillan’s first offering, “Woman of the Apocalypse” seemed dedicated to excess, although in between Wagnerian tidbits there was a lot of meandering, filling time before the next bout of chest-beating. Despite the massive orchestration, the music seemed constrained, continually forced in unnatural harmonic directions. Personally I felt like I was being shouted at every so often – this is music that leaves nothing to the imagination: a polemic, a diatribe of Romantic proportions. Where Cresswell opened up formal and registral space, MacMillan herded us and the orchestra into an elevator and locked the doors.
While there were superficial similarities between this work and “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie”, my experience of the latter piece was very different. Where the first piece felt like a patchwork of musical stunts, the second had an inexorable arch that was altogether more compelling. I was swept up in its gradual saturation of texture, in its inevitable structure, from the sinuous modal opening to the singular crescendo that ends the work. While some gestures seemed careless in comparison to Cresswell’s finely etched score, the longer form was brilliantly executed – the music was allowed to follow its own trajectory. The desperate plaintiveness of the violas perhaps best summed up the spirit of the work, a lyricism that when pushed too far becomes cloying and aggressive. Here that lyricism was judged sensitively, but earlier I would have quite liked four and a half minutes of the Auckland Town Hall’s noisy air conditioning to stand in for the woman of the apocalypse.