Ross Harris (b.1945)
...the beginning of a new story... (2007)
Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Judd (conductor)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the Wellington Town Hall
6 March 2007
Introduction by Kenneth Young
Ross Harris needs no introduction. However, as is usually the case with people of such standing, he deserves more than a cursory gesture.
He's written over one hundred and fifty compositions including electronic music, operas, symphonies, jazz and klezmer music. He has been a finalist for the SOUNZ Contemporary Award eight times in its thirteen year history, winning it four times.
Since taking early retirement from Victoria University where he taught for 33 years, he's been Composer in Residence with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and at the New Zealand School of Music. He received a QSM in 1985 and in 1990 was awarded the Composers Association of New Zealand Citation for Services to New Zealand Music.
Ross Harris began his musical life in brass bands before taking up the French horn. He regularly played in the NZSO horn section and later went on to dabble on trumpet and saxophone. He now plays accordion in a klezmer band, a genre of music which heavily informed his extraordinary Third Symphony, premiered by the APO in 2009.
The reason I mention all this is that Ross has always approached composing from a working musician's point of view. He has a practical knowledge of the ensembles he writes for and is always concerned with idiomatic detail – alas not always the case with many contemporary composers.
I have been fortunate enough to conduct a lot of Ross's music and although many of his works are complex and can certainly sound as such, they are always meticulously scored and technically practical.
But of course it is the strength of personality coming through which is so intriguing. The work we'll hear tonight, ...the beginning of a new story..., is just such an example.
Commissioned by the Adam Foundation for the 60th birthday of the NZSO and in celebration of Verna Adam's 75th birthday, the brief specified that the new work should relate in some way to Douglas Lilburn's A Birthday Offering, which was written to commemorate the NZSO's 10th anniversary. The reference to the Lilburn is via the opening horn motive and the chord that builds around it. Immediately following that, the cor anglais plays the main title motive of Lilburn's song cycle Sings Harry.
The most immediately striking aspect is what I like to call the 'tinkly brigade'. Harp, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells and piano provide this glistening palette set against the sheen of the strings and the comparatively frenetic utterings of the woodwind. The basis of the work is here as Harris contrasts complex rhythmic counterpoint with an almost melancholy lyricism, much of it from the cor anglais and alto saxophone.
Harris also enhances the colour and range of the rhythmic textures with timpani, roto toms, marimba, piano and a solo violin. Consequently, the contrast between the frenetic and the reflective becomes even more pronounced.
The title of the work is taken from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment: "But that is the beginning of a new story - the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life." Ross told me he wanted to relate the title to the beginning of a new era in the life and development of the NZSO.