20 Apr 2018

Review: Premiere of Ross Harris’ Face performed by the APO

From Upbeat, 1:30 pm on 20 April 2018

Something of a warm bath of a concert with a bracing middle section. But the program got the APO a full house but this is hardly surprising when menu features Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ and Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’. These works feature in every clickbait Classical Top 10 ‘Immortal Works of all Time’ lists everywhere.

But between these was a New Zealand work by Ross Harris which continued (concluded?) his series of pieces about war & New Zealand. More specifically, World War One and New Zealand.

The Soldier's Face by Barry Cleavin

The Soldier's Face by Barry Cleavin Photo: Supplied

The Lark (1920)

This was delightful performance by APO first violinist Yanghe Yu with a shimmering and delicate reduced APO that also delivered agitation in the middle section.

Conductor Antony Hermus avoided overt sentimentality and moved the piece along while still maintaining its air of mystery and transparency.

It’s a mystical work with overtones of muted Anglican/pagan transcendence as the Lark ascends into the fiery silence of the empyrean at the conclusion.

A restrained performance in its way but I think this piece often benefits from understatement rather than the sort of bombastic beauty that some go for.

It is always better live than recorded/broadcast I believe and last night this faithful old Dobbin of a warhorse pleased the crowd very much

Face (World Premiere)

This was a rich work with choir, full orchestra, and three singers out front.

There were also surtitles and images projected behind the musicians. I personally didn’t think the images added much to the music. They seemed muted and almost distancing from the work’s topics of violent facial mutilation, love, separation, and healing.

More directly brutal imagery might have been better (in my opinion) to create a stronger sense of confrontation. I’m not keen on aestheticizing war but that’s another discussion when faced with work like this.

The choir Voices NZ, as ever, did a fine job and had some complex and powerful music to perform which they accomplished admirably.

Karen Grylls and VNZ are taonga indeed. Whether solo or with the choir or each other, the three soloists also delivered feeling and power with their singing.

Soprano Alison Bell and tenor Henry Choo had a lover’s dialogue as parts of their roles and delivered the themes of love, terrible alteration, and healing with emotion and precision.

Bass Joel Amosa’s role of the Voice of Authority (medical or military) was well conveyed with his rich voice and stage presence.

As for the music, there were moments of great violence and terror in battle scenes led by the brass & percussion and movingly lyrical passages as in the scenes with the lovers and the final beautifully hushed ending.

Tension and uncertainty came to the fore with woodwind and the strings at times in the surgery. The orchestration was rich and varied to suit these differing scenes and moods. The choral writing was very rich and one of the points of the piece for me.

My attention wandered at some points with what seemed some needless repetition (we got the point already!) and a stronger sense of dramatic drive and direction – a more forceful narrative – would be good.

The libretto could have been less prissy overall. We had the word "shit" at one point but like the images, the words seemed to avoid the brutality of the subject.

Soldiers don’t talk like Anglican poets and earthier language (like more direct images) would sit better with the topic. I think at times the music could have been less polite too. A little too delicate at some points.

Enigma (1899)

This was urbane and witty performance. Hermus and the APO effectively brought out the individual characters of each variation.

Supple, lively, and also moving at times, this reading of the Enigma had a real sense of fun which was what was on Elgar’s mind when he wrote the piece.

Delightful playing from all the musicians with each section shining and the various soloists enjoying themselves. And of course we had John Wells with the Town Hall organ bringing the final section (depicting Elgar himself) to a roaring finale with the APO in full flight.

Like the Lark, this is a piece that I find works best live when the subtleties and characteristics of each variation can be fully heard.