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Relict Furies

March 15, 2016

Relict Furies
NZSO strings,
Margaret Medlyn

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
March 15, 2016

This was a fascinating concert. Two beautiful English works for string orchestra, an Australian work by a modern master, and a nearly unbearably intense set of songs getting their New Zealand premiere produced an intriguing mix of traditional and modern beautifully performed, but slightly uneven in effect.

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An organiser came up the front just before the beginning to apologise for running out of programmes, explaining that they hadn’t expected the number of people, and when I turned around I did see that the place was practically full. Not bad for a Tuesday night concert of fairly unusual music! The lighting added a beautiful atmosphere to the concert (I actually really like the interior of this cathedral as an architectural space!) especially during the songs where a deep blood red fell over the musicians.

The first work was Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47. This is written for a quartet plus the larger string orchestra, and the two work together and in opposition at different points. The acoustics in the giant Cathedral of St Paul produced a hazy, soft, glowing sound that suggested the sublime and mystical, and although some of the finer details were lost in the reverb everything could be heard well enough. The general mood of the work was dark and brooding with flashes of light and romance. It began to feel a little directionless or repetitive at times, but was overall a really gorgeously luxurious performance that you could sink into and enjoy.

Sculthorpe’s Sonata for Strings No. 3 was next. The programme says that it was inspired by indigenous music from Northern Australia, Torres Strait, and Indonesia, and this was definitely noticeable in some of the melodies and rhythms, yet it was much more sophisticated than just throwing some ‘exotic’ melodies and rhythms together. The piece moved beautifully between beating bow-wood-on-strings, almost minimalist-sounding textures, screechy bird-like harmonics, buzzy insect swarms, and tough, hard-edged dissonances. I really enjoyed the places this piece took me, and could imagine landscapes, struggles, celebrations, despair, anger, all in an abstractly-told story. The orchestra held everything together beautifully despite the writing being occasionally fragmented and abrupt, and there were some lovely dynamic contrasts.

The third piece, Gareth Farr and Paul Horan’s Relict Furies, was without doubt the highlight. Margaret Medlyn brought a level of emotional engagement to her interpretation that blew away the more distant analytical frame of mind I’d been in and sucked me in completely to the titular Fury and the sadness, despair, uncertainty, and toughness of the lyrics. The libretto is direct and blunt, eg.

I’ll be on display
on the lip of your grave
You,
in your last, short trench

and

What is the lesson to learn?
Give into regret
and let it halve me?
Grasp on to desire
just to have it let me go?

The three songs play in a continuous flow as the string accompaniment evolves and eventually returns to some of the opening themes and ideas. The first song is a sort of brave farewell which mixes forced pride with a raw foreboding. The vocal part takes its time to join in with the subdued strings and at least in Medlyn’s performance was quiet, guarded, and perhaps vocally brittle. I wondered whether this was a fault of the performer but by the end of the cycle I realised this was actually a careful set up for the climax to come.

The second song is a brutal funeral song which places the widow completely alone with the marble of the gravestone engraved with “…your fresh name still sharp / shredding my fingers”. The strings and singing built to a tremendously affecting climax, with Medlyn’s totally committed acting and by now full voice filling the hall with a heart-piercing power that brought tears to my eyes!

The final song is a resigned and lost contemplation on what the meaning of these stories is. Can someone just let go and move on? Or remain dedicated to remembering and imagining what was lost? The memories punishing the character with their reminder of what the cost was of this awful war. “I deserve no wreath. / I’m not the fallen. / Just to live an unpitied life, / picking up where we never started.” This was one of those times that a performance ends and all you can do is sit there in awe. The composer was on hand to provide enthusiastic cheers and whistles, and I wish I could have asked him how the performance compared to the Edinburgh festival one that formed the other part of the joint commission of this work.

After that, I think anything was going to seem like an anti-climax. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was sort of a return to the textures and style of the Elgar. It did feature a beautiful effect with string quartet set some way back from the main orchestra imitating organ echoes, which really did sound just like a quiet organ stop imitating the strings. Again there were some beautiful melodies and lush chords, and some ravishing tone from the viola and cello soloists in particular. There was nothing to really complain about, but after having such an involving set of songs it felt more distant and sedate.

So in summary, worth every last cent for the title work alone, and full of beauty, this was a great concert indeed.

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