Concert Preview: NZSO, Auckland Town Hall

By William Dart

Jack Body (right) with countertenor Jon Jackson.  Photo /Stephen Gibbs
Jack Body (right) with countertenor Jon Jackson. Photo /Stephen Gibbs

Cheers are due for a local composer providing one of the most "exotic" contributions in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Postcards from Exotic Places next Tuesday.

Jack Body's Three Arias from Alley shares the programme with Dvorak's New World Symphony, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, featuring Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang, and Postcards by Pulitzer-winner Bright Sheng.

Alley was a highlight of the 1998 International Arts Festival experienced, alas, only by those who went to its Wellington performances.

Body has now rescored three arias from the work, to be sung by Australian countertenor Jon Jackson, whose voice, we are told, can range from Johnny Cash basso to Maria Callas trills with an Eartha Kitt purr thrown in for good measure.

In Wellington, 13 years ago, the role of the young Rewi Alley was played by Australian baritone Lyndon Terracini, who simply lacked the countertenor chops required.

"When he went into falsetto, it was just ugly," Body grimaces.

"They're big arias. And they also convey the homoerotic subtext which runs through the opera and which might have escaped some at the original staging.

"I've tried to reveal something of Rewi Alley's secret life, which is the purpose of having the voice move between baritone and countertenor ranges, between Alley's public voice and the private and transcendent voice, the prosaic real world and the internal private world, where he is moved in extreme ways.

"The three arias - Two Eyes, Men at Work and Night - are settings of Alley poems, about being moved by the beauty of men; the heroic young figure being taken away to be shot, the energy of men working en masse and, finally, the communal sleeping with young men."

When the theatrically inclined Jackson suggested he don a Chinese costume of some kind, Body was quick with a veto.

"My answer was 'absolutely not'," he smiles. "Alley was a very pragmatic Kiwi bloke, and he dressed as such all his life. The only concession he made, later in life, was wearing a cap from the northwestern province of Xinjiang.

"This was a man who loved Chinese poetry, translating it expertly, and who treasured Chinese culture. Yet he kept his Kiwi passport and remained a great adventurer."

The new rescoring does not use the Chinese traditional instruments as in the original opera. But you will hear some Gu barrel drums in the second aria ("a sound familiar from the traditional dragon dance") with lusty chorusing from the percussion section, who Body hopes will "give it a good yell".

Body is also extremely happy with the scoring of the final Night, incorporating the sort of sounds heard over an evening in a Chinese village.

"There's this beating of large wooden blocks a little like the European watchman's 'twelve o'clock and all's well' - something that's existed in global villages beyond time ... It's very evocative of an Asian night."

Jack Body may have headed straight to Europe in the late 60s for his initial taste of overseas study, but since the 1970s he has immersed himself in the music of the East.

"It's becoming more and more a part of our culture," he points out.

"We now have many musicians, artists and writers who are New Zealand-born but with Asian parentage ... We recognise ourselves as being an Asia/Pacific society.

"It's a much richer mix."


What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Tuesday at 7pm

- NZ Herald

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