New symphony incorporates song

By William Dart

Composer Ross Harris infuses his work with a dark humour. Photo / Michael Norris
Composer Ross Harris infuses his work with a dark humour. Photo / Michael Norris

The depressing news that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has cancelled its September tour to record the score for Peter Jackson's latest Hobbit adventure means the orchestra will be off the circuit until November for Aucklanders.

Meanwhile, all praise to the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Not only does the APO keep the torch of orchestral music blazing bright, but it does so with innovative programmes that draw in the punters.

Last week, Nikolai Demidenko, playing Rachmaninov, was flanked by Martinu and Korngold; last night we had Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. Next Thursday, a new symphony by Wellington composer Ross Harris shares the bill with Mahler's Fourth, featuring soprano Madeleine Pierard. Harris is a great admirer of the APO. It has played eight of his scores, including last year's Cello Concerto, with Li-Wei Qin.

He laughs when I ask him whether he was aware of other famous "Fifths" when he began the latest offering. "A composer friend asked me why I had written a No. 5. The answer was - because I'd already written a No. 4."

The new work incorporates song. "People like words to help them identify what's going on in the music," Harris says. "It's such a beautiful thing when voice and orchestra come together, especially when it's a female voice. A delicious combination."

Australian mezzo Sally-Anne Russell will sing three settings of Panni Palasti, a Hungarian poet in her late 70s who escaped to the west during the 1956 Revolution, eventually settling in Nelson. Harris marvels at the simplicity and truth of Palasti's verses, which tell of World War deprivations, as seen through the eyes of a child.

A key component in the songs is the orchestra's two harps, which should be on opposite sides of the stage, says Harris. "I want this slight sense of insecurity, as the distance across the ensemble will mean the two harpists will not be able to play as one."

In between the songs, the orchestra offers symphonic commentary in two scherzos. The second, which follows the Candlestick setting, showcases solo strings. "It's about individual rather than collective terror," Harris explains. "It's about someone who's a victim of some injury or attack, as we've heard sung about in the song. I want it to be incredibly fast, ghostly, ghastly and elusive."

The composer describes the first scherzo as "a brutalist thing, full of bizarre humour. It's a collection of marches both huge and minute, which are inherently fascist; a commentary on the horrors of war that breaks down into a sort of film-reel reality. I love doing things like that to open the doors for people's imagination."

Harris, at 68, does not worry about annoying the modernists. "They can't stand the fact that this music might suddenly sound like something cheesy but, of course, I learned all that from Mahler."

Burt Bacharach's lyrics man Hal David once commented that the world needs more love, sweet love, but Harris feels it needs more humour. "It's not necessarily rib-tickling. It's more playing with language and delighting in what language can do."


What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall,
Thursday at 8pm; pre-concert talk by Ross Harris at 7pm

- NZ Herald

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