Classic CD: Gillian Whitehead, Alice

By William Dart

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Classic CD: Gillian Whitehead Alice (Atoll)
Stars: 5/5
Verdict: A Kiwi masterpiece that, at last, you can take home with you, in the best orchestral company.

Alice. Gillian Whitehead
Alice. Gillian Whitehead

Masterpiece is not a term to be used carelessly, but this accolade is totally warranted for Gillian Whitehead's Alice. This monodrama for mezzo and orchestra, with the composer returning to the poetry of Fleur Adcock, was a highlight of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's 2003 season, where it shared the bill with Beethoven's Choral Symphony.

Mezzo Helen Medlyn sang with authority and heart back then, losing neither ardour nor conviction when the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra revived the piece last year.

Now a splendid Atoll recording, with Marc Taddei conducting the NZSO, does both singer and composer full justice.

The real Alice Adcock travelled to New Zealand in 1909, determined to fight tuberculosis and start afresh in a new land. She did, and it is vividly evoked in just under 40 minutes of music.

It was a life valiantly lived, from a gruelling shipboard voyage, complete with lice infestation, to a politically charged exchange of letters with a crusty father - and Medlyn has the theatrical flair to nail both characters.

Sample the second track, in which Alice arrives in this country. After Andrew Joyce's lovely cello solo and a grove of orchestral birdsong, she praises her new home with a melody that culminates in almost Schubertian lyricism.

For Whitehead, the orchestra is a limitless palette, magnificently caught by producer Wayne Laird. Medlyn makes her entrance from a sonic glade that nods to the opening of Beethoven's final symphony.

We learn of her unexpected pregnancy between bolts of Messiaenic fury, death is movingly stark, and the story tails off with the gentle tapping of river stones, Nature's castanets, after a final burst of song.

Alice is in sterling company on the disc. Whitehead's 2006 Karokihi is a 13-minute mini-concerto for harp. Soloist Carolyn Mills floats her often Oriental-tinged lines over myriad water effects in the orchestra, beautifully moulded by conductor Taddei.

And 2001's the improbable ordered dance, another APO commission, takes scientific issues and transforms them into musical mysteries, a symphonically coherent 20 minutes that still allows space for the magical burr of rainsticks and the piping beauties of a dawn chorus.

- NZ Herald

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