Review: Mega-music honours war heroes

By William Dart

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John Psathas' collaboration blends live players and international musicians against World War I battlefields.
John Psathas. Photo / Gareth Watkins
John Psathas. Photo / Gareth Watkins

The ambitions of John Psathas' No Man's Land were unfurled on a banner outside the town hall: "An epic global orchestra meets groundbreaking film in a mega-music experience."

For 78 minutes, one was awestruck by the sheer logistics of this commemoration of World War I, as the composer blended seven live players with a staggering range of international musicians, caught on Jasmine Millet's big-screen movie above the stage and filmed mostly on the former battle sites of the conflict.

But early on a succession of powerful female vocalists, recorded in the field, had one longing for subtitles to understand what was being sung.

Later, a central section in which five men of faith, from Roman Catholic to Russian Orthodox, delivered chants against a David Downes soundscape, would have benefited from some knowledge of their prayers.

Yet when Matthew Knight's camera drifted through grass-covered trenches, Psathas' ironically smooth instrumentals made such concerns irrelevant.

Throughout, historic photographs crossed the screen, climaxing in the long-awaited 1918 truce. But did the music sometimes speak too fulsomely on their behalf?

Poignant hospital images did not need the symphonic validation of Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra in rousing movie theme mode.

How much more effective they might have been accompanied by solos from the marvellous Stratis Psaradellis on his Greek lyra or violinist Jolanta Kossakowska - two stars from Psathas' admirable stage band.

Perhaps there was too much footage of musicians unpacking instruments and striding through landscapes, an exception being organist Pierre Mea climbing the cathedral stairs to his loft.

More sequences could have had the cumulative thrust of the barrage of multicultural drumming that led to a dynamic turn by the Refugees of Rap. Even with no knowledge of what the two men were telling us, this drew a round of spontaneous applause.

Lifesize screens behind the performers came into their own later on, adroitly weaving extra musical strands into the final Postlude, although musical virtues were dampened by the strained significance of Millet's trite and extended filming of two children roaming through Kiwi sand dunes.

- NZ Herald

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