Festival trifecta for composer

By William Dart

Auckland Arts Festival provides a stage for dance project, writes William Dart.

Auckland Arts Festival is providing a trifecta opportunity for Wellington composer Gareth Farr.

Today the puppet show, Duck, Death and the Tulip, which he describes as "the most touching and beautiful way of explaining death to children", opens at the Pumphouse, featuring music that won him a Chapman Tripp Award in 2013. There are also puppets in Conch Theatre's Marama, playing at Q Theatre. Five women, who present Nina Nawalowalo's plea for environmental awareness in the Pacific, perform against a backdrop of Farr's evocative orchestral music. For those eager to experience live the full-on, orchestral firebrand known to set our usually sedate concert halls rocking, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has chosen Farr's Ruaumoko as its annual dance project in the Civic next Saturday.

Farr's original score was commissioned in 1997 as "a South Pacific version of the Four Seasons".

"The Maori legend of Ruaumoko, the god of earthquakes, was a godsend," he says. "He's the unborn son of Papatuanuku and the earth shakes whenever he turns in her belly.

This gave me not only the four seasons of the work but also the chance for some little earthquakes in between."

But Farr and the orchestra don't have Ruaumoko to themselves. Choreographer Moss Patterson marshals 150 dancers on stage while extra music is provided by sound artist Paddy Free, from the electronica duo Pitch Black, as well as a kapahaka group. Farr says this will be great to "get the emotional message through". The composer may be keen on collaboration these days but it wasn't the way when he was a student in the 1990s.

"I was never taught to do that at Music School," Farr explains. "Your music had to be written in a room by yourself and, if there was somebody else's material involved, it was sort of cheating."

Now, being a self-confessed bass-freak, he has enjoyed a long session in Paddy Free's Piha studio, "adding what the orchestra can't do.

"Paddy will bring in a big, fat, rock-the-room sub-bass," he adds. "Combined with the orchestral percussion going crazy, this should shake the Civic theatre and keep the kids interested."

When we talked, Farr had yet to experience the full contribution of Patterson, best-known for his work with the Atamira Dance Company. Patt erson has worked with the APO before, brilliantly in the 2013 Takarangi in which a stage full of youngsters danced to a range of contemporary music, predominantly percussive.

Farr was looking forward to the various layers he felt Patterson would bring to the production.

"He's the kind of choreographer who can listen to the music and immediately see what it offers him," he says. "Often there are things that I would never have thought of myself, as Ruaumoko is very much a piece of concert music for me."

It's not difficult to detect that the composer retains a certain fondness for the score, commissioned by Wellington Sinfonia almost 20 years ago and later recorded by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on Trust Records. "The earthquakes in it are enormous," Farr laughs. "It's me at my percussive peak and really loud."

Punters need not worry about unrelieved decibel overload. Farr points to the gentle introduction with a long clarinet solo.

"I wrote it quite straight, asking the clarinettist at the first performance to bend it around a little. She did some amazing things with rubato that had me going back to the score and writing that into it. But the crashy bits are still my favourites," he laughs.

- Weekend magazine

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