Kiwi composer Gareth Farr honours shared WWI history through his new cello concerto

By William Dart

Acclaimed New Zealand composer Gareth Farr pays homage to those who died on the French and Belgium battlefields of WWI.  Photo:  Jeremy Brick.
Acclaimed New Zealand composer Gareth Farr pays homage to those who died on the French and Belgium battlefields of WWI. Photo: Jeremy Brick.

This could be Gareth Farr's busiest year yet.

January saw the acclaimed New Zealand composer's new Octet aired at Nelson's Adam Chamber Musical Festival; two months later, Auckland Arts Festival premiered The Bone Feeder, his first operatic venture.

Tomorrow night, a new cello concerto is the centrepiece of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Aotearoa Plus concert, between contemporary masterpieces by Pierre Boulez and John Adams.

Its title, Chemin des Dames, refers to a French pathway, used by Louis XV's daughters to get from one palace to another, Farr explains, as well as the site of some of the most vicious and bloodiest battles of World War I.

Farr himself experienced strange and unsettling feelings when he visited the area, "seeing fields that are now so beautiful, benign and idyllic, trying to imagine what they must have looked like a hundred years ago, when they were hell on earth."

Archival photographs capture this history and it's a treasured family photograph that provides a personal connection between the 49-year-old composer and those times: an image of his great-grandmother with her three younger brothers, all of whom perished, fighting in the conflict.

Fast forward to 2011 when Farr met tonight's soloist, Sebastien Hurtaud, playing a Haydn cello concerto with the NZSO. Before long, the young Frenchman, an emerging superstar in Farr's eyes, made an offer that few composers would refuse.

"Let me be Rostropovich to your Shostakovich," was his suggestion, referring to the famed partnership between cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

It instigated a lively working relationship between Kiwi composer and soloist-to-be, a player who Farr remembers as not one for sitting around, waiting for notes and quietly learning them.

Two previous concertos, for percussion (2000) and piano (2014), saw Farr writing for instruments he knew well, but Hurtaud's input with - to Farr - the less familiar cello was much appreciated in terms of understanding the nuts and bolts and the nitty gritty.

The composer, who made his name two decades ago with such sonic spectaculars as From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs, had much to learn about orchestral balance.

"The cello is so easy to drown out," he says. "Whenever it plays there's got to be this huge hole in the orchestra that follows it around, throughout the score."

But the cello has always been a favourite instrument, Farr says. He likes its almost human vocal qualities, seeing Hurtaud's role in the concerto as a voice of struggle and protest. There are moments of sadness and reflection but he also points out a cello can be both soaring and searing.

"At the beginning it comes across as one lone voice crying out to absolutely no response," he says, likening the orchestra around it to a symbol of an uncaring world. "Later, things become more violent. The soloist finds himself swallowed up by the orchestral sound, just like a real battle."

It will doubtlessly create a unique response in September, when Hurtaud and the Orchestre Symphonique de Lorraine give the work's French premiere at the Laon Festival, in the very heart of the Chemin des Dames.

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Aotearoa Plus Farr, Adams and Boulez
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Saturday at 7.30pm

- NZ Herald

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