Striking moments abound in composers’ interpretations of soldiers’ wartime writings

Auckland Museum's penthouse-like Events Centre was a novel venue for Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's Letters in Wartime.

Ninety minutes of music, created over two years of workshops, were provided by five composers offering their response to letters written home by soldiers during World War I, drawn from the museum collection.

The evening was framed by two fairly conservative contributions. Rachael Morgan, in Seeking Answers to the Riddle, restricted herself to just orchestra. After a bumpy start, the musicians settled into its pastoral and extremely tonal textures.

Ending the evening, Kenneth Young's Dona eis Requiem paid tribute to the fallen soldier of the conflict in 170 symbolic chimes. Its straightforward idiom spurred the young choristers of St Kentigern's Kentoris to sing with resounding confidence.

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Soprano Elizabeth Mandeno was effective here, but a less satisfactory focus in Louise Webster's Where Moons Circle and Burn, an ambitious, brooding score with orchestral writing that benefited from the skills and experience of conductor Hamish McKeich.

Webster combined letters with a poem by Peggy Dunstan that brought new perspectives, instigating a burst of unexpectedly romantic bloom laced with birdsong.

Even at the distance of a few metres, however, Mandeno's words were not always clear and, with the letters, a male voice would have been more appropriate.

Baritone Jarvis Dams, the second of the night's three Emerging Artists from New Zealand Opera, brought authority to Jonathan Mandeno's Au Revoir. References to the soldier's "dear Soph" made real impact, and Mandeno instigated some striking sonic images and flurries between vocal statements.

The most theatrical piece came from Callum Blackmore, albeit outrageous in its disregard for the required 10-15 minutes duration (it clocked in at 26). There was boldness in his The First Time I Stood, well caught in the freeform vocalising of Milla Dickens and the mesmeric writhing of a bare-torsoed Daniel Watterson.

Barbara Glaser, the orchestra's CEO, made mention early on that these events were as important as the orchestra's main concerts.

Justified acknowledgments went to SOUNZ and, especially, the APO's Lee Martelli, for devising and sustaining this programme over eight years.

What: Letters in Wartime
Where: Auckland Museum

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