Symphony No.1 Review — Bachtrack
Two world premières evoke the spirit of Anzac Day in Auckland
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra chose to mark Anzac Day this year with their ‘Spirit of Anzac’ concert, commemorating the centenary of the Gallipoli landings with two new commissions from both sides of the Tasman Sea: New Zealander Michael Williams and Australian James Ledger. It must be an intimidating prospect for a composer to take on such a commission, given the prominent place of Gallipoli in the national awarenesses of both New Zealand and Australia. However, both Williams and Ledger rose to the challenge admirably with personal and intense responses to the tragedy of war. The two pieces had their world premières in Wellington the night before this concert and the exact same programme was played this same evening by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in their home city.
Michael Williams is no stranger to works based on themes of war – his 2011 opera The Juniper Passion was set during the Second World War Battle of Monte Cassino, another event seared into the national consciousness of this country. Symphony no. 1 “Letters from the Front” has contributions from a solo soprano and narrator, with a text complied from letters and journal entries from soldiers at the front, including letters from his own great-grandfather who didn’t return from the trenches of Passchendaele. The symphony’s three movements are all quite different in style, while still being broadly tonal in their harmonic conception. The first, purely orchestral, is aggressively martial in character with repeated military drum rolls split up by occasional periods of nostalgic repose. For complete contrast, the second movement is lingering and grief-stricken with soprano Madeleine Pierard making her first appearance in a heart-rending Latin translation of a soldier’s letter.
The third and longest movement features letters from soldiers of a range of different nationalities as well as a setting of “Arms and the Boy” by Wilfred Owen – the music here covers a variety of different moods with fear and horror of violence coming through most strongly. There is an emotional immediacy inherent in Williams’ vocal writing that was portrayed perfectly in Pierard’s shaping of his phrases. Only at the last major climax of the piece was she somewhat overwhelmed by the fury of the orchestra. Actor George Henare’s narration was done with much subtle nuance, eschewing any overt emotionalism. My only nitpick would be with a lack of overall coherency between the three movements; while each was tremendously effective on its own terms, it was more like a set of three very different works than a symphony in the traditional sense. However, it was hard to argue with the power of the piece for this occasion as Pierard’s gorgeously rendered final unaccompanied solo brought it to a close.