Saturday, May 10
For this special concert we heard the world premiere of If Blood Be The Price a new work by Ross Harris to texts by Vincent O’Sullivan. It was also the world premiere of This Love, a commissioned work by Dave Dobbyn for his band, the Orpheus Choir of Wellington and Wellington Young Voices/Lyrica. The evening concluded with the Australasian premiere of James McCarthy’s 17 Days, a response to the Chilean mining incident where, in 2010, 33 miners were trapped deep inside a collapsed mine for 17 days.
Councillor Ray Ahipene-Mercer spoke the karakia to open the evening.
Christopher Clark conducted the Wellington Brass Band and Orpheus Choir through the dense opening piece. If Blood Be The Price, by New Zealand composer Ross Harris, takes the 1912 Waihi miners’ strike, and an incident where a 30 year old was clubbed to death after being mistaken for another man who had shot at a policemen as emblematic of the long struggle between labour aspirations and the conservative, capitalist interests that defines a great deal of the New Zealand history.
Unfortunately, as a piece of music it felt too intense, tough to grapple with, the choir resilient but ultimately working against the brass rather than with it – and with long stretches of words it became an exercise in academia over emotion. A shame.
The world premiere of Dobbyn’s commissioned piece was the perfect antidote to the heaviness of If Blood Be The Price. For This Love Dobbyn, visibly nervous, read the names of the 29 miners killed in the Pike River disaster. And then Ross Burge set down a funereal drum march to echo the very opening of Blood Be The Price. From there an instantly familiar snatch of the shadowy, evocative guitar intro – such a feature of so many of Dobbyn’s anthems, those songs that connect us, that draw us in – set up the two parts of the song, a simple ballad outlining the sadness of the situation with a plea, a prayer for hope. As is so often the case in a Dobbyn song it is the chorus that sells the emotion, breaking down the heaviness of the verse. This Love all at once plays to the two main skills Dobbyn communicates in his songs, usually in separate song styles. Here we heard them both – the chorus shining out, urging a hand on heart singalong as has been the way with Language and Welcome Home, with Whaling and Kingdom Come. The verses framing the sombre story as Dobbyn has manages so beautifully and dutifully across so many other career highlights including Belltower, Beside You, Don’t Hold Your Breath and Guilty.
You could imagine the tall order of this commissioned piece too. And that should strip away any cynicism, the end result melting the stoniest of heart: write a song that encompases hope, justice, sorrow and truth – give us references to the grieving, to the tragedy, the lasting impact, the longing but also, please, present some glimmer of hope, some suggestion that a solidarity, an aim to hold a head high could in some way help, could show a faith in soldiering on without ever forgetting the impact of loss.
When this first version of This Love finished there was a standing ovation. A standing ovation to mark what was a captain’s knock. The early trembles pushed aside from Dobbyn as he stepped up – as he so often has – to live for those moments inside that song, to push that piece out to the world, for the audience there to embrace. In the closing moments of it when the choir takes up the plea of the chorus – focussing on the power behind the statements of love not abandoning hope, of love being the witness in hoping for a commemoration, for the souls of the 29 to rest in peace – you had to marvel both at the ticking off of an assignment, and that way Dobbyn has of creating something instant – something instantly memorable, so powerful.
If the opening piece was too heavy in its aim to bring a sense of history to the evening, to push into place a theme around mining outside of just the Pike River disaster then the closing 17 Days was a marvel; a joy to hear – particularly for the choir really getting to cut above the swell of brass and in the technical wizardry of McCarthy’s composition, the stitching together of existing poems to tell the journey of the Chilean miners. We start with an extract from the King James Bible and move through words from Rupert Brooke and Charlotte Mew, to Emily Dickinson’s wonderful Hope – the words echoing the journey of the miners to their eventual safety. But the framing of these words, the way the voices were used, the way lines were repeated, it was spellbinding.
The perfect end to an evening where we celebrated, we commiserated, we felt – as an audience – the power of music to connect, to focus thoughts and to foster talent and ideas.
Dreams Lie Deeper – taken as a whole – was an often profoundly moving experience to be part of.