Chosen and Beloved: Curated by Lemi Ponifasio – MAU Wahine, NZSO and Racha Rizk (Conducted by Kristan Jarvi)
Friday, February 21
For the opening night of the NZ Festival expectations were very high for Chosen and Beloved. The first week guest curator Lemi Ponifasio took words from Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony (aka The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) which translate to “Chosen and Beloved” and created a sombre ceremony by pairing a performance of the Gorecki piece – a modern classical music favourite – with an opening and unrelated work by MAU Wahine.
All of the program notes and hype surrounding this suggested a tribute to the fallen victims of Christchurch – and save for the contemplative mood of the music and some over-the-top theatrics that saw buckets of blood poured on the stage during the MAU Wahine segment I struggled to see, much less feel any real connection. The program shows an amazing image of a lone violist hunched over in front of a screen with words of tribute. This was nowhere to be found in the performance.
MAU Wahine’s opening set of wailing waiata was powerful – until it wasn’t. As one half of the performance it dragged. It distracted. It most certainly belonged on its own – a standalone piece. It was repetitive and without any translation of the text (which was there in the program for the Gorecki, so why not for the Te Reo component?) it was hard to see the point of it at all – as impressive as the vocalists were.
When the NZSO arrived on stage under the baton of visiting conductor Kristan Jarvi we were already some 40 minutes in, so none of the pantomime tune-up that is so clearly a nonsense. Just straight in. Music.
Gorecki’s piece is slow-build and beautiful, purposeful – it’s so constrained and as the strings work, near mechanically, to build layers and layers of sound you could imagine stop-motion imagery of a bud flowering, of a petal falling, of cascades of rivers.
I loved watching Jarvi issue the sound, hand on heart he beckoned to the orchestra members, he was of course conduit, the music moving through him, it felt at times like he was the keeper of the music, allocating the parts – anticipating them too, he’d pinch his fingers in the air ahead of a pizzicato pluck. He was a joy to watch and there was actual joy plastered across his face for the duration.
Unfortunately as soon as our guest soprano Racha Rizk took to the stage to begin the crucial vocal component of the three movements that make up the piece the wind was removed from the sails. It might have been where I was sitting but it felt waterlogged; lost.
The Gorecki is an emotional piece of musical storytelling – there are peaks, there’s a flow to it that is meant to carry you; a journey. I felt divorced from that and there was no great crescendo at all. It was safe, muted, in fact it was thoroughly disappointing.
I’ve heard a great many recorded versions – including brand new renditions by singers that don’t come from a strictly classical milieu (both Beth Gibbons of Portishead fame, and the film composer and Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard have offered stirring renditions in just the last year alone). But tonight I felt nothing. Merely waited for it to end, barely saw a connection between the opening MAU piece and the closing Gorecki; an awkward sandwiching of two disparate works that only shared a sadness in tone, and only passingly.
The orchestra members did their part – they played with their usual panache and of course great skill. But something was lost. The power that has always felt close to spiritually overwhelming in this very important piece of music was just not there. Lost in this recontextualization. At best I was very nearly whelmed. On reflection I’m almost angry at what feels like a fraudulent attempt at ‘conceptualising’.
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