In Earthquake Year, the Christchurch Arts Festival was never going to be business as usual. At the very least – and worst – it had to adjust to ruined venues and disrupted lives. At best, it was a chance for the arts to say those things and reach those places politicians can only dream of.
We saw the best in the Christchurch Memorial concert at Wigram Air Force Museum, where the top-class Woolston Brass joined forces with the ever-impressive Strike Percussion for a concert of music mainly by Wellington-based composer Gareth Farr, but also featuring a segment of Elena Kats-Chemin’s Symphonia Eluvium commemorating the Brisbane floods earlier in the year.
The choice of venue was inspired: the cavernous hangar at the back of the museum where band and audience were surrounded by hovering Dakotas, Lockheed Hudsons and other winged ghosts of the 40s and 50s. It also meant the inevitable trickle of latecomers caught out by the daylight saving clock change, a shamefaced reviewer amongst them, could sidle in unnoticed. At the heart (and the end) of the concert was Farr’s Nor’West Arch, a commission memorialising the February quake and its aftermath. Farr is economical with his materials, and an evocative falling four-note ur-thema (think the great trombone theme that runs through Sibelius’s Seventh) just managed to carry the musical weight of the whole work, alternating with readings against drones and bells. The readings were text messages sent during the quake: “Building collapsed, it is dark, goodbye Mum, goodbye Dad …” “My legs hurt, I cannot move, it is dark, I love you.” Farr knew when to step back and let words like these speak. It was accessibility and judgment well-paired – not something to be taken for granted. The work received a standing ovation but the audience didn’t get the encore it wanted. The real closer was Farr’s energising, pounding Gallipoli, which preceded Arch, but what could you do? It was as good an example as you could wish of the impossibility of programming concerts laden with meaning as this one was.
A new work by Farr also appeared as an opener in the NZSO’s Odes to Joy touring the country, but the less said about it the better. Farr’s brand of accessible, home-grown post-minimalism is a language more amenable to expressing joy than most modern classical styles, but this was thin stuff to put beside a work like Beethoven’s Ninth. As for the symphony, one 20th-century composer once said of another: “I like his mind. I just don’t like what it thinks.” Despite its iconic status, I feel something like this towards the Ninth. If this was the performance to win doubters over it had little chance to succeed in the veiled, excitement-draining acoustic of the CBS Arena, designed for sports events and rock concerts.
But the voices were in fine form, and it was something to experience world-class New Zealand singers like Madeleine Pierard, Sarah Castle, Simon O’Neill and Jonathan Lemalu together in a concert like this.
The arena also hosted the free concert, Christchurch Sings, earlier in the month. Here were all the practical compromises coming from the quake: difficult venue and amplification; no Rieger organ (trapped in the wounded town hall) but a pipeless substitute (the Allen organ generously loaned by Auckland), and an uncomfortable mixture of mainstream concert (Fauré Requiem), community concert (massed and Secondary Students’ choir), and Last Night of the Proms (Hallelujah Chorus; Jerusalem). Andrew Withington conducted with enthusiasm, but his real triumph was what he achieved with the New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir, whose invigorating set included two fine arrangements of traditional songs by local composer Richard Oswin. Like the other concerts it was close to being a full house, and in its way it was the most honest metaphor for the damaged city: facing problems, determined to see them through and to get something good from them.
CHRISTCHURCH SINGS, September 4; CHRISTCHURCH MEMORIAL, September 25; NZSO ODES TO JOY, September 27. All as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival, August 12-October 2.