“Voices of Youth”: The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Eckehard“Voices of Youth”: The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Eckehard Stier, with Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo) and Madeleine Pierard (soprano).
Auckland Town Hall, August 15.

Reviewed by Rod Biss (Not published)

The emotional core of Ross Harris’s Fifth Symphony comes from three tender, slender settings of poems by Panni Palasti. The poems are crucial to the whole symphony as even in the instrumental movements that surround the songs it is Palasti’s story that drives the music. That’s not to say that the instrumental movements are in the same vein as the three songs, indeed they aren’t, but one can hear that the violence in the scherzos is a reflection of what Palasti tells, and the beautiful slow movements which open and close the whole work are like a consolation for the horrors that Palasti lived through as a child.

Palasti, who lives in New Zealand now, was born in Budapest and lived through the WWII days of the Nazi regime there and after that the post war communist rule. In 1956, aged 23, she escaped from Hungary and spent some time in a refugee camp before moving the US where she became a journalist.

The second of the poems heard in the symphony, “Candlelight”, was what caught Harris’s attention and he asked Palasti to write some more poems about her childhood experiences. The poems refer back to a child’s memories of war. The first tells of a line-up, the child wondering who will be standing next to her, whether her father will cover her when the guns are fired, whether he will hide her under his body. The second describes the remaking of a candle from the drips of old wax with a bootlace as a wick. The third tells what she learnt from her father, “to stay alive/ how to lie/ to hide/ to smile/ and above all/ to wait until/ the tyrants fall”. The words are unfailingly simple, childlike, honest, frightening but relentlessly unsentimental.

And it is that lack of sentimentality that is the key to Harris’s setting – he treats them as though they were innocent folksongs – and it is this that gives them their quiet dignity. They are gentle melodies backed with hushed, sophisticated orchestration.

When the jackboots and military bands march in, in the first scherzo, we feel the horror all the more for the contrasting peace of the songs in which one senses the young Palasti hiding. The second scherzo may be more restrained and delicate in its string based scoring but is just as disturbing as the military march sounds of the earlier scherzo, only this time I could only think of ghostly, cemetery dance like images.

The first movement is as dark and austere as a Hotere painting. Over a long held bass note streams of quiet woodwind counterpoint wind out; of course it looks back to Bach, but there are moments too of Lilburn, hints of electroacoustic sound, a sense of never-ending logic that looks always forward. Eventually the strings in unison are persuaded to add their contrapuntal line to what is one of Harris’s great symphonic movements.

The last movement, a slow movement again, seems to brood over what we have already heard and it ends quietly, but there is a sense that the minor chord, high up in the strings, that Harris is looking for is hard to find. With bass grumblings still referring back to the symphony’s opening it is an uneasy, strangely disturbing quiet the composer has to offer.

There are moments when it seems that Harris is re-visiting the world of his Second Symphony. The morality, the despair at the past, and the sympathy for the victims of war are the same. But Palasti’s poems are more simple, direct and personal than the virtual libretto that Vincent O’Sullivan provided for the Second Symphony. If the Second Symphony might perhaps be seen as ‘scenes from an unwritten opera’, the Fifth Symphony is more truly symphonic where all the musical thought and dramatic development is found in the instrumental movements. The songs, simple and beautiful though they are, seem almost static; their function is to tell very clearly what the much more difficult instrumental movements are about.

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Eckehard Stier gave one of their most convincing performances; the five symphonies of Ross Harris are clearly something they are proud of. The singer, Australian Sally-Anne Russell, has a voice that seemed to suit the songs, and yet, in spite of the straightforwardness of the music there was a disappointing unease in her interpretation.

After the interval Madeleine Pierard was the soloist in the last movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Several years ago Pierard was the soloist in Harris’s Second Symphony and it seemed as though in this concert both symphonies had ended up with the wrong soloist. Pierard would certainly have brought greater understanding to Harris’s work, whereas strangely her sophistication was misplaced in the Mahler where the composer actually stipulates that he wants a naïve, childlike sound.

Auckland Town Hall
Auckland Philharmonia and soloist Li-Wei Qin (cello) and conductor Garry Walker
Into the Light May 3rd 2012 Auckland Town Hall
New Zealand Listener May 19th 2012
Review by Rod Biss
Let there be light

Cello Concerto

Ross Harris climbs ever upward with his new Cello Concerto
Ross Harris is a master of beginnings and endings. Of course, what happens in between is equally important, but it’s the opening that has to grab your attention and the final note that has to spark the applause. With his new Cello Concerto, Harris does both.
From the lowest note possible in the orchestral basses, barely audible and made even more mysterious by a quiet rumbling from the bass drum, the cello soloist’s entry starts on the same lowest note. It escapes, though, and in the same way a painter catches your eye with a well-placed splash of colour so one’s ear can immediately single the soloist from the orchestral background. There is nowhere for the cello to take the melody other than upward, and this is what the long singing lines in this concerto consistently do; they emerge from the dark, they climb upwards, they grow in intensity, picking up extravagant decorations as they head towards the sky.
The first performance of this dark-to-light, oily-hued concerto was given was given by Chinese cellist Li-Wei Qin and the Auckland Philharmonia under the Scottish conductor Garry Walker. Li-Wei draws a rich sound from his pianissimo cello, at its quietist, it still projects out into the hall clear and warm. His technique is such that in spite of the incredible demands Harris’ score makes, nothing fazes hime. It was his “incredible speed and clarity of articulation” matched with profound musicianship that caught Harris’ ear when he heard Li-Wei playing a Haydn concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra several years ago. He decided then that he wanted to write a concerto with Li-Wei as soloist. The APO’s commitment to Harris (four symphonies commissioned so far and rumours of a fifth on the way), together with philanthropic funding from Harris enthusiast Christopher Marshall made it all happen.

The concerto is in one continuous movement, yet falls into clearly delineated sections. Rhythmic dance sections flow into lyrical meditations that are rich in counterpoint. The woodwind instruments and soloist often seem to be in conversation, picking up each other’s ideas, imitating, anticipating, extending and decorating them. Those meditations are in turn interrupted by exuberant orchestral outbursts.
The most violent of these is wonderfully tamed by the soloist’s cadenza, where his fortissimo high-note entrance is surely the most dramatic moment in the concerto, as thrilling to watch as to hear. The cadenza is a brilliant piece of virtuoso display, much relished by Li-Wei, and when the orchestra rejoins him it is in a non-stop, helter-skelter rush towards the final unison. The applause was enthusiastic and richly deserved for soloist, composer, conductor and the entire orchestra, who played the piece with the insight they have built up through their association with Harris.


SYMPHONY NO.2no-more-heroes


Wellington Town Hall
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and soloists Anthony Marwood (violin) and Jenny Wollerman (soprano)
In a New Light
New Zealand Listener May 17th 2010
Review by Rod Biss
Wellington Town Hall

Ross Harris’ new Violin Concerto has a strange effect on the listener, who seems to be almost drawn into its creation. It starts hesitantly, the soloist on his own playing fragmentary ideas: then the clarinet enters and his brief melody invites the other woodwind to join him. In effect, the beautifully textured concerto, hovering tantalisingly between tonality and atonality, is at last under way.
The soloist is hardly ever out of the limelight, decorating and rhapsodising on the material. Then the orchestra arrives on a hushed, seamless chord, over which the soloist reflects on its melodic ideas and draws them together. The concerto ends with the orchestra finally bowing out, leaving the soloist to return to the same fragments with which the concerto opened. “Questions finally unanswered,” writes Harris in the briefest of programme notes. It is a work that captures perfectly the essence of our time – it is also a work of extraordinary and haunting beauty.
The success of the performance owed much to the commitment and understanding British violinist Anthony Marwood brought to it. It was a performance that heightened the emotion of the solo line: there was tenderness, mystery and joy of the dance, as well as thrilling virtuosity. The orchestra under Tecwyn Evens baton gave enthusiastic support.
Harris’ song cycle The Floating Bride, the Crimson Village consists of 11 settings of poems by Vincent O’Sullivan that in turn respond to paintings by Marc Chagall. Harris, O’Sullivan and Chagall are ideal creative collaborators: colour is vital to them all. O’Sullivan’s words acknowledge the colour of things. Harris has created a score that glows with musical colour, naivete, clarity and his own feeling for melody. The songs were mostly short, instantly appealing and ideally suited to Jenny Wollerman’s agile and even-toned soprano.

New Zealand String Quartet and soprano Jenny Wollerman.
The Abiding Tides
New Zealand Listener March 20-26 2010
Review by Rod Biss

The New Zealand String Quartet with soprano Jenny Wollerman gave a riveting first performance of Ross Harris’ The Abiding Tides, eight interconnected settings of pomes by Vincent O’Sullivan. It is a work that instantly enriched our heritage of New Zealand music. O’Sullivan’s poems explore the way the sea affects all our lives; specifically, he writes in an introduction, they”move between the sinking of the Titan” and more recent tragedies that may be “as recent as this afternoon, for all we know”. Harris’ music provides preludes and accompaniments to his unfailingly sensitive vocal line. The backgrounds he paints are varied, often light, with much pizzicato, and when the scene darkens he writes a ghostly frozen introdutcion of long vibrato-free notes. The titanic is never named, but there is no doubt we are hearing a tragedy; the sixth song ends with the words “The boat will take you to sea, where the sea will win”, and from there the next two songs,”Light seeps its grey composure on the mild day” and a Latin verse”Nox perpetua”, provide a solemn resolution. Harris’ music here is extraordinarily simple, noble and richly inspired. The cycle – in effect an agnostic requiem – ends for the victims in darkness, for the listener in consolatory peace.

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington
Saturday, 23rd May 2009 
Review by Peter Mechen

Ross Harris’s work, called “Ave Maria Stella” was paired with a work by Dufuy
of the same name, each work taking as its starting-point a popular plainchant
hymn which dates from the 9th Century. Ross Harris’s setting resembled a kind of
twenty-first century window-view of the original plainchant, creating a great deal
of ambient resonance with held notes underpinning the melodic contours and
brightening or darkening in places the thematic strands, these somewhat medieval
in style. Elsewhere, touches of modal harmony recall the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams,
while the composer’s different groupings (lower men’s voices creating a haunting effect
when singing almost sotto voce in their lower registers, against which the
women’s voices build a marvellous archway of tone) began piling up the
intensities, and reached a wonderful climax at the words “Spirito Sancto”,
followed by a richly rapt “Tribus honor unus”(The honoured Trinity).

Rod Biss Review New Zealand Listener September 6-12 2008

Two Reviews of The Sleep of Reason performed by 175 East Sunday 6th May 2007 at Hopetoun Alpha
Metro-live Guide (author – Eve de Castro-Robinson)
“Another Kiwi at the height of his powers is Ross Harris, whose The Sleep of Reason kicked off with a thrilling blast of cacophony and held interest right to its mesmerising conclusion – a held note across the sextet, winds and trombonist circular breathing (breathing continuously while playing). Harris has become irrepressibly prolific of late, skillfully avoiding ruts or dead-ends. Every creation pops up freshly minted, its array of colours vividly hued, its polyphonic web meticulously crafted; the stuff’s razor-sharp, as bold as a leonine roar. This latest work was literally a breath-taking end to an inspired concert.”

NZ Herald – William Dart
“Questioning was implicit in many of the pieces and Ross Harris’ The Sleep of Reason posed more than its share. Was that jaunty trombone solo a tune we should recognise? Was that chord a Richard Strauss meltdown?

William Dart -NZ Herald 5/6/2006
“After interval, Ross Harris ‘ Second Symphony consolidated on the considerable achievements of Harris’ symphonic debut last year, both formally and emotionally. A true symphony of song built around Vincent O’Sullivan’s poems, this was Auckland ‘s first opportunity to hear Madeleine Pierard in full flight.
The mezzo illuminated O’Sullivan’s often chilling critique of the senselessness of war. Unfazed by tumultuous orchestral shifts around her, she held the audience in thrall until her final top C from off-stage.
The work may be perfectly moulded to its text, but it also has a taut formal structure which gives it a symphonic strength. The orchestra gave a consummate performance, no doubt proud of the part that it was playing in the genesis of a major New Zealand score.
The concert ended with a rip-roaring account of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini but such a melodramatic vision of hell was no match for the horror and terrible sadness of the man-made hell that Harris and O’Sullivan had already revealed.”

Rod Biss -NZ Listener 12/6/2006