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.

Benjamin Northey © Ross Calia
Benjamin Northey
© Ross Calia

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.

A work in two parts, James Ledger’s War Games began with the lowest of drumbeats and mysterious tapping of orchestral instruments before slowly working its way up to a violent climax of shrill dissonance. This movement was intended as a reflection of war in general and was certainly evocative in its brutality. A final moment of contemplation intended to recall the funeral march of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. The much more pared-down second part (the smaller number of players representing the loss of life at Gallipoli) featured the clear vocalism of the New Zealand Youth Choir in a text written by Paul Kelly from the point of view of gunners at Gallipoli. Starting with a very poignant softness, this part worked itself up into a distressing frenzy; the men of the choir intoning the text funereally, simultaneous with the sopranos and altos chattering their fast moving part as though in panic at the fate awaiting them. The impact was compounded by the youth of the choir themselves – many of the victims of Gallipoli were not much older than these choristers. The piece finally faded out once more with soft, fading drumbeats, akin to the last heartbeats of a dying soldier. Of the two, Ledger's was probably the stronger work with a more consistently individual voice though it lacked the sheer emotional force of Williams's best moments.

The two premières were flanked by Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Copland’s short overture found the orchestra’s brass in impeccable form, the opening trumpet intervals thrillingly and precisely delivered. Conductor Benjamin Northey’s Vaughan Williams was refreshingly free from any clichéd swoony Romanticism, yet he still gave the orchestra ample space to tease out the composer's melodies, the sections featuring a solo string quartet of principals most affectingly rendered. But he and the orchestra deserve more recognition for their sterling advocacy of the two sensitive and effective premieres for this commemoration of Anzac Day.

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