When Opus Orchestra was asked by the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival what we might present in their 2021 programme, we decided that what we would really like to do is have a mini-Festival of New Zealand music all of our own. Instead of offering one full evening concert we suggested two shorter programmes that could be prepared using, effectively, our standard pattern of five rehearsal calls. The basic idea was to have one early-afternoon programme designed for children and parents and one early-evening programme for grown-ups.

Having performed Philip Norman’s delightful setting of Margaret Mahy’s Lion in the Meadow a couple of years ago, I was keen to explore his other Mahy pieces. Philip and Margaret had a strong and congenial working relationship. Philip’s Mahy pieces add up to about 40 minutes of music – so they made a lovely programme that can be presented within an hour (a great length for children). We approached Georgia Jamieson-Emms (whose ‘Love Linda’ programme about Cole Porter’s wife is touring as I write) and Robert Tucker (whose brilliant performances of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King have startled audiences in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch over the past twelve months). Philip Norman’s Mahy pieces include one extended comic narrative, “The Cat Who Became a Poet” plus settings of a number of poems, quite a few of them from Mahy’s Nonstop Nonsense volume. All are beautifully judged – accessible, illustrative in often very funny ways, and always lyrical. They are a delight and I can’t wait to hear the reaction of our young audiences to them.

The early-evening programme is being called “Made for Opus”. The initial idea was for it to consist entirely of works that Opus Orchestra has commissioned. That’s nearly true but some that would otherwise have qualified for inclusion had to be left out for logistical reasons. Our programme opens with the marimba concerto that Gareth Farr wrote for our principal timpanist/percussionist, Yoshiko Tsuruta. Yoshi is an outstanding marimba player – and Gareth gave her a real showpiece. Opus gave its premiere back in 2019 and we have been keen to revisit it. The other substantial work is Ross Harris’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. Ross wrote these for the NZSO’s 2010 European tour – but they have never really been heard in Aotearoa. The original instrumentation is way beyond Opus’s establishment, so I asked Ross whether he would prepare a chamber orchestra version for us. He readily obliged. Hence Opus will give what I think is the New Zealand premiere of the complete set in any version and the world premiere of the chamber orchestra version. These are outstanding pieces, each reflecting on the musical traditions of cities that the NZSO included in its 2010 itinerary: ‘Vienna (Mahler)’, ‘Lucerne (Wagner)’ and ‘Düsseldorf (Schumann)’. Each movement alludes to the works of the named composers – the first a kind of quirky look at the Scherzo of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the second indulging in the harmonic and timbral world of the Ring Cycle (we hear the opening of Rheingold in its closing moments), and the third engaging with the whimsical Schumann. Separating Gareth’s and Ross’s works is a short solo-flute piece, Pan Dreaming – a kind of companion piece for Debussy’s Syrinx – by Martin Lodge.

This two-pronged approach to New Zealand music is intended to address two different audiences. ‘Mahy Magic’ we hope will attract a large family audience. ‘Made for Opus’, on the other hand, is unashamedly a more niche offering. This programme is for the initiated and the curious. We are intending to present the concerts in as close to an interactive format as we can manage. Ross, Gareth and Martin will introduce each of their works. Following the concert, the audience (with a glass of wine in their hands) will be invited to a Q&A and encouraged to put to the composers and the performers any questions, challenges, or comments that they might have about the music.

Back in 1958, the American composer Milton Babbitt wrote an article for High Fidelity entitled ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’. Babbitt acknowledged that avant-garde composition was a specialist enterprise that, initially anyway, required a kind of specialist audience. Opus Orchestra’s pair of concerts are designed on the one hand for families who just want a good time and are ready to appreciate the combined wit of Mahy and Norman, and, on the other hand, in ‘Made for Opus’ the kind of audience that Milton Babbitt had in mind, an audience that is looking for more of a challenge and is allowed even to be puzzled. For my own part, having had the privilege of living with these works for months as I prepare for the upcoming rehearsals, I love everything in these two programmes and I am in awe of talent excelling across a wide range of styles.

Incidentally, an hour ago, while writing this, I received the score for another Opus commission – this one from Janet Jennings. It looks great! We asked Janet to write something that might fit with the instrumentation for a concert later in the year that has the Mozart Requiem as its centrepiece. She has produced something that is far from funereal but will be exciting to play.

For more information or to book a ticket, click here.

Concert dates:

Sunday 28 February: Gallagher Academy, Hamilton
1 pm Mahy Magic
5 pm Made for Opus

Saturday 6 March, St Luke’s Church Rotorua
1 pm Mahy Magic
5 pm Made for Opus

Sunday 7 March, Baycourt Tauranga
1 pm Mahy Magic
5 pm Made for Opus

 

Peter Walls – Music Director of Opus Orchestra