Review: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Beyond Words, united by music

March 14, 2024
Five Lines

Music is a wonderful vehicle for expressing emotions and communicating across barriers of culture and language. Music is not a “universal language”, as the old cliché claims, but it can bring us together and promote understanding. It can give voice to grief and hope and unite us in longing for peace.

Over two years ago, planning began for the NZSO’s ‘Beyond Words’ concerts, to mark the fifth anniversary of the tragic Christchurch terror attacks on March 15, 2019, a dreadful day in the recent history of Aotearoa New Zealand. The process began with many conversations and developed into a collaborative approach undertaken with sincerity, humility and courage. With the support and guidance of Muslim communities around Aotearoa, a carefully curated programme brought together composers, musicians and large audiences for three remarkable concerts, in Ōtautahi Christchurch, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington and Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

Greek-New Zealand composer John Psathas is a master-collaborator who has worked with extraordinary musicians around the world for many years. With his warm personality and a genuine desire to work in partnership, Psathas creates a safe space for musicians and audiences to express and experience strong emotions.

He brought these collaborative gifts to this project, not only to the new work composed especially for the concerts, Ahlan wa Sahlan, but to the conversations towards the full programme, including working with American conductor Fawzi Haimor and facilitating the involvement of two outstanding soloists, Moroccan vocalist Oum El Ghaït and Cypriot oud virtuoso Kyriakos Tapakis.

To open the programme, Haimor offered a short prayer from the Qur’an and then he and the NZSO gave a fine account of Valerie Coleman’s simple, folk-influenced Umoja – Anthem of Unity, an imaginatively orchestrated melodious work with arresting percussion colours and a celebratory ending.

The magic really began with the next performance, as three young musicians from the Simurgh Music School in Christchurch joined the orchestra. Vocalist Abdelilah Rharrabti, vocalist Esmail Fathi who also played the daf (oriental frame drum), and Liam Oliver, playing saz (a Turkish plucked string instrument) drew the audience into a new world. Ancient ringing vocal calls and heart-felt melismatic lines transported us to the Middle East, the modal scales of eastern music and traditional instruments beautifully combined with a western orchestra in a dramatic and compelling offering.

OUM, as the singer is known, was a resplendent presence on stage for her performance of her song Daba. The name means “now”, with the exhortation to make the most of the present moment. With her beautiful, emotion-laden voice OUM communicated the essence of the moving lyrics to an audience in which few understood her language. Amplification ensured fine balance between voice and full orchestra, assisted by Tom McLeod’s highly effective orchestration.

Iranian-American composer Reza Vali’s string work Funèbre was written in memory of his father. The tragic wail of the solo violin, movingly shaped by NZSO Concertmaster Vesa Matti-Lëppanen, represents, the composer has said, the extroverted grieving of Persian culture, while the subdued string harmonies allude to more restrained expression by western mourners. The sombre mood of the piece, which weaves Tristan-inspired harmonies with the modes and microtones of the east, was beautifully sustained by the conductor.

The traditional Greek dance Mantilatos, again showcasing McLeod’s orchestration skills, completed the first half of the concert. As soloist, brilliant oud player Tapakis set a rapid pace in this urgent, strongly rhythmic toe-tapper in 7/8 time, the orchestra joining him with zest. As this upbeat music ended, both orchestra and audience applauded with enthusiastic appreciation of the soloist’s virtuosity.

With the key protagonists introduced to the audience, the metaphorical stage was set for the main work in the second half. After the interval, the mood was calmed by the peaceful reverence of Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song for strings, a short work based on a traditional Russian Orthodox lament.

John Psathas’s new work, Ahlan wa Sahlan, takes its name from a common welcoming greeting in Arabic. The composition is in fact a co-creation, Psathas working long-distance with the two soloists, OUM and Tapakis, the three musicians explicit that their intentions are “to promote peace and unity through music while honouring the lives lost and changed forever in Ōtautahi Christchurch five years ago.”

The work is in five movements, four of them songs, with lyrics created and sung by OUM. Opening with harp, strings, tuned percussion, oud and voice, the first movement, Al Mahal, is immediately moving, a song of welcome, followed by Hijra, (migration) a song of a journey. “Nobody is walking alone; beautiful roads open to us if we walk together,” OUM sings, the piano joining oud and strings in more driving, agitated music.

The name of the third movement, Achalino, is a Greek word, referring in some way to keeping the flame of culture alight. This instrumental movement formed a dramatic centre to the work, dark clouds gathering with low brass and ominous bass drum, big simple musical gestures making brilliant use of the full orchestra. The virtuosic Tapakis was improvisatory on oud in an urgent and repetitive texture.

Horizons, the fourth movement, looks forward, OUM dancing with the orchestra with hand-held percussion instruments. “The door to the future is before each of us/ And unity is the only key that’s in our hands,” she sings.

The fifth and final movement, Dhakira, is about looking back and remembering. The oud plays an idiomatic plucked melody and accompaniment, reflected back by the orchestra. The horns answer OUM’s melody as well, Psathas using orchestral timbres beautifully while always making space for the soloists within the ensemble.

Ahlan wa Sahlan is not a work that needs a big triumphant conclusion. The ending is quiet and respectful, reflecting the song text (in translation) “Our beloved ones are always on our minds, They remain in the hearts, in memory.”

Tears were not far away for many in the large audience. For me, perhaps the most moving moment was when we stood to applaud at the end, an acknowledgement that we had been brought together by the deeply emotional experience of the new work, and indeed the whole concert.

Thank you, NZSO, John Psathas, OUM and Kyriakos Tapakis. Five years ago, the people of Aotearoa New Zealand were united in shared horror and grief. In the years since, many forces have attempted to divide us. The ‘Beyond Words’ concerts have provided a glimpse of how music and art can bring us together at a time when our unity is under threat and our intuitive and decent compassion for others seems fragile. Psathas hopes Ahlan wa Sahlan can remind us “what it feels like to be our best selves.”

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