HARRIS, ROSS: Symphony No. 2 (2006)*. Symphony No. 3 (2008).
*Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra/Marko Letonja.
Naxos 8.572574 TT: 78:22.

Luck of the draw. I feel bad about this review, not because I hate the works (which I don't), but because I had just finished studying a Modern flat-out masterpiece, L'envol d'Icare by Igor Markevitch, one of those scores that almost redefine music. Indeed, the only other piece of music really in my head right now is Stravinsky's Le sacre. I worry that I won't give Ross Harris a fair shake and accept (or reject) him according to his own criteria.

Harris studied with New Zealander symphonist Douglas Lilburn (see my review). He also had careers outside of conventional classical-music circles: jazz, rock, music that combined electronics and acoustic instruments. The concert music comes from many different sources. In these two symphonies, for example, you can hear traces of Britten, Berg, and Shostakovich, but all in an individual mix.

The Symphony No. 2 sets eight poems by New Zealand writer Vincent O'Sullivan, a frequent collaborator with Harris. In the First World War, a number of New Zealand soldiers were shot for desertion, including one who piqued O'Sullivan's interest. The young man was caught hiding in plain sight in a French village where he lived with a local woman. The poems talk about the false glory of war, the real horror of it, the compassion of the Frenchwoman, the love affair, the arrest and death of the boy, and the widow's lament. O'Sullivan is a master of traditional forms and has a fine sense of "word music." I can well understand the appeal of these poems to Harris. More importantly, O'Sullivan avoids preaching. Things are what they are, tragic enough on their own without the need for special pleading.

Harris arranges the poems into four movements. The first, after an "open-sky" intro, becomes a savagely satiric march depicting the young New Zealanders' sendoff to Europe. It prodded me to think of Britten's setting of Wilfred Owen's "The Next War" ("Out there, we walked quite friendly up to death") -- a matter of atmosphere more than actual notes or devices. A lyrical middle talks of comradeship and the beauty of the countryside, both destroyed by the war.

Whistling with your mates, laughing with your mates --
Then the numbers on the crosses spelling out their dates.
Unlike Owen, O'Sullivan prefers to paint the violence indirectly. The march returns, a ghost of itself.
See the sky grow dark,
The colours fade, the band draws breath.
They are folding the flags around the park.
Hear the mate beside you say his name is death.
The slow second movement introduces the French girl, and we get it almost entirely in her voice. It's another A-B-A form. The beginning hypnotizes with a sad, Sondheim-like melody that worries a three-note riff. The middle depicts a desperate gaiety as the soldier and the girl court, the girl burdened with ill omen. A variant of the beginning, both in melody and mood, ends the movement in anxiety.

The third movement functions as a grotesque scherzo, telling of the soldier's arrest and execution. Even here, we get pieces as well as a restraint on overt judgment. O'Sullivan doesn't want to tell us what to feel. He wants us to "feel the facts" and to judge from that. Of course, he doesn't depend entirely on our finer feelings. Harris largely determines the affect of these poems, and he gives us a danse macabre out of Breughel -- among the most vivid parts of the symphony. A little requiem follows as a trio where the Frenchwoman announces the fact of the boy's death -- He is as dead as a post / With the morning's breaking -- "post" resonating at least three ways: the post they tied him to when they shot him, the camp where they shot him, and the "Last Post," the British equivalent of "Taps." We could also talk about "morning's breaking," but I should focus on the music. It's just that one doesn't often see a bespoke text of this high quality. A wisp of the scherzo closes out.

A long lament leads to the finale, where the girl regrets that she will never see her husband's native country, recalled now solely through what he told her. The music might just break your heart. The music struggles for resolution, ultimately in a soprano vocalise, reminding us of the "open-sky" music at the symphony's very outset.

I really admire Harris's vocal writing. Unlike some composers, he recognizes that it differs from instrumental writing. Instead of a singer imitating a slide whistle or Police Academy's Michael Winslow, Harris actually provides singable melody, yet still enterprising, unpredictable, and often powerful and beautiful as well. I talk about resemblances only because I want to convey some idea of how the music sounds. I don't know whether the resemblances are deliberate or simply a matter of chance. Overall, I come with the feeling of a composer who speaks his own mind.

The Third Symphony is all-instrumental and a bit of a puzzle to me. Harris says that Chagall paintings inspired him. Yet it's impossible to tie the music to a particular painting, and in any case, the score's success shouldn't depend on such a connection. What is clear, however, is Harris's use of klezmer idiom in some of his themes. The symphony spreads out in four continuous movements. Compared to the Second Symphony, this one deals in greater complication. Textures are snarlier, themes gnarlier, and rhythms squirrelier, with what sounds like "irrational" cross-rhythms (11 against 5, for example). Metronomic changes occur sometimes within a phrase, and more than once, to boot. Harris can get away with this stuff in a non-vocal work. The surface complexity, although beautifully worked, means little and shouldn't bar a listener from the piece, once one gets over the novelty.

One can make analogies of the movements to those of the classical symphony. The opening unleashes -- all at once -- a number of themes, colors, and gestures, which the rest of the movement unpacks and explores one by one. The second movement, a scherzo, uses klezmer-like themes. Indeed, it goes in and out of klezmer mode, moving back and forth between the vernacular and a "hard" postwar idiom. This leads to a very strong slow movement (my favorite) and a finale. I sensed, after about four listenings, that, at least from the scherzo on, a small set of ideas were varied and recalled in complex fashion.

Unfortunately, music doesn't come down only to thematic manipulation. It also must proceed on a macro rhetorical level, the sense of making sense as it proceeds and in retrospect. We have to see not only the individual trees, but the entire Sherwood. For me, Harris falls down here. The work, largely eschewing classical forms, seems to move according to some hidden program. Because hidden, the reason for moving from one section to another seems non-existent. If Harris gives us meditations on Chagall, we need to know the paintings. I could speculate and come up with many scenarios, but I can't get the symphony to cohere beyond the micro, although I except the slow movement from this criticism.

With the exception of Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja, this is an all-kiwi production, and very good it is, too. The orchestra may not play at the level of the London Symphony Orchestra, but then again the LSO won't be playing Ross Harris any time soon. The Aucklanders ably champion two complex works. Letonja keeps the Second Symphony moving right along and finely shapes the builds and falls to and from the emotional jackpots. The work tempts an interpreter to go for emotional broke all the time, thus evening out the peaks and lessening their power. Letonja not only avoids the trap, but gets real clout at the summits. Furthermore, in a live performance, he and his players manage to pull together large sections of the Symphony No. 3. Soprano Madeleine Pierard sings O'Sullivan's text with operatic power and Lieder intelligence.

S.G.S. (June 2012)