A Universal Requiem

Victoria Kelly’s newly commissioned Requiem will be a centrepiece of Auckland Arts Festival. William Dart spent some time with an artist of limitless imagination and tremendous heart.

Victoria Kelly projects an infectious sense of wonderment, in both her words and her music. And especially today when, sitting at her computer in her home studio, she conjures up enticing and ear-teasing previews of her forthcoming Requiem.

This 30-minute score is the major classical commission of the 2023 Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki Auckland Arts Festival, supported by Creative New Zealand, with its Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra premiere scheduled for the final Saturday evening of celebrations.

Kelly’s ability to crystallise the visual and emotional into sonic beguilement has made her one of our leading film and TV composers, her sumptuous orchestral score for Jonathan King’s 2009 movie Under the Mountain enjoying that rare privilege of a CD release. On the small screen, she’s added her own verve and style to numerous local series from Being Eve and The Almighty Johnsons to her award-winning Maddigan’s Quest.

Kelly’s concert hall output is comparatively modest, including one of the first of Stephen De Pledge’s Landscape Preludes, her wryly nostalgic ‘Goodnight Kiwi’. Most recently, her 2017 choral work The Unusual Silence was one of the finest New Zealand scores occasioned by the centenary of the Great War.

Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

The Unusual Silence was a 16-minute spiritual immersion, in which the brutal business of war and searing chord-clusters sat alongside madrigalian beauties and a thundering climax that would easily have slipped into the soundtrack of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Yet, as the composer told me at the time, there was “a very clear and human articulation at the heart of it all, spelling out that this war shouldn’t have happened”.

Kelly speaks from the heart when she talks about the upcoming Requiem, a project that has been in her mind for some decades  — it was inspired by the loss of three people very close to her: a friend who died when Kelly was a teenager, her father soon after that and her mother a decade further on.

As someone who says she “has always been interested in music which articulates grief, sadness and introspection,” Kelly was keen to create a piece that would “contemplate death and loss, in a way that can resonate with people on a universal level, regardless of their beliefs”.

Nevertheless, for all that she describes it as a secular requiem, she does bring in the evocative power of familiar fragments from the traditional requiem text, as an “aura around the two soloists”.

Kelly’s Requiem comprises settings of some of her favourite poems — by Bill Manhire, Sam Hunt, Ian Wedde, Chloe Honum and James K Baxter — verses that form the basis of “five meditations on what it feels like to be alive in the context of knowing that life is impermanent”.

Inevitably, in our free-wheeling summertime conversation that zooms from discussing the poignant music of Soviet dissident Alfred Schnittke to the satiny funk of American rock star Prince, I can’t resist asking if she has her own favourite amongst the regularly programmed requiems.

The French composer Fauré is singled out. “I’ve both sung and played oboe in the orchestra for Fauré’s Requiem,” Kelly exclaims. “It’s so gentle and loving.

“One thing I’ve always resisted about Western religion is the constantly underlying threat of Hell, damnation and judgement, concepts that I find to be very human and not at all divine. I wanted to write about death in a way that celebrates life.”

Kelly’s decades of experience, fine-tuning her music to blend with either images on a screen or the many songs that local singers and bands ask her to orchestrate, brings a sharp focus to her handling of the vocal elements in the new work.

The choir has been hand-picked by choirmaster David Squire from “individual singers who will give the unadorned vocal sound that I’m seeking”.

As soloists, Simon O’Neill, New Zealand’s premier tenor and a familiar star on the international opera circuit, joins Jayne Tankersley, whose fine soprano is treasured in early music circles.

Kelly takes pleasure in quoting festival director Shona McCullagh, who described Tankersley to her as “the great undiscovered gem in our vocal landscape”.

As a composer, Kelly admits that she was drawn to the combination of two very different voices.

We listen to her own expert demo recording of O’Neill singing Sam Hunt’s poem ‘Requiem’, a beautiful rendering of mortality, ending with an image of a staircase going irrevocably up into the stars. Kelly explains how its piano chords represent the endless footfalls on that staircase.

She also explains O’Neill’s astonishing vocals, set sky-high in countertenor territory, as “an image of the singer being subsumed into the universe”.

“Simon is so wonderfully versatile,” she says. “He’s known as a heldentenor, that ultimate expression of musical masculinity — he can get on stage at Bayreuth and blow the place wide open. But here I wanted him to be a smaller presence in the context of the universe, representing human fragility and insignificance.”

She recalls an amusing interaction at the recording session: “Great, but less operatic this time.” O’Neill’s response: “You know I’m an opera singer, right?”

I find myself spellbound by the clear, almost choirboy-like soprano of Tankersley in a setting of Chloe Honum’s ‘Bright Death’.

Honum, an expatriate New Zealand poet working in the United States, wrote these words after her own mother’s death and Kelly draws my attention to the waft of choral voices introducing the piece with the words ‘Lacrimosa dies illa’ (the day will be full of tears).

The setting seems to float around its central image of “a moth, writing, erasing, writing in a quick looping cursive”.

Woodwind, delegated to represent the earth and its creatures, underline these words.

While last year’s performance of Kelly’s Requiem was postponed due to Covid lockdown, its 2023 premiere comes with an unexpected bonus allowing a taste of pleasures lying ahead – but with a difference.

The eminently resourceful Kelly has now released a single titled ‘Requiem’, a richly atmospheric rendering of the Hunt poem that will be sung on 11 March by Simon O’Neill. However, giving over the storytelling here to the language of Aotearoa’s tangata whenua, Sam Hunt’s verse has been translated into te reo Māori by Sir Timoti Kāretu and brought to spine-tingling life by Anika Moa.

“Both ‘Requiem’ and ‘He Taurere’ have the same musical DNA,” Kelly explains. “But because of the language they feel almost like different pieces – each sitting in their own dimension, each calling to their own loved ones.”

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