Magnificent Seven

All six of Ross Harris’s symphonies were debuted by the Auckland Philharmonia. Ahead of the world premiere of Ross’s seventh, William Green surveys what has gone before.

Symphonies: didn’t they start going out of fashion after Brahms and Dvořák? Perhaps, but it may be a surprise to learn that New Zealand composers alone have created nearly 60 symphonies, including an Island Symphony, a Jewish Symphony, a Five-Step Symphony and even an intriguing Symphony in 20 Keys! Douglas Lilburn’s three symphonies stand as cornerstones of our homegrown repertoire, and  other significant multi-symphonists include Edwin Carr, David Farquhar, Kenneth Young and Anthony Ritchie, who completed his Sixth Symphony in 2021.

Leading the group, however, is Ross Harris, whose Symphony No.7 will be premiered by the APO on 3 August. Given the impressive list of symphonies already chalked up by this award-winning Arts Laureate, it is astounding to learn that Ross didn’t write his first symphony until he was nearly 60 and, by his own admission, would never have dreamed of writing such a thing in his younger days. While he wrote almost exclusively for colleagues during his long teaching career at Victoria University, the impetus for a symphony came from his period as APO Composer-in-Residence in 2003, following his early retirement from the university to concentrate on composing. Rather pragmatically, he says that a large work was expected so a symphony seemed a natural choice.

Symphony No.1 was premiered on 25 August 2005.

“In keeping with symphonic tradition,” the composer writes, “the opening bars contain the seeds of all its subsequent adventures.”

Taking as its launching point “the fragmentation and ironic humour of Mahler and Shostakovich,” the symphony is, for the most part, a wild ride (the fourminute finale being likened to Pandora’s box). Yet, sandwiched between the two energetic outer movements, is an oasis of relative calm, brass and woodwind spinning long melodic lines over shifting string harmonies.

Auckland Philharmonia Librarian Robert Johnson astutely observes that the First Symphony was originally titled just ‘Symphony’. The bug must have bitten hard, for Ross launched forth with a second symphony when still on his APO residency. While the First contains Mahlerian humour, the Second approaches Mahlerian proportions, being considerably longer than its predecessor. The premiere, on 1
June 2006, included Madeleine Pierard – the soprano performing here as a mezzo – singing Vincent O’Sullivan’s poignant poems about New Zealand soldiers shot for desertion in World War I. The singer, a constant presence throughout the four-movement work, gives voice to the harshness of war and the tragic consequences of the conflict between duty and love, finishing in wordless lament from offstage. This symphony won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award in 2006.

Symphony No.3 also stemmed from a residency (this time the Jack C. Richards composer residency) but is an altogether different work. Ross, a multi-instrumentalist, had begun playing accordion in The Kugels, a Wellington klezmer band, and it wasn’t long before he began writing tunes for them to perform. Not only did some of these tunes make their way into the symphony (some heard in a popular music context, others as themes for symphonic development) the accordion itself was included in the orchestral mix. Another influence on this large-scale one-movement work (which had its premiere on 14 August 2008 and was also a SOUNZ Contemporary Award winner) was the paintings of Marc Chagall, who was described by art critic Robert Hughes as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century”.

Symphony No.4 is subtitled, ‘To the Memory of Mahinārangi Tocker’, the singer, composer and poet of Māori and Jewish heritage who died tragically following an asthma attack in 2008, aged only 52. Each of the five sections she sent to the composer in their email correspondence (section four is prefaced with, “I’m the only one turning/The world has stopped”) and each section also
quotes a fragment from one of her songs. All sections are linked by bell sounds which, as the composer writes, “ring the changes” and Mahinārangi’s character is evoked increasingly by solo viola. The work was premiered on 7 April 2011.

In Symphony No.5, Ross returns to wartime experience as a source of inspiration, and also to the inclusion of solo voice (this time an alto and performed by the Australian Sally-Ann Russell). A chance meeting with Hungarian émigré poet Panni Palasti resulted in the composer writing three “short and rather simple” songs setting her poems, which were based on her experience as a 10-year-old in Budapest in 1944. Two Adagios and two Scherzos surround these short and simple moments of calm, making a total of seven movements. At the premiere, on 15 August 2013, both composer and poet took the stage to receive their ovation.

Symphony No.6, ‘Last Letter’, premiered on 21 July 2016, with Fiona Campbell as soloist. It is another collaboration with Vincent O’Sullivan, also with solo voice, and also in seven sections, this time four poems interlaced with three interludes. The opening poem, which gives the symphony its subtitle and sets the tone of the work, is an Iranian woman’s achingly sad letter to her mother after being condemned to death for killing her rapist. The other poems illustrate other mother-daughter relationships.

ROSS HARRIS: Symphony No.6, "Last Letter"

Ross confessed in a SOUNZ interview that, after the piece was finished, he felt he “had nothing more to say,” adding a fairly final, “this is it”. Yet here we are in 2023, with the (delayed) premiere of the Seventh Symphony almost upon us. What changed his mind? In the same interview, he stated that the performance and enthusiastic reception of the Sixth “stuck in the brain” and gave him renewed encouragement that “maybe there is another one tucked in there”.

There was indeed, and the muchanticipated result is a purely instrumental one-movement work, based on three fragments of Gregorian chant that “disintegrate and reform in gentle or harsh ways”. In his programme notes, Ross poses two enticing questions about his Symphony No.7 as to whether his use of the chants implies a connection to religion and faith, but leaves them both unanswered, finishing his paragraph with an enigmatic, “That remains to be heard.” Indeed it does, so, make sure you come along on 3 August and decide for yourself.

William Green is an Auckland-based pianist, composer and writer who has been connected to the Auckland Philharmonia for many years as a composer, reviewer, pre-concert speaker and programme note writer.

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