Works With Words

Aotea Centre at THE EDGE®, Auckland

11/05/2011 - 11/05/2011

Production Details

APO Works With Words at Writers & Readers Festival  

The 2011 Writers & Readers Festival gets off to a musical start with Works With Words, a concert presented on 11 May by Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. 

It’s the culmination of a two-year project that saw six local composers setting texts by New Zealand writers, with comment and guidance from two of the country’s most respected musical hands, John Psathas and Kenneth Young. 

There’s a long and noble history of setting literature to music. Beethoven wrote music to Schiller’s words, and many of Schubert’s greatest lieder are settings of Goethe poems. 

In New Zealand, Alistair Campbell’s ‘Return’ was set to music by Douglas Lilburn, while Hone Tuwhare and James K Baxter have had poems interpreted by contemporary musicians.

The words of both the latter two appear in White Feathers, with music by John Elmsly, a composer who has been at the forefront of the New Zealand classical scene since the 1970s.

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of experience is Alex Taylor, recipient of the 2010 NZSO-Todd Young Composer Award, who for his piece Attention! has used extracts from parliamentary speeches. 

The composers’ music is given life by the APO, while Stuart Devenie, actor, Arts Laureate and a fixture in theatres and on screens for many years, interprets the words. 

“Stuart is one of the legends of New Zealand theatre and working with him has been a treat,” says composer Robbie Ellis, who adapts Renee Liang’s monologue The Lover’s Knot. “Stuart’s characterisation of Walter Bolton, the old man at the centre of the piece, is outstanding.” 

For Stephen Matthews’s Witnessing Parihaka, with words by Robert Sullivan, Devenie is joined on stage by fellow actor Te Kohe Tuhaka and others affiliated with the Taranaki town of the work’s title, a place that has such resonances for New Zealanders. 

There’s surely a feeling of coming full circle for Chris Adams. A former APO Composer-In-Residence, his composition Antonyms of Trust has been workshopped with the orchestra’s current Composer-In-Residence, John Psathas, and Composer-Mentor Ken Young. 

Yvette Audain says she found working with others a stimulating experience. 

“I think most of us generally compose alone, almost in a vacuum,” she says. “By contrast, this was quite collaborative. I had to interpret the words in a way that resonated with me but at the same time I felt a responsibility to the author.

“It was helpful having Ken Young and John Psathas on board; they are experienced composers providing another set of ears, and it was especially beneficial having Ken, a fellow composer, at the front of the orchestra as conductor.”

What: Works With Words, for Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2011-04-28
Who: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Stuart Devenie perform works by Chris Adams, Yvette Audain, Robbie Ellis, John Elmsly, Stephen Matthews and Alex Taylor

Where: Aotea Centre, Auckland 
When: Wednesday 11 May, 8pm 
Book: THE EDGE 09 357 3355 or   

Biographical Information

John Psathas 
As the composer of ceremonial music for the 2004 Olympics, John Psathas is one of a few New Zealand composers to make a mark overseas, and his music has been commissioned and performed by many great international artists and orchestras. John is the APO’s Composer-In-Residence. 

Kenneth Young 
A regular conductor with New Zealand’s leading orchestras, Kenneth Young’s musical development began in his teens, when a teacher encouraged him to write, conduct and study. Ken has received commissions to write music for many orchestras and arts organisations, and he is the APO’s current Composer Mentor. 

Stuart Devenie, MNZM 
Stuart Devenie’s distinguished career has spanned three decades. He has taken lead rolls in many well-loved plays, and directed the Auckland Theatre Company. Stuart has appeared in numerous television dramas, including Mercy Peak and Spin Doctors, and he is also one of New Zealand’s top voiceover artists. 

Chris Adams 
Chris Adams is the Mozart Fellow at the University of Otago. He was the Auckland Philharmonia’s Composer-in-Residence (2009) and the inaugural University of Otago Wallace artist-in-residence at the Pah Homestead.

Yvette Audain 
Yvette Audain holds a Master of Music in composition from Victoria University and a Bachelor of Music in composition and clarinet from the University of Auckland. Her music has been performed throughout New Zealand as well as in Australia, Japan and the USA. 

Robbie Ellis 
Born on the North Shore, Robbie Ellis studied composition at the University of Auckland and now lives in Wellington, where he works for Radio New Zealand Concert. He is also a noted performer of music for improvised theatre, including theatresports. 

John Elmsly
John Elmsly has a long association with the APO: three of the orchestra’s CDs have included his Cello Symphony, Pacific Hockets, and Resound! His instrumental, vocal and electroacoustic works have been performed in many countries, and he is Associate-Professor of composition at the University of Auckland.

Stephen Ralph Matthews
Born in Heretaunga, Stephen Ralph Matthews is a composer, multimedia artist, lecturer and performer. Many of his works reference images and sounds drawn from the land and incorporate mōteatea and taonga pūoru. A recording of his composition Te Ao Mārama is available from Atoll records. 

Alex Taylor
Alex Taylor is a Master’s student in composition at Auckland University whose works have been performed and workshopped by a wide range of musicians. His Six Pieces for Orchestra won the Orchestra Choice prize at the 2010 NZSO-Todd Young Composer Awards. 

Inspiring collaboration and generosity in exploring political themes

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 12th May 2011

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra planned this event as “an exciting new partnership” between six local composers, musicians and authors undertaking a two-year programme with APO Composer-in-Residence John Psathas to interpret key pieces of New Zealand literature, all of which were to be presented by actor and NZ Arts Laureate Stuart Devenie in a concert scheduled as part of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

And so it came to pass …

The website goes on to say that the whole would be “presented by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the Auckland Writer & Readers Festival” and would include “a unique insight into literary and musical thought in Aotearoa.”

And so it was.

The question remained, however: was this an appropriate piece to be reviewed on a website devoted to professional theatre? I’m awfully glad that the verdict was ‘yes’ because Works with Words wasn’t – as it might readily have appeared to be – some arcane exploration into inaccessible music with a sprinkling of enigmatic and ambiguous verse thrown in. It might have been in less skilled hands but, the simple truth is, it wasn’t! 

Enigmatic? Yes, it was that. It set out to be. 
Ambiguous? Yes, there were ambiguities. They were planned, I’m happy to say.

The evening was split in two with three works in each half. Whether there was a programming intent to place the most powerful work last I will never know. I suspect there was. Either way, that’s how it turned out.

Not that there was much between the works, and viewing them in some sort of good, better, best pecking order is probably not an ideal way to go as each was complete in itself and satisfying in its own way. 

OK, let’s get the disclaimer out of the way! I am not equipped to be a music reviewer, nor do I profess to be one, so any comment I make about the music, whether ignorant or pretentious or somewhere in between, should be taken with a pinch of rosin. Or should that be resin? See what I mean?

So, to answer that lingering question, was this a theatre event? Damn right it was!

The evening opened with the arrival on stage of conductor and Composer Mentor Kenneth Young, a genial figure who eased us – and the wordsmiths – into, and through, the evening.

Then came Stuart Devenie MNZM in gumboots, weskit and Farmer Brown hat for the first offering: Chris Adams composition ‘Antonyms of Trust’ based on a poem by Sam Mahon. Adams spoke of his work, reminding his audience that 90% of the lowland lakes and rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand are polluted. Having just that day watched Prime Minister John Key challenged about the veracity of our 100% clean green image – and other environmental issues – by reporter Stephen Sackur on BBC Hardtalk, I momentarily wished that the PM might be better informed, and that he might read much more poetry. 

Mahon’s angry, anti-capitalist rant about the misuse of water resources in Canterbury had strong echoes of Glover’s ‘Sings Harry’ and resonances in delivery of  Fairburn’s ‘I’m Older than You, Please Listen’. All stirring stuff which set the scene for what was a surprisingly political evening and one that reminded me, if I needed reminding, that artists are invariably at the forefront of environmental and humanitarian causes. As I identify the Waimakariri as my awa and grew up with parents who were proud to live in a place that had the best water in the country, and a supply that they said would last forever, this work really spoke to me. 

Exit Devenie, and enter Yvette Audain, composer of ‘Eulogy for Narrator and Orchestra’ based on a poem by Olivia Macassey, who briefly introduced her composition. I suspect, if asked, Mr Devenie would say that the introduction might have been just a tad too brief! 

Re-enter Devenie, now resplendent in a smart grey suit, who proceeded to release on us, via a much grander delivery style, a fairly standard Kiwi work; standard in that it juxtaposed the weather, life and the environment, which was again reminiscent of the great poets of the 1930’s, ’40’s and ’50’s, for whom similar issues were poésie du jour.  

However, just when I thought this work was somewhat vin ordinaire, the final lines hit home: “perhaps when I have lost you for as long as I have loved you this grief will rest” and the final bars exercised their sly cunning and I was, once again, hooked.

The final offering in the first half was, in a word, wonderful. Introduced at length by composer John Elmsley, the work was based on five poems from the 1991 peace anthology ‘White Feathers’, which gives the work its name. Three of the pieces are long-time personal favourites and the set includes ‘For a Child at Nagasaki’ by James K Baxter, RAK Mason’s ‘Sonnet to MacArthur’s Eyes’, ‘Some Thought They Saw’ by Basil Dowling, ‘Axis’ by Cilla McQueen and Tuwhare’s devilish ‘Papa-tu-a-nuku’.

Devenie was at his inspirational best in this set, his delivery at once surreal, then naturalistic and ending with a languidly orgasmic ‘Papa-tu-a-nuku’. It’s fair to say that Devenie is my favourite Kiwi recorded voice. Whether he’s voicing documentaries or television advertisements, I don’t much care. He makes words come alive whatever the medium and he was seemingly relishing this work. 

So the first half ended with orchestra and voice equal partners in the weaving of some rather special enchantment. 

During the break floor to ceiling panels were installed on stage where there had been none, panels each with a single white feather, but more of that later … 

Alex Taylor composed the fourth work and the first in the second half. Titled ‘Attention’, this startling work is built around an assemblage of extracts from parliamentary speeches made during the third reading of the Parole Reform Bill. Boring? Totally not!

Again with a political theme – this time justice and the ‘three strikes’ issue – Devenie chose to appear in a bright red wig, silly hat, giant clown shoes, a red nose and polka dot pants. As this work endeavoured to satirise the normalcy of political life in Aotearoa New Zealand, his costume was most apt.

Taylor began the work by reading from a parliamentary speech that highlighted fairness and equality for all (including the Tuhoe terror suspects) and I imagine I wasn’t the only audience member stunned into disbelief on finding its author was none other than Rodney Hide.

Devenie dismantled any sense of the typical however with his narration – at one moment a painfully recognizable Muldoon, the next an oblique Helen Clark – and his frequent repetition of seminal Auckland rock band Blam Blam Blam’s phrase “there is no depression in New Zealand” was hauntingly surreal and disconcertingly immediate. 

Taylor’s music for this was delicious and the playing of it very satisfying.

The penultimate work, ambiguously titled ‘The Lover’s Knot’, was a collaboration between theatre practitioner and composer Robbie Ellis and playwright, poet and paediatrician – Ellis’s description – Renee Liang. A survivor of Stage 2 drama club at the University of Auckland, Ellis now resides in Wellington and is well known for creating music for improvised theatre.

This work is based on the story of Walter Bolton, the last man hanged at Mt Eden Prison; the last person hanged in New Zealand, in fact. Bolton was executed on 18 February 1957, aged 68, and there has always been serious doubt cast on the authenticity of the jury’s verdict.

The story, however, contains all the right elements for drama – infidelity, sex and death – and these two fine young artists have certainly made the best of it. Devenie plays a resigned Bolton waiting, in his specially designed nightshirt, for the knock on his cell door that will mark the end.  

At risk of entering an alien domain, it’s worth commenting on the balance between text and playing in this work. The two women at the heart of the narrative are represented by cor anglais (Beatrice, the wife) and Gordon Richards’ delectable clarinet (Florence, the wife’s sister and supposedly Bolton’s lover). The interplay between the two is both playful and menacing and it’s no fluke that the cor anglais has the last word. There are mysterious and subtle motifs throughout the piece that weave an enigmatic ambiguity around the entire work. This is great stuff! 

He kotuku rerenga tahi. 

The final work is entitled ‘Witnessing Parihaka’ with music composed by Stephen Ralph Matthews and text by Robert Sullivan. If I sensed the mood of the audience correctly there was considerable anticipation for this work. Parihaka holds a special place in the hearts of many New Zealanders representing as it does a means whereby peace can be attained and preserved. 

Taking the time it took, women – some of them young – and men from Parihaka came onto the stage bringing with them a large bass drum which was placed to the right of the stage, the people gathered around it. 

Following the whaikōrero, during which the Parihaka kaumatua remarked that his group had come to bring this story from the past to the present and that it would then be returned to the past, the karanga commenced, and the chilling magic that is voice and music began …

Devenie was joined by a second actor, a young Maori man, Te Kohe Tuhaka. Both were dressed in black and each ritually draped the other with a sash. Devenie, representing John Bryce’s soldiers, had a second ‘sash’ made from an ammunition belt, while the second actor, representing the people of Parihaka and the prophets Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, symbolically had none. 

The interweaving of actor and text, conductor, music and orchestra, with mokopuna and poi, and the questioning beat of one bass drum, requires a transcendent level of balancing. The equilibrium achieved in ‘Witnessing Parihaka’ was utterly breathtaking. It was as though humanity was holding its breath and mention of ‘the riot act’ cut across the enchantment like a blade across a wrist, only to be balanced again by the quiet confirmation, “They are at war, we are at peace.” 

Structured around the dropping in turn of three white feathers, the work – text, acting, composition and playing – was uniformly magnificent. Simply magnificent.

Ma whero ma pango ka oti ai te mahi.

Works with Words is a concept whose base is in collaboration and generosity. To see it come together in such a way is heartening and to see it unashamedly political is inspiring. To feel that, in some small way artists working together have achieved this, is humbling. 

I’ve saved the last word for Stuart Devenie: Bravo!
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


name withheld for protection May 16th, 2011

Sounds like the dawning of a new Renee-sance.

Editor May 15th, 2011

Thanks Richard – we are aware of this ‘glitch’ and there is no easy work-around. Renee the playwright is a well-established name in NZ theatre and I am loath to make her change that.

Here is what I can offer: if every other Renee who gets reviewed her joins the PAD, and advises me before they pay, I will give them a year’s free membership (unless of course they would like to pay upfront). I’m pretty sure that their full names will link to their PAD Member pages.

Please pass this message on to every Renee who may be affected by this.

Richard Grevers May 15th, 2011

 Oh and please please please could this show come to the Taranaki Arts festival :-)

Richard Grevers May 15th, 2011

 John, you really need to fix the glitch where anyone whose name is Renee gets linked to Renee Taylor's bio!

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