ClassicsOnline Home » HARRIS, Ross: Symphony No. 4, "To the memory of Mahinārangi Tocker" / Cello Concerto (Li-wei Qin, Auckland Philharmonia, G. Walker, Dean)
Commissioned by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Ross Harris’s Fourth Symphony is a tribute to and a portrait of poet and songwriter Mahinārangi Tocker. Her movingly evocative words and songs serve as references for each movement, while a solo viola increasingly takes on her character and personality. The Cello Concerto was inspired by the brilliant playing of cellist Li-Wei Qin, its single continuous movement a dramatic dark-to-light journey filled with rich singing lines and extravagant virtuosity. Ross Harris’s Symphonies 2 and 3 can be heard on Naxos 8.572574.
Ross Harris (b. 1945)
Cello Concerto • Symphony No. 4, ‘Dedicated to the Memory of Mahinārangi Tocker’
Ross Harris was born in Amberley, New Zealand. He studied in Christchurch and Wellington and taught at the Victoria University of Wellington Music Department for over thirty years. In 1985 he was awarded a QSM for his opera Waituhi (with libretto by Witi Ihimaera) and in 1990 he received the CANZ Citation for services to New Zealand music. Since 2004 he has worked as a freelance composer including residencies with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Victoria University. His relationship with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has been unique as they have (in nine years) given the première of five symphonies and his Cello Concerto, all written for the orchestra. Harris has been awarded the SOUNZ Contemporary Award (the most prestigious annual prize offered in New Zealand) four times and been a finalist eight times in its 15-year history.
Harris’s Cello Concerto was inspired by the playing of cellist Li-Wei Qin and funded by Christopher Marshall. Li-Wei Qin’s “incredible speed and clarity of articulation” matched with profound musicianship caught Harris’s ear, and he decided that he wanted to write a concerto with Li-Wei Qin as soloist. This première of his ‘dark-to-light oily-hued concerto’ was given by Li-Wei Qin and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Garry Walker, in Auckland Town Hall in 2012.
Ross Harris is a master of beginnings and endings. What happens in between is equally important, but the opening has to grab your attention and the final note has to spark the applause. With his Cello Concerto, Harris does both. From the lowest note possible in the orchestral basses, barely audible and made even more mysterious by a quiet rumbling from the bass drum, the cello soloist’s entry starts on the same lowest note, though you can immediately single the soloist from the orchestral background. There is nowhere for the cello to take the melody other than upward, and this is what the long singing lines in this concerto consistently do; they emerge from the dark, they climb upwards, they grow in intensity, picking up extravagant decorations as they go.
The concerto is in one continuous movement, yet falls into clearly delineated sections. Rhythmic dance sections flow into lyrical meditations rich in counterpoint. The woodwind instruments and soloist often seem to be in conversation, picking up each other’s ideas, imitating, anticipating, extending and decorating them. Those meditations are in turn interrupted by exuberant orchestral outbursts. The most violent of these is wonderfully tamed by the soloist’s cadenza, where his fortissimo high-note entrance is the most dramatic moment in the concerto. The cadenza is a brilliant piece of virtuoso writing, and when the orchestra rejoins the soloist it is in a non-stop, helter-skelter rush towards the final unison.
From an article in The New Zealand Listener, May 2012
(reproduced with permission)
Symphony No. 4, ‘To the Memory of Mahinārangi Tocker’ (1955–2008) was commissioned by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with funding from Creative New Zealand. It is a portrait of the Maori/Jewish composer, poet and songwriter, Mahinārangi Tocker who died tragically three years before the piece was composed.
In spite of their very different cultural backgrounds, Tocker and Harris shared a musical curiosity; this symphony is a representation of that. As noted by New Zealand composer Victoria Kelly, at a pre-performance talk at the work’s première, “Mahinārangi’s words serve as points of departure for the music and excerpts of her music are scattered throughout the piece. Symphony No. 4 is a testament to their friendship.”
Each of the five movements begins with a brief reference to one of Mahinārangi’s songs, the funeral ringing of bells and the interwoven sounds of solo viola and harp reminiscent of Mahinārangi’s guitar. As the work progresses, the solo viola, played by APO principal violist Robert Ashworth, takes on more and more the character and personality of Mahinārangi.
Below is a brief outline of the song references and a brief explanation for each of the five movements:
I. The sea mimics a thousand applauding kanuka
This movement evokes the sound of waves on a beach with turbulence and spray evoked by swirling woodwind and snare drums.
II. I’m happy, dressed for laughter.
Cave me wild under tonight’s moon
This dance-like movement is a portrait of Mahinarangi—wild and wonderful!
III. The window fogs
To track my finger
Smudge my eyes in mist
In questions asked of beauty
A slow, almost sparsely textured movement—poetry of emptiness
IV. I’m the only one turning
The world has stopped
In this movement solo viola spins wildly against sustained chords in the orchestra. The music builds to a kind of madness and collapses into the fifth movement.
V. No sky in her day
Nor clouds below her feet
No body to shroud her in linen
Of earth’s flax woven warmth
The last movement calms down into a lament ending with a quote from the Mahinārangi Tocker song Forever. The words of the song are:
I will not walk these streets of angels,
Into forever alone