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Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, July 2012

The writing is fairly tonally based, expressive, and mature; Harris depicts conflict quite well…This is quite an impressive piece of music. The orchestra is very good, and all the soloists are strong. Pierard is an excellent singer, and her diction is clean; she never gets covered by the orchestra. The sound is rich and spacious, very natural; notes and texts in English. © 2012 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide

Steve Schwartz, June 2012

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.

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. 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…

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.

The Third Symphony is all-instrumental and…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…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.

With the exception of Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja, this is an all-kiwi production, and very good it is, too. 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. © 2012 Read complete review

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2012

Ross Harris was almost sixty when he left his teaching position at the Music Department in the University of Wellington to devote his time to composition. Born in New Zealand in 1945 he was offered a composing residency with the Auckland Philharmonia in 2005 which led to the Second Symphony, a work scored for soprano and orchestra with words by Vincent O’Sullivan. It pictures young New Zealanders who found themselves fighting in France during the First World War, this particular story relating one soldier who fell in love with a French girl and went to live with her until discovered. The four movements open quietly before a jaunty march announces the arrival of conscripts who have no idea of life on the battlefield. In the second our soldier falls in love with a young lady he sees standing in the doorway, and, in an outburst of violent music, the third relates his defection, trial and execution. The Fourth speaks as the girl’s view of life that follows. Musically it is lyric in concept, and very different to the angry Third Symphony from 2008, where, as the booklet comments, ‘we have met all of the characters of a difficult novel on page one’. The language moves to a modern mix of tonality and atonality, its four continuous movements hard hitting at the outset, becoming even more vicious in the fierce drumming invading the scherzo, while the third movement is cold and bleak, rather in the mode of Shostakovich, the finale passing through stormy moments to end in peace. The Second Symphony is derived from a ‘live’ radio broadcast, the Third is a studio recording. The orchestra, conducted by the Slovenian, Marko Letonja, play with that conviction new works hope for, the New Zealand soprano, Madeleine Pierard, having that pure and unaffected voice ideal for the Second Symphony. © 2012 David’s Review Corner

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