Edo de Waart conducts Planet Damnation
October 19 | Reviewed by Mark Dryburgh

THE WORLD premiere of Planet Damnation by John Psathas was a dramatic and exciting piece. It’s title was taken from a book by the Middle East war reporter Robert Fisk. Fisk has been reporting wars on Middle Eastern nations for thirty years. He is one of the few independent reporters that has a voice. On the surface, the announcement of return to war in Iraq astonished Fisk as he noted first-hand, how the US administration appeared as gangsters to present impossible cartoons of Iraqi mobile weapons labs. To Fisk the situation was unbelievable while he has reported American troops using atomic weapons in Iraq since the gulf war in 1991, only three years after eight years of war in alliance with Saddam against Iran. This is the deeper viewpoint that Fisk embodies, accurately regarding transnational corporate media (including NZ) as spokespeople for the world elite. John Psathas also notes Noam Chomsky and John Pilger as an impetus for his motivation. Noam Chomsky’s focus has been to draw attention to the genocides (media word: ethnic cleansing) facilitated by these regimes, notably the millions sacrificed in Rwanda and Cambodia. Their focus is beyond politics rather comparing rhetoric with outcomes.

Planet Damnation starts big. The timpani is as soloist at the front of the stage, with five drums. Close behind a second percussionist complements the timpani with roto-toms (small pitched drums) and two snare drums. The timpani unusually holds the melody, rising and holding a note. Strings persist with eighth notes and trombone holds ominously through the din. The piece sounds like a film score and is boldly heroic and dark. Music is a spiritual art and hence the composer strikes at the root of truth, however abstract the expression. Here Psathas does brilliantly. It is the heroism that is the path to damnation in this sense, as the war machine appeals to man’s heroic impulse (the ten commandments exploited for heroic zeal) which ultimately would lead the world to damnation. Thus, it is likely the piece attempts to portray a zen philosophy, illustrating the dangers of ego. Interestingly, Psathas’ former major composition View from Olympus can be noted from this standpoint as representing the view from zen state, Olympus, the home of the twelve Greek gods. The Greek gods are as such representative of twelve archetypes of the psyche; and that work explores some of these forces. Heroism a dynamism towards a particular achievement in the psyche, to satisfy an archetype’s demands. For Planet Damnation this undoubtedly spells spiritual war.

Despite it’s simple beginnings the strings soon fragment, the orchestra joins in unison for a Shostakovich-like punctuation. Then we gain entry to the Psathas rhythmic universe. Psathas displays his mastery, creating cross-rhythms across multiple parts of the orchestra. Marimba, snare and timpani provide a unique backbone to the overall intensity. The snare pitter-patters a rapid, shifting rhythm reminiscent of late-night techno music. Timpani soloist, Larry Reese comes into his own as he exhibits a complex rhythmic feel involving his whole body in his movements. His feet shift on the pedals as he skillfully adjusts the pitch of the various drums.

The only difficulty apparent seemed to be a technical one. With the timpani at the front of the stage, in addition to being louder than the rest of the orchestra, it sounded a little muddy as its further reflected sound blurred the bass frequencies.

The orchestral colours are bold and masculine, higher timbres are often percussive or supporting the lower momentum. Trombones slide and textures flourish with a modern edge in the writing. The piece builds gloriously in a series of three crescendos, peaking in a Ravel, Bolero climax, comes to an abrupt explosion. All that remains is falling remnants in the wind and light touches, for a period, while the timpani begins to brood on a clever pattern of notes. What an exciting piece!

Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto in A was the second piece in the programme and full of surprises. Sa Chen the pianist appeared onstage in a glittering gold dress and presented a sunny demeanour. However, the first movement held an aggression beneath Mozart’s light style. The theme is presented in standard format, orchestra then piano, but oddly a new theme is then inserted. This new theme then dominates the development section. The modulations alternate between major and minor keys, the darker tonal centers are darkened further with a minor key and viceversa. At this point in the concert a light explodes loudly above "the gods", patrons gasp as hot glass showers down. The concert continues with hardly a pause as the affected members of the audience calm and return to comfort.

In the second movement, I am struck by an unusual effect. When the beautiful theme appears a strange spatial dynamic is suggested by the music as though a powerful electric field exudes from the orchestra. Upon researching the work, my search results are dominated by studies using this work to test the affect of music on spatio-temporal awareness. We’ve all heard of “the Mozart effect”, listening to Mozart will make your children smarter etc. These studies, use almost exclusively this (K488) and Mozart’s K448 sonata for two pianos as source music. In the most well publicised study a piece by Yanni (an atrocious neo-classical-pop musician) is noted to have a comparable effect. The piece is called "Standing in Motion", which is an apt description of the sensation.

The adagio second movement begins piano solo in the unlikely key of F sharp minor. F sharp has an almost piercing quality, but the minor form contradicts the brightness. The effect is highly emotive as the orchestra enters, suspended chords full of pathos. This movement is similar to the famous clarinet concerto K622, and here Mozart gives emphasis to the clarinet by excluding oboe from the orchestra.

The third movement is very recognisable and full of triumphant pomp. Mozart was nearing the end of his run of piano concertos and this was one of his last attempts to satisfy the highly conservative tastes of Viennese concertgoers. Sa Chen played very nicely and delivered the style accurately, with a fine touch. It certainly was an achievement to hold the performance so well considering a light exploding.. and wearing such high heels!

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1907, was last in the programme. Edo de Waart was great at conducting this work, till this now he had remained not-so-prominent. He is a mature conductor with a firm grasp on the movements of the orchestra. His conducting indicates clearly the intent of phrasing and bowing of the string section. This is important in this romantic work, the orchestra works hard to give gravity to the melodic lines. Beginning in a slow largo introduction, the mood is severe but eventually gives way to an allegro sonata form. The pattern of mood changes is illustrated here: a gradual brightening, then the music darkens rapidly, becomes lighter and wistful then finally darkens in a mystical mood.

The scherzo movement is vigorous and ends with a contrasting brass chorale. The chorale is derived from the deathly Roman Catholic Hymn “The Day of Wrath” that is referenced in many of his works. The third movement is highly romantic, combining material from the first movement in melodrama, a lengthy melody in the strings carrying the main theme. There are fantastic colourations, instrumentation distributing material throughout the orchestra in a wonderfully full sound. Briefly a violin solo dances gypsy-style in syncopated folk rhythm, played excellently by the first violinist.

The finale is especially grand, combining much from the previous movements to conclude this large work. Originally over on hour long, Rachmaninov made a number of revisions to his second symphony; his first symphony was regarded an inflated failure. This big work balances Psathas’ powerful display very well. The audience received the Rachmaninov very well. A solid end to an interesting night.