LEONIE HOLMES PROFILED (2014): An explorer in the landscape of orchestra

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The NZSO: Elegy by Leonie Holmes
LEONIE HOLMES PROFILED (2014): An explorer in the landscape of orchestra
One of the pleasures of being in a university music department is the chance to put faces and personalities to people whose music you might have heard but had no other connection to.

At the University of Auckland's School of Music it has been interesting for me to do that in the world of classical music of which I am mostly just an outside observer.

For a short while I shared lecturing duties with composer and composition teacher Leonie Holmes, and when I took over the course it was a secret delight (she did not know this) to introduce some of her work to students.

I included a particularly lovely choral piece Through Coiled Stillness from 2011 (performed by the University of Auckland Chamber Choir) but I remember when I was considering what to offer there was plenty of choice across a wide spectrum.

Holmes has written orchestral, chamber, choral and other vocal work as well as for solo instruments, and in the past two decades prior to coming to Auckland Uni she was the composer-in-residence at the Manukau Symphony Orchestra and before that for the Auckland Philharmonia in the late Nineties.

She has worked with community groups, schools and of course university students, and been the recipient of a number of grants, prizes and awards.

She was also a very easy and helpful person to work with and kept me on the right path.

acd819_solstice_xlgeThe new album Solstice (Atoll) is current interpretations of some of her orchestra work – the NZSO under Marc Taddei – and some of them (the title piece, and Elegy for chamber orchestra) date back to the late Nineties but are here brought into the longer context of her career.

In a blog post about the sessions back in February, Taddei wrote: “One of the best aspects of recording single-composer albums is the chance to get closer to the style and content of a composer’s work. It is rare that conductors get an opportunity to consider and perform a significant proportion of a single living composer’s works . . . The CD includes works written over a significant period of time and yet the works all share the same beauty of construction and the same ability to let a musician in almost immediately”.

One of the pieces on the Solstice album is For Young Nick, a short (seven minute) work which Taddei asked Holmes if he could premier in the late Nineties.

“It struck me at the time as a well crafted work of musical beauty that was immaculately constructed and notated,” he recently wrote. “It simply worked on every level – it was easy for musicians to scan and opened itself up to interpretation naturally.”

Inspired by the shipboard life of Nicholas Young, the 12-year old surgeon's assistance on Captain Cook's Endeavour and who first sighted the New Zealand coastline, it is piece which shifts moods from reflective and sometimes melancholy to passages of sweeping beauty and heroic grandeur.

The evocation of Young's internal world and the salt-whipped age of exploration, as well as his sighting of land delivered with a slightly mysterious quality, are deftly handled and seamlessly integrated into a piece which is a journey in itself.

Opening the collection on a quieter note is the more personal Frond, a childhood memory of being in the bush where a whimsical quality has its counterpoint in rather disconcerting violin and piano interplay, and – when the cello solo enters – you can easily imagine the light-dappled bush and a child's wonder . . . and uncertainties.

Also included – as the final part of this trilogy entitled Landscapes for Orchestra – is Ancient Rhythms which has been performed as The Journey (after the Tessa Stephens poem which inspired it). It is a considerably more strident piece where powerful percussion and staccato stabs from the orchestra effectively capture the essence of the poem's most strident but pointed lines: “For beneath the wheels of commerce and the grind of gears, scream of siren and choking exhaust, ancient rhythms still vibrate in the memory”.

Among the other pieces – which include Aquae Sulis for strings, wind, harp and percussion, and the title piece – is the delightful Elegy from '97 dedicated to Holmes' late parents, and it is a reminder of how well she writes for cello, drawing out more than just its often brooding qualities but finding it a voice for a more gentle and empathetic melancholy.

This is the first entire album dedicated to Leonie Holmes' orchestral work . . . and you really do have to wonder what took so long.

You can hear samples from the album Solstice and purchase it here.

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