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'A Year of Anthony Ritchie': an interview by Charlotte Wilson




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“What is not in any doubt is just how engaging and of real worth Ritchie’s music is. Certainly it deserves to be far more widely known than it currently is outside of his native country. By now it should be clear that this is music that appeals to both the head and the heart and speaks using a voice that will touch those who do not normally respond to the traditional Classical Music idiom.”

Nick Barnard, Music Web International, 2013

Anthony Ritchie is having a blockbuster year. It began with his fourth symphony, for orchestra and soprano, premiered by Jenny Wollerman and the CSO on the anniversary of the February Christchurch quake. In May, it was his new violin concerto, performed by MHIVC winner Bella Hristova and the Southern Sinfonia. He has just come back from Belgium for the premiere of his latest choral work, Salaam, by the Aquarius choir: and now it is straight into rehearsal for his new opera, This Other Eden, which receives its premiere at the Arts Festival Dunedin. Added to that, it has been a busy September with CMNZ, with the Eggner Trio touring his Oppositions piano quartet around the country with Amihai Grosz, and Stephen de Pledge giving the premiere of his Touched for solo piano. He could be forgiven for taking a rest to regroup. Yet it is straight into rehearsal for the opera, and he has more projects already scheduled into next year. I caught up with him just after he got back.

Marc, the conductor of Aquarius, had an idea for a concert involving the theme of Guantanamo and I decided that it was something I wanted to write about: I quite like making political statements through music and the Guantanamo situation is something that needed comment, I think – I get a bit hot under the collar about injustice. Obviously 9/11 was a terrible attack and I have absolutely no sympathy for the perpetrators, but imprisoning people without trial for years on end is a crime against humanity. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Ritchie’s connection with Aquarius dates back to the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival 2011, although this is the first time he has met them in person, for the concert No direction home - Songs of Imprisonment at the medieval castle of Gravensteen in Ghent. An eerily appropriate setting, complete with gruesome torture chambers: Ritchie spent a few days after the concert wandering around the historic centre, and making plans with the conductor Marc Michael De Smet. The premiere went extremely well and there are definite plans for another Aquarius commission, as well as an entire CD from them of Anthony Ritchie choral works for the French label, Phaedra. They are one of the foremost chamber choirs in Europe: it is a coup.

As for the new work itself, Salaam (Islamic for ‘peace’), it is a song cycle for double soprano, alto, tenor and bass, setting four texts out of a book of poems by Guantanamo inmates: simple texts in translation, ‘beautifully expressed’, full of beauty and poignancy as well as anger and homesickness. One of them is an ode to the sea, referring to the sea as both captor and friend, lending itself to a textural treatment that goes right through the song. “I like simple images, that one can play around with musically, and also simple language – I always look for words that are relatively simple in syntax, where the sentence structure is not too long”. Ritchie himself enjoys singing, having been a member of the New Zealand Youth Choir (NZYC): he also loves words, ‘playing around with words and rhythm’, and his very many songs are testament to this.

I just love the way that words can have a different effect through singing them. An added power comes about when you sing words: it seems a different process, you’re using a different side of the brain. So I like the emotional response that you can get from setting words… and making them work in certain ways.

This love of word-setting informs his Symphony No. 4, the first big premiere of this year, scored for orchestra and soprano and performed by Jenny Wollerman and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO) on the third anniversary of the February quake. It is in 14 sections, setting texts by Bernadette Hall, themselves inspired by the Llew Summer sculptures commissioned by the Christchurch Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament for the centennial project in 2005, marking the 14 stations of the cross. Both are featured in the book The Way of the Cross that Ritchie read and was interested in even before the earthquakes. He has a strong connection as much to the building as the religion: brought up Catholic, he was a chorister as a boy, has had a number of works performed there, and although he now describes himself as ‘lapsed’ still retains a love for the ritual:Picture

I’ve come to quite like using Catholic imagery. It has this mythological connotation for me, both of referring to mythology in the past, as well as to my own experience when young. I don’t believe in all the dogma, but some of the ritual and imagery around the church still has a very powerful emotional impact. It’s the same with music – music can be a link to the spiritual world because it transports people to a different thought process that’s not so rational. It’s more to do with an emotional, spiritual element, and again it is tapping into that different part of the brain.

He was already considering the 14 stations as a text when the earthquakes happened, destroying much of the basilica and, in February, engendering fears that there might have been people killed inside. In the end, thankfully, nobody was hurt, although the sculptures are still languishing inside, the future of the building uncertain. The symphony is, to some extent, a meditation on all this: an intention to connect to the spiritual and emotional world: an emotional catharsis in response to the tragedy of the earthquakes, as a parallel to the life and the tragedy of Christ. Ritchie uses a particularly rich colour palette, something he is doing increasingly with these big orchestral works. “I’ve been making my orchestral music more colourful over the years. I’ve played safe in the past, I think, and I’m enjoying working with more sound colour, more of a hook in for the listener.”

Ian Dando, in The Listener, calls it an ‘unconventional masterpiece’: “Such new- won expressive range unequivocally betokens the omnipresence of truth - that prime ingredient of any artistic magnum opus, which this work certainly is.”

The other major premiere of 2014 has been Ritchie’s first Violin Concerto, called a ‘landmark work’ by the Otago Daily Times, written for Michael Hill International Violin Competition (MHIVC ) winner Bella Hristova and the Southern Sinfonia and premiered at the end of May. Her pleasure with it is much reported, to Ritchie’s delight: it is not often that international players have the opportunity, or the inclination, to champion new works. And it is easy to understand its appeal. Ritchie’s fascination with modes comes to the fore here – he studied Bartók for his doctorate and the ‘happy little dance’ which began as no more than an idea quickly took over the entire second movement. That’s how he writes:

There is a germ that I develop. I like to sketch out ideas, brainstorm, and live with them for a while, improvise around them, and if they keep nagging away at me that it’s a reasonable idea then I will pursue it. Often it will be in an interesting mode: I just love the effects you can get from using modes. Also from mixing them up, using more than one mode. It’s a very fundamental part of my style I would say.

But there is also warmth and lyricism in this concerto, which is what he most loves about the violin.


To be honest I’m not that interested in lots of virtuosic stuff. I do use ‘special effects’ on occasion, col legno and funny pizzicato and so forth, but on the whole my philosophy is that there has to be a reason for those things – I have to have a special purpose for using special effects, an expressive purpose, or programmatic: I don’t like just using them for the sake of it. I think there’s been far too much emphasis in contemporary music on timbre. It’s a very important element, it’s true, but I think it’s sometimes used at the expense of other elements.



Bella Hristova is just one of the international artists to champion Ritchie’s music, over the course of this year: more recently, the Eggner Trio selected his piano quartet Oppositions to perform with Amihai Grosz, during their Chamber Music New Zealand (CMNZ) tour this September, and in the same month Stephen De Pledge has been touring his new work Touched for solo piano. Ritchie describes Touched, somewhat cryptically, as inspired by the theme of love: and here he touches again on one of his enduring interests – psychological states, human conflict and emotions.Picture

For a long time music for me has been all about emotion. I’d still say it’s the most important element or end product of music. I’m interested in the psychological aspects of people and I try to express all the variety of those moods in my pieces – sadness and depression as well as joy and hyperactivity. People are so complex.

Now, having just returned from Belgium, Ritchie is in the middle of production rehearsals for This Other Eden, his sixth opera. This also is about confrontation, this time between Maori and missionaries in the 1820s Bay of Islands, in the historic story of Thomas and Jane Kendall and their dealings with Nga Puhi chief Hongi Hika. Ritchie is not the first to choose it as inspiration: it’s a popular story, largely fuelled by the extraordinary life and character of Kendall himself. This is, though, its first operatic treatment, in a full-length production with a libretto by Michelanne Forster, who originally had her play of the story produced at the Court Theatre in the 1990s and approached Ritchie with the idea for the script. This is the result, originally workshopped in scenes for Southern Opera, and thanks to the then Otago Festival of the Arts’ longstanding support now finally reaching the stage.

I love opera – I love being involved with theatre. I’m not a naturally extrovert character myself, but one of the things I like is doing something creative with people who are, acting on a stage. For me opera is very much a theatrical experience. I think one of the faults a lot of composers and musicians have is that they think of opera as a musical genre – that they are writing this big music that happens to be on the stage. But I think it’s the opposite, that opera is first and foremost a theatrical experience, and the music brings another dimension to it all.

The director is Jacqueline Coats, and Ritchie speaks enthusiastically of the talent of the young cast, and of the design and direction of the whole production: “there’s a very good vibe to this, it’s exciting, it bodes really well.” Everyone is waiting for the arrival of Alistair Fraser, from Wellington, who plays the Taonga pūoro – a first for Ritchie, in this context, and something Richard Nunns encouraged him in years ago:

I’ve used Maori instruments before, in a flute piece for Alexa Still. But never to this extent, so it’s exciting for me… We have a new set of instruments here at Otago, only a few years old, and I decided right from the first that I wanted to integrate them into the scoring of this opera. They serve two purposes: as a linking motif, between themes, and also within the themes themselves when I want to achieve a particular effect, like the koauau in the first scene, or the putorino on the battlefield. And they add this whole other musical dimension to the style of the production. However, I don’t want to be too dictatorial – I do suggest some things, but I decided quite early on to give Alistair a more or less free hand to improvise, as well, because there may be a better effect or sound that he can achieve. It’s a creative process, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing what he does…

The season runs from 10-16 October at the Mayfair Theatre in Dunedin. Following that, Ritchie has ‘a little premiere’ coming up of The Travels of Babar the elephant, narrated with piano à la Poulenc: he is writing a euphonium concerto for Buzz Newton, to be performed in March 2015; and he is starting another choral work for the Auckland Choral Society in June. Nick Barnard’s “appeals to both the head and the heart” comment pleases him:

The most important thing for me with music is that I can connect with the audience. It’s really important to me that people like my music and that I can make a connection with them, in terms of emotion, otherwise I think that I’ve failed in a way. Music is a form of communication and you don’t write stuff just to please yourself.

This Other Eden

10-16 October
at the Arts Festival Dunedin   

Anthony Ritchie

Conductor Tecwyn Evans and director Jacqueline Coats tell Eva Radich about the upcoming production at Radio NZ Upbeat, listen here.

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