Review of Dunedin Youth Orchestra

Review of “The Journey Home”: an oratorio by John Drummond at the Regent 8 September (for the NZ Listener)

Central to this story of Scott‘s ill-fated voyage as a defeated explorer back to home base is the ambiguous notion of home. Scott was inspired by nationalistic pride and dealt a savage coup-de-grace by freakishly unseasonal Antarctic blizzards. “The Journey Home” is made under a steadily mounting recognition of which home they go to. Given its world premiere at the Regent Theatre in Dunedin before a profoundly appreciative audience, it is a first celebration of the “Scott 100” year in which Port Chalmers, Dunedin and Oamaru, the explorers’ last landfall and the source of the news of their tragedy. It is a foreboding story excellently recreated by a collaborative team of poets, librettist and composer and premiered with dramatic grace and expertise by soprano Jenny Wollerman, tenor James Rodgers and baritone Robert Tucker as Scott, the City of Dunedin Choir and Southern Sinfonia under the direction of Simon Over. The work’s enduring strength lies in the nobility of its understatement. The opening trembling icy strings emanate from silence and almost strident chords. The explorers’ sense of nationalistic pride sounds faintly through brass and snare drum. The expression of failure explodes from the stage and subsides with even greater dramatic success into the awful serenity of the final chords. Tucker’s recounting of the sighting of Amundsen’s cairn and flag carried sufficient weight but might have been dwelt on a little longer for dramatic purposes. As writ, Scott seems to acquiesce too readily to defeat. Tucker’s portrayal of the frustration and anger contained in such words as “without the reward of priority”, and “I am filled with dread” turned too soon to trudging homeward. However from that point the drama is well paced and powerfully delivered with great conviction. It employs the full strength of the orchestra and its section leaders and that of a cappella singing and, of course, silence. Exquisite moments abound in the seductive naïveté of Manhire’s “Goddess Hypothermia”, Scott’s matter-of-fact narration of Oates’ famous under-statement, the empathy lent to Scott’s determined “We pretended” by flute and oboe and the lines of “There is always a blizzard” which swirl around Tucker and the Choir. Perfection lies in The Lord’s Prayer whispered by the Choir behind Wollerman’s and Rodgers’ exquisite performance of Claire Benyon’s poem “In this Place”, which, performed in three separated parts cleverly signals the changing location of “home” and neatly frames this brilliant oratorio.