Desolation Illustrated: Frozen, Deathly Vistas Of ‘Sinfonia Antartica’

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Glass-plate images taken by the Terra Nova Expedition’s official photographer, Herbert Ponting (who survived and lived until 1935), were projected during the Seattle Symphony’s performances of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Sinfonia antartica.’ (Photos by Brandon Patoc)

SEATTLE — A rare musical expedition into the last continent to be discovered formed the centerpiece of the Seattle Symphony’s latest program on April 25. Guest conductor Gemma New led the musicians in the orchestra’s first-ever performance of the Sinfonia antartica, a remarkable achievement from late in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ career. Also known as his Symphony No. 7, the piece requires a very large orchestra — though not as enormous as that for Strauss’ mountain excursion Eine Alpensinfonie — including a particularly expansive percussion section, as well as a three-part women’s chorus and solo soprano.

Vaughan Williams was already in his mid-70s when he composed the score to the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, which portrays the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole led by the British Captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1910-12. The composer’s ongoing fascination with the fate of Scott and his team led him to draw from the film score to create Sinfonia antartica. It’s no mere “arrangement” but a fully independent, epic composition. It was premiered by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester in January 1953 under the baton of John Barbirolli and received its first American performances three months later by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Rafael Kubelik.

In her account, New sustained a sense of the mesmerizing strangeness of this score. The conductor, born in New Zealand, shaped the music’s changing layers and densities with admirable clarity, from floating vibraphone harmonies embroidered with rapid-fire celesta tones to seismic organ chords that fused with the glacial mass of the orchestra. Vaughan Williams’ score depicts the formidable beauty of this forbiddingly inhospitable environment through a variety of unusual timbral blends and imposing blocks of sound.

New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New led the Seattle Symphony.

New, who also helms the New Zealand Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic in Canada, inspired the SSO musicians (augmented by 20 players) to evoke the intense extremes of Sinfonia antartica’s soundscape. The most impressive moments were the eeriest as well: stretches of coldly distant low dynamics that underscored the sensation of being trapped amid the vast emptiness, with no prospect of escape, above all in the symphony’s core, the third movement (“Landscape”).

Singing wordlessly in the outer movements, the upper voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorale added to the uncanny atmosphere, while soprano Jennifer Bromagen’s high-flying notes resembled a Siren, danger disguised by the beguiling beauty of her voice. Rare moments of playfulness emerged in the second-movement scherzo (depicting the explorers’ encounter with penguins), while the fourth movement brought fleeting warmth in solos for concertmaster Helen Kim and oboist Mary Lynch VanderKolk. Percussionist Mike Werner was an indispensable protagonist of Sinfonia, which ends with the desolately fading vibrations of a wind machine.

I began to think of Melville’s musings on a similarly overwhelming sense of the boundless: “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?” he writes in Moby-Dick, in the chapter titled “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

The variety of images conveyed an involving drama, ranging from shots of awe-inspiring ice masses to scenes of the men in happier moments as they relax with pipes after dinner.

New was not only tasked with marshaling all these forces but also had to coordinate the performance with an additional dramatic and visual framework. The Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (of Titanic and Hornblower fame) introduced each of the Sinfonia antartica’s five movements by reading excerpts from the diaries in which Captain Scott documented observations from the expedition — including the final entry from March 1912 before they perished, overcome by an unrelenting blizzard.

A screen above the musicians meanwhile projected a collection of the trailblazing glass-plate images taken by the Terra Nova Expedition’s official photographer, Herbert Ponting (who survived and lived until 1935). The variety of images conveyed an involving drama, ranging from shots of awe-inspiring ice masses to scenes of the men in happier moments as they relax with pipes after dinner. The Ken Burns technique of zooming in on and panning across Ponting’s stills created the illusion of movement. 

Taken together, this all made for an immersive storytelling experience — increasingly the desideratum of current orchestral programming. Gruffudd’s riveting narration projected wit as well as gravitas, capturing the tone of noble resignation that gives such pathos to the fate Scott and his party endured.

Yet there were stretches when it seemed the music was meant to accompany the images rather than vice versa. This distracted attention away from the myriad interesting details and originality of Vaughan Williams’ orchestration. New’s gracefully expressive podium style, which involves sweeping balletic gestures, added to the sense of visual overload.

Actor Ioan Gruffudd, conductor Gemma New, and soprano Jennifer Bromagen with the Seattle Symphony

The first half of the program presented other depictions of nature’s power and the elements. New’s take on Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes was less compelling overall, with some awkward balances between sections in the opening “Dawn” and a somewhat prosaic “Moonlight,” but she tore into the concluding “Storm” with exciting ferocity and drive.

The program began with a contemporary work by New’s compatriot Salina Fisher (born in 1993): Rainphase, which was premiered in 2015. Fisher writes of being inspired by “the beauty and chaos of Wellington rain” and, in Rainphase, “draws on characteristics of water as rain: its shape and shapelessness, transparency and density, energy and calm, and its capacity for reflection in both a literal and emotional sense.”

Fisher’s imaginative scoring made an intriguing contemporary counterpart and prelude to the Vaughan Williams. Unusual sonorities from the percussion, tapping the strings col legno, and blowing through the wind and brass instruments added up to more than mere effects but seemed well integrated into the composer’s poetic vision. Rainphase also shows Fisher’s gift for melody, with long, winding, wistful lines enriching her textural experiments. New transmitted this unique language successfully to the SSO, which deftly executed the complex overlapping rhythms and swelling sonorities of Fisher’s gorgeous rain music.