23 Apr 2021

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Claire Cowan - Composition Review: Hansel and Gretel

16 Dec 2020 // A review by Mike Alexander
The Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel is, ah, rather 'grim' to say the least. It’s the story of a brother and sister who get lost in the woods and are befriended by a cannibalistic witch who lives in a house made out of sweet things, most notably gingerbread. She entices them to eat these sweet treats in order to fatten them up so she can, in turn, eat them. The witch is ultimately outwitted by Gretel.

As a rite-of-passage cautionary tale, it has multi-layered themes but, at its essence, it’s one of the scariest fairy tales you can imagine reading to a five or six year old and yet it has endured in popularity for more than two centuries.

The best known rendition of Hansel and Gretel is probably Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera of the same name, while this year it was adapted as a horror movie by director Oz Perkins.

New Zealand composer Claire Cowan’s reworking of Hansel and Gretel as a score for a full-length ballet, is a stunning and quite remarkable achievement. She’s the first woman in New Zealand to compose a ballet. The success of the original production and performance by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, led to a sponsorship offer by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with extra funding crowd-sourced through a Boosted campaign during the Covid-19 lockdowns. The recording process was, naturally, hugely impacted.

At nearly two hours in length, Hansel and Gretel is bold and ambitious (it was written for an orchestra of 50) but never falters in timing or delivery. It unfolds in two acts – the first with 17 scenes or episodes including an overture, the Mother and Father Pas de Deux and King and Queen Tango; the second with 12 movements including Curtain Call and the Mother and Father Pas de Deux 2.

The story line easy to navigate with 'breadcrumb' titles such as Dust Is Falling, Entering The Forest, Entering The Gingerbread House and Hansel And Gretel Are Trapped. And, as some of the other titles suggest – The Witch’s Baking Charleston and Gingerbread Boogie Men - Cowan has added a novel twist by infusing the music with a touch of Broadway and jazz from the 1920's.

The music is allowed to breathe between sections that convey movement with daring and often quirky percussion sounds and brass and woodwinds and texture, where the orchestrations are a lot fuller and richly colourful.

One particularly striking element is the scoring for violin, which could have been written specifically for the great French-Italian violinist Stephane Grappelli who showed the world how the instrument could 'swing'.

As a delightful addendum to the score, Cowan commissioned writer Amy Mansfield to write a version of the story, narrated by Johnny Brugh, and featuring music from the ballet.

Time will tell, but this could so easily pan out to have the same kind of 'educational' influence as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf has had on introducing young people to the world of classical music.

It’s historic significance aside, Hansel and Gretel reinforces Cowan’s reputation as one of New Zealand’s most exciting composers. This reviewer has little doubt orchestras and dance (not just ballet) company’s around the world will give her fairy tale adaption a global presence. It could well turn into a fairy tale moment in her career.

Rating: ( 5 / 5 )

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