Christchurch enjoys its rock and metal, so it’s perhaps no surprise Serj Tankian was greeted to a huge round of applause when he took to the stage at the CBS Arena. One of the most recognisable and respected voices in rock, we don’t see Tankian perform often here. Tonight was special.
Exactly a week earlier, many of this crowd had attended the double-billed show of Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age. But tonight was different. The Black Sabbath and Tool tees remained, but this crowd is largely seated. And on stage are the many varied faces of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. They sit and warm up their instruments. Then it’s a stare-off between orchestra and audience.
At 7:30pm (an early start for many in this crowd) guitarist Jeff Mallow quietly take a seat on stage, followed by pianist Erwin Khachikian. Then it’s Tankian’s turn.
Dressed in pastel shirt and suit jacket, he takes to the stage, beaming. Cheers erupt, and he humbly introduces himself. Tankian’s here to present his first symphony, Orca, a project born in Piha, west Auckland. Since then, it’s been around Europe and finally landed here in Christchurch. He hands things over to conductor Hamish McKeich, and we’re straight into 'Orca Act 1 - Victorious Orcinus'.
It’s a rousing start, and apart from the odd cry and whoop from an obviously excited crowd, those in the CBS Arena seem mesmerised.
If anyone was worried they weren’t going to hear Tankian’s voice, they needn’t have. 'Act 1' complete, he returns and launches straight into ‘Feed Us’ and ‘Sky is Over’ from 2007’s Elect the Dead.
His voice soars through the arena. Some have heard these songs before, when he debuted his orchestral concept with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2009.
Here in Christchurch, this performance is tighter and more precise, as the CSO rallies around Tankian’s vocals. Combined with McKeich’s conducting they’re unstoppable. It’s a cool thing to witness, and you get the feeling System of a Down fans in the audience sense power in the absence of an electric guitar.
And so over the next hour-and-a-half, we’re treated to a combination of Tankian’s vocal antics from his debut solo album, and the rest of his symphony.
He explains the philosophy behind it: The somewhat ying-yang nature of the orca (a peaceful member of the dolphin family, but also a killer), before letting us take it all in. Tankian feels extremely accessible during this entire show. It’s not a case of star-and-audience. He’s here to hold our hand and take us on the journey.
His symphony concludes with ‘Act IV – Lamentation of the Beached’, and it’s here we’re treated to the duduk, a traditional woodwind instrument from Armenia. Tankian has brought expert player Vardan Grigoryan to New Zealand for this moment, and we’re all pleased he has. Tankian tells us because the instrument is created from the dead wood of the apricot tree, it’s inherently sad.
It’s a moving piece, a counterbalance to the alternating playful and aggressive nature of Elect the Dead. With this material, Serj is having fun, often beaming or contorting his face into various warped expressions.
It all comes to a head with ‘Lie Lie Lie’, Tankian eyeballing the front row while singing, “She broke her little bones on the boulders below…”
At one stage he tells us he’s lost his setlist, before turning to McKeich and asking what’s next. There’s a brief pause, before McKeich – one of New Zealand’s most respected conductors – answers, “Beethhoven’s C**t”. I see a few elderly members of the orchestra break into a laugh. Everyone’s having fun here tonight.
Like with the humour, darkness and aggression, it wouldn’t be a Tankian show without politics, and during a break in a song he launches into a spoken-word poem about the ridiculous nature of man-made boundaries: “Borders are the ultimate man-made walls separating and differentiating us beyond our cultures, beyond our beliefs.”
His voice increases in speed until he’s spitting words out, “Borders represent the foundation of civilization, expansionism, abusive capitalism, and presumptuous occupation!” He ends with the intensely satisfying refrain of: “F**king borders!”
The energy in the room is huge, only rivalled when he invites people to their feet for the final number, ‘Empty Walls’. It’s a chance for those Tool and Black Sabbath tees to swarm to the front and rock out. And rock they do.
Tankian leaves – band and orchestra in tow, with screams for an encore. “The whole orchestra isn’t going to come back on, you idiot!” says one fan to another. He’s right. Serj returns with just his band, and plays ‘Gate 21’. It’s a rare thing to hear, and this crowd knows it.
They leave, happy. You get the feeling some rock fans have had their first taste of a symphony. And conversely, plenty of classical fans may be starting on their journey to discovering rock.
There’s a word Tankian used throughout the show to thank the orchestra and the crowd, and I think it applies to the entire show: “Beautiful."