Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Gala Opening Concert

Telemann: Concerto for four violins; String quartet (Michael Norris); Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet;  Smetana: String Quartet, ‘From my life’

New Zealand String Quartet; Prazak Quartet; Bridget Douglas (flute) and Carolyn Mills (harp); Philip Green (clarinet)

Nelson Cathedral, Friday 23 January

The Festival’s Gala opening concert took place, as usual, in the Nelson Cathedral, a strangely incomplete building, its primitive Gothic arches seeming to announce a much larger and more massive building; but above the arches, when money ran out, there is an incongruous ceiling, and walls of concrete blocks and an unsympathetic spire.

However, its acoustic properties are simply superb for singers and small ensembles; and the back wall of the sanctuary, painted deep blue and lit attractively, often provided an atmosphere that suited music as dusk fell on the long summer evenings. . This concert introduced both the New Zealand and the Prazak string quartets, as well as three other musicians. The result was perhaps an unusual programme but one which proved highly rewarding.

The ‘other’ musicians, from the NZSO, and the NZSQ, allowed the performance of Ravel’s enchanting Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. Carolyn Mills took centre stage with the harp; while the piece may be a miniature harp concerto, the two wind instruments (Bridget Douglas – flute and Philip Green – clarinet), virtuosic and shrouded in subtle chiaroscuro, acted as if they were facets of the one instrument, and the strings too created sonorities that were haunting and ethereal. It was an experience that comes to you live perhaps once in a life-time.

Bridget opened the second part of the concert with a particularly seductive account of Debussy’s Syrinx. In retrospect, the opening piece, a concerto for four violins by Telemann, was incongruous. Though it opens with an enchanting, delicate Grave movement, the rest didn’t fulfill its promise, ending in a rather vapid, inconsequential Vivace.

Nothing could have been as remote from the Telemann as the premiere of a piece by Wellington composer Michael Norris. Commissioned and played by the NZSQ, his String Quartet is inspired by the treatment of death by four distinct cultures that offered scope for contrasting moods and a radical catalogue of ‘extended string techniques’.These included a first movement based entirely on harmonics and a third movement with extensive sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge).

In Niflheim, its 3rd movement, Rolf Gjelsten’s left-hand fingers climbed so close to the cello’s bridge that one marveled that there was still space for the bow. The piece seemed to want to stop with the stark silence at the end of that movement, but as the fourth evolved it seemed to amend one’s impression of the architecture of the whole. While its structure and many of its ideas were musical, the piece suffers, like so much of today’s music, from the weight and expectations of its programme and its intellectual paraphernalia.

The centre of the concert came at the end with the Prazak playing the quartet From My Life by their compatriot Smetana. My attention passed from one player to another, each time with the feeling that here was the heart of the music. Yet the combination was so flawless and homogeneous, so richly opulent and so filled with the spirit of the composer’s life story, from joyousness to tragedy, that I felt that I had heard finally the perfect, never to be equalled performance.

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