NZSO/Todd Corporation: promoting our young composers


ALEX TAYLOR: “fray”;
PIETA HEXTALL: “Portrait”;
TABEA SQUIRE: “Vee Dub and the Little Tiger go Wandering”;
CORWIN NEWALL: “Significant Figures”;
HANNAH GILMOUR: “Though It Lingers”;
LIZZIE DOBSON: “A Study in Scarlet”;
ARNA SHAW: “Timatanga”;
MINTO FUNG: “The Chase”;
AJITA GOH: “Freedom is Not Free”;
MATTHEW CHILDS: “Alone In The Night”.

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, Monday 24 – Tuesday 25 August 2009

The Todd Corporation’s – and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s – support for the Young Composer Awards makes it one of the most important arts sponsorships in the country. Their promotion of the growing point – the apical meristem – of creative artistic development promises to deliver a much greater return in cultural benefits than the (more typical) funding that goes into many, more prominent, areas. As conductor and co-adjudicator Hamish McKeich put it, where else in the world would young people write such imaginative, fresh and varied pieces?

On occasions like this it seems almost de rigueur to say (as indeed McKeich did say), that the standard this time was higher than ever. I cannot entirely agree: in my view, I feel we have reached something of a plateau (albeit a gratifyingly high one). Certainly this year I found nothing as striking as the 2008 winning score, Alexandra Hay’s compellingly adventurous “Nocturnis Bellum”, which I covered in my review for “Salient” – (Google: alan wells september music month, or go to

However to be fair to McKeich and his fellow assessor Ross Harris (who mentored the young composers), while the best of 2009 might not have equalled that of 2008, the least satisfactory piece this year was arguably better than the comparable composition last year.

Aucklander Alex Taylor came closest to matching Hay’s achievement. His “fray” belonged to the same world as the very accomplished wind/string quintet “Four Abstracts” which Taylor presented at this year’s Nelson Composers’ Workshop and, like the quintet, was based on a single chord. The orchestral “fray” was an atmospheric study in the exploitation of clusters, sometimes sustained and static (occasionally with an “electronic” ambience), and sometimes moving in a closely woven microtexture. Taylor demonstrated an assured control of tension and release, and changes – even when abrupt – were always adroitly managed. During one magical moment, a high piccolo note was deftly thrown into violin harmonics.

Taylor, a first-time participant in the NZSO/Todd Awards, would have been my choice to win. Nevertheless it was another first-timer, Natalie Hunt, who did win. A graduate of Wellington’s New Zealand School of Music, and the 2009 National Youth Orchestra Composer-in-Residence, Hunt is an experienced young composer (though her evocative tone poem “Only to the Highest Mountain” for the NYO is the only other orchestral score of hers I had heard). Her NZSO/Todd submission “Rain II” opened with jaunty, jazzy pizzicato on contrabass (perhaps closest in spirit to her work for the Saxcess saxophone quartet): this was contrasted with a mournful, molto vibrato melody on the solo cello. A marimba ostinato began to add momentum, then suddenly a high, expectant sustained note made an inconclusive end – the pulse quickened just as the piece was about to die. It felt much more like the introduction to a longer work, than a complete composition in its own right. It was this unfinished quality that made the judges’ decision a surprising one for me.

Hunt admitted to being under a time constraint – the rush to meet the submission deadline. Fellow NZSM graduate Pieta Hextall, too, faced an issue of time: in her case, the stipulated limit on overall length. Hextall’s “Portrait” had as its core a central, ostinato-driven rhythm piece (reminiscent of “Impetus” in the 2008 Awards, and even more of her “Second Etude for Bassoon and Piano” – the sort of music Philip Glass might have written if he’d had any imagination). Framing this was a texture piece: rarefied, spare, carefully paced (similar to her “Third Etude” – the sort of music La Monte Young might have written if he’d had any imagination…). As with Hunt’s “Rain II”, I felt that “Portrait” could have gone on to develop further – there was so much more potential there.

This was Hextall’s third appearance at the Awards. So too for another NZSM student, Tabea Squire (NYO Composer-in-Residence in 2008). Her whimsically titled “Vee Dub and the Little Tiger go Wandering” hinted at Bruckner in its wide string tremolandi and grand chorale-like gestures, and Glass in its repeated ostinati, but was ultimately unlike either (someone suggested the pastoral Vaughan Williams as well, prompted perhaps by the “VW” of the title). Squire made sensitive use of soloistic timbres in addition to solid orchestral chords, and created a convincing flow of tension without the need for any single definitive climax.

Both Hextall and Squire have undertaken extensive university study. Corwin Newall, likewise making a third appearance at the Awards, is still at school (Dunedin’s Kaikorai Valley High). His cheerful, resolutely tonal “Significant Figures” showed an increasing competence in writing colourfully for orchestra, while retaining a youthful exuberance and abundance of musical ideas.

Waikato University is notable for encouraging its students to write for orchestra. The four represented last year employed fairly conservative tonal idioms, but with great facility in some very attractive compositions. Two of these young composers returned in 2009. Hannah Gilmour (who won a special commendation in 2008 for “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”) brought “Though It Lingers”, which packed in (perhaps a little too tightly within the restricted length) poised, suspended moments, urgent climaxes, and an expressive violin solo. Her compatriot Lizzie Dobson offered “A Study in Scarlet”, a genial score with some sombre undertones, less bright than its title might suggest (and a stark contrast to Dobson’s frenetically driven toccata for orchestra “Ricercare per Vita” of 2008).

Arna Shaw (then living in Christchurch) received a special mention in 2007 for best first entry. This proved a prescient judgement. Now studying at Wellington’s NZSM, Shaw displayed significant progress in her well-constructed “Timatanga”, balancing koauau glides on the flute, and solemn string laments, with driven rhythms and forceful climaxes. A further NZSM student, Minto Fung, provided an very short but engagingly witty tone poem “The Chase”.

Music with a narrative or pictorial element was indeed strongly in evidence. “Feral” by Robbie Ellis bore a programme note describing a secretive, sinister creature. Ellis’s composition was characteristically energetic: dark and restless with exciting climaxes and only rare moments of respite. With his feeling for theatre and an ear for unusual orchestral effects, the Auckland University graduate (now resident in Wellington) utilised “jet-whistles” on the flute, rapid parallel chords on the trumpets, a “blood-curdling scream”, and instructions for lighting manoeuvres. The Orchestra entered enthusiastically into the over-the-top spirit, vocalisations and all. They voted it their favourite piece.

Aucklander Ajita Goh’s “Freedom is Not Free” was inspired by the inscription on a Washington DC Korean War memorial. The string ostinati and stately brass chorales reminded me (again) a little of Bruckner, while the splashes of unexpected colour from harp and vibraphone recalled Goh’s own, more lyrical “Reflection” from last year.

Also suggestive of Bruckner was Matthew Childs’ orchestration in “Alone In The Night”, in that there were hardly any solos, and extensive use of instrumental groupings – rather in the manner of organ registration. Rhythmically tricky, this score employed many changes of time signature.

I have, regrettably, no information on Childs. In contrast to last year – which was organised by the excellent Roger Smith – no scores were made available to reviewers (my phone message of enquiry was not returned), and some of those that I did see (courtesy of the composers) contained no biographical notes. This event is worth constructive, critical evaluation – witness the number of young composers who have appeared in previous Awards (such as Claire Cowan, Ryan Youens, Robin Toan, and Karlo Margetic) who have been taken up by the NZSO-Sounz Readings.

Recordings made over the two days, together with interviews by Jeremy Brick, will be broadcast later in the year by RNZ Concert, in programmes in their 8 pm Sunday evening “Young New Zealand” series.

Haydn with Strings attached

An overview of Josef Haydn’s String Quartets

New Zealand String Quartet

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Tuesday 25th August, 2009

“Music begins where words leave off” as the old saying goes, suggesting that the two media are sometimes best left to their own devices, and that their combination needs to be handled with surety and skill. However, by using both spoken words and music (more easefully as the evening progressed) the New Zealand String Quartet managed in their presentation “Josef Haydn and the String Quartet” to bring the composer to life as the author of one of the most life-enhancing creative endeavours to grace the civilised world. Had there been any complete CD sets of the quartets for sale at the door afterwards, I would have compulsively bartered what resources I could have mustered, in order to leave with one, as a result of the NZSQ’s advocacy.

Haydn began composing String Quartets with his Op.1 set in the late 1750s, and for the best part of the next fifty years continued to produce an unsurpassed body of work in the genre. His efforts concluded with his final, unfinished quartet in 1803, intended to be the third of a set of six, but whose completion at that stage of his life was beyond his powers. The quartet members patiently and skilfully delineated this progression by the composer through various stages of his career with precise biographical information, anecdotes and quotes in tandem with quartet movements used as musical “signposts”. The players’ spoken delivery soon lost a certain “stiffness” at the outset, as they warmed to the ambience of both the auditorium and the audience, their story-telling and detailing in words and music exerting an ever-increasing fascination throughout the evening.

There was so much to take in thoughout – from the incidental anecdotes relating to specific movements (the “fleeing from a whipping” aspect of the Presto of Op.1 No.3, and the interaction with fellow-composer and performer Dittersdorf at a beer-hall where a scherzo of Haydn’s is being played – Op.33 No.5 – to the latter’s mock-dismay), the composer’s sense of humour (righteous indignation from historian Charles Burney at Haydn’s flouting the rules of composition in works like the finale of “The Joke” Quartet Op.33 No.2, and Haydn’s own attitude to these rules, writing “con licenza” over the Allegro of Op.55 No.2, with its catchy dotted rhythm and closely-worked contrapuntal development set against unexpected rhythmic irregularities), as well as general observations such as regarding the composer’s religious beliefs (the beautiful hymn-like Affetuoso of Op.20 No.1).

All of these musical realisations the NZSQ took in its stride; and while not all detailing was perfect, the playing was consistently characterful and engaging. We were able to feel the composer’s discomfiture in his unhappy marriage by dint of the almost Straussian solo violin part in the Adagio of  Op.54 No.2, which combines recitative and lyricism in a startlingly candid way; and at the other end of the human interaction scale we felt the warmth of the regard between Haydn and Mozart, characterised by the Presto finale of  Op.55 No.3. There was, too, the liberation of the composer from Esterházy, and an encounter in London with Sir William Herschel, the astronomer, and Haydn’s scientific initiation into the vastness of the cosmos, and the resulting awe of creation, expressed in the adagio of Op.71 No.2. Towards the end we heard the Andante grazioso from the composer’s final unfinished quartet, and then the bizarre post-mortem odyssey of Haydn’s head, a black-humoured tale suitably capped with the high-jinks of another marvellous movement from the composer’s oeuvre, the Presto from Op.76 No.5.

This was great work from the New Zealand String Quartet – a well-rounded and affectionate salute to a composer whose work, despite its popularity, seems inexhaustible in what it brings to us for our continued pleasure.