Zephyr and Diedre Irons at Paekakariki

Paekakariki Mulled Wine Concert Series 2009

Zephyr Winds (NZSO Principals): Bridget Douglas (flute) / Robert Orr (oboe) / Phil Green (clarinet) / Robert Weeks (bassoon) / Ed Allen (horn) – with Diedre Irons (piano)

MOZART – Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat K.452

BARBER – Summer Music Op.31

BERIO – Opus Number Zoo

POULENC – Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet

Paekakariki Memorial Hall, Sunday 2nd August 2009

We were packed in with a vengeance at the Paekakariki Memorial Hall on Sunday afternoon, our seats almost at the very back and with little or no sight-lines extending to the musicians (the floor has no raised platform for the performers), causing me some anxieties regarding being able to fully “connect” with the music-making. I needn’t have worried – over the heads of the shoulder-to-shoulder throng came the opening measures of the Mozart, gloriously sounded (a combination of lively acoustic and brightly-focused projection from the players) and instantly engaging, quickly putting to rest the rustling ambiences of an audience settling down. The Largo introduction blossomed into an allegro moderato, the playing achieving such felicities of articulation, buoyancy and balance between the instruments as to bring constant pricklings of pleasure to the listener. Diedre Irons’s playing made the piano sound almost like a wind instrument, its strength, agility, flexibility and singing tone blending with what the other players were doing in subtle give-and-take interplay. The full-throated wind choir at the slow movement’s beginning again engaged the piano in a beautifully-written conversation of equals, with lovely explorations of different harmonies in a middle section where the music goes in and out of the sunlight, the tensions resolved in a way that perhaps reflected its creator’s desire for both diversity and order in the world.

In the Rondo Allegretto finale, the music continued its philosophical bent, its poised, at times liquid rhythms incorporating a lyrical and in places melancholic aspect within the same pulse, especially in a somewhat restless middle section. The playing continued to delight, no more than at a lovely concerto-like cadence point of questioning, after which the winds were able to diffuse the tension nicely and return the argument to the poise and urbanity of the opening.

By way of attempting to brighten up our recent wintry Wellington woes, Zephyr undertook Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music”, a lovely, indolent-sounding work enlivened by chirruping energies, conveying a “nature-at-play” ambience against which passages of gentle melancholy perhaps reflect the feelings of the beholder experiencing such seasonal rites. The players took us through a number of beautifully-characterised episodes, at one point the oboe instigating a quasi-oriental dance joined by flute and bassoon, the latter trying the same steps later on his own, to the delight of flute and oboe, whose amused riposte rippled through the ensemble. Just before the end, the music began a kind of journeying aspect, whose rhythmic tread briefly suggested a railway adventure, but with the return of the languid opening music, the impetus was lost, and the bassoon’s final attempt to dance again provoked another tantalising outbreak of mirth whose elfin disappearance came as quickly as its ready laughter.

People not normally drawn to contemporary classical music might have initially swallowed uncomfortably at seeing the name of Luciano Berio on the programme, a well-known experimental composer and pioneer of electronic music. They need not have worried – “Opus Number Zoo” demonstrates a lighter, more playful side of the composer’s activities, the four pieces settings with multiple narrators of allegorical texts whose parallels can be found in the Aesop Fables. Its musical equivalents inhabit a world not unlike that of Stravinsky, in “The Soldier’s Tale”, though there’s also a Waltonesque whimsy in some of the narrations that remind one of “Façade”. The first “Barn Dance” tells the tale of the poor silly chick who danced with a fox (flutist Bridget Douglas demonstrating hitherto unrevealed Thespian skills of an advanced order, here, with her vivid vocal characterisations!), the droll “That’s all, folks!” at the end occasioning a sympathetic chuckle from the audience. “The Fawn” is a bleak meditation on armaments and war-mongering, with ascending, expressive wind-textures highlighting the apocalyptic nature of the scenario; while ”The Grey Mouse” is a droll commentary on youth and age, the musician-speakers demonstrating a wonderfully precise vocal ensemble. Finally, in “Tom Cats”, a confrontational tale of greed and envy, Bridget Douglas’s voice was again to the fore, with the players engaging in “stand and deliver” antics with their instruments at cardinal points – all very entertaining!

After these tongue-in-cheek coruscations it was left to Francis Poulenc to restore some equanimity to our sensibilities with his Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet. The attention-grabbing opening plunged us into a carnival atmosphere, with scenes involving trick-cyclists, jugglers and clowns, everything vividly depicted with sharply-etched playing from Diedre Irons and Zephyr. The bassoon called a halt with an eloquent recitative, answered by the piano, and then evolving into one of those wonderfully “bitter-sweet” melodies beloved of twentieth-century French composers, the mood becoming impassioned, then becalmed, before plunging back into the festive energetics of the opening. Throughout all of this, the ensemble took each different episode in its stride, delivering the music’s variegated moods with tremendous élan. The slow movement, with its oboe-led song-like opening had a dreamlike “drifting-harmonic” aspect, which a burst of jog-trot energy momentarily and cheekily overlaid; while the players threw themselves into the finale’s almost Dadaist energies at the outset with plenty of manic vigour, sanities restored by several of Poulenc’s wonderful astringent melodic episodes, and a surprisingly rhetorical , almost chorale-like ending, delivered by the Zephyr players and Diedre Irons with just the right amount of mock-seriousness.

Occasionally reviewers have experiences which cause them to doubt their own listening abilities and capacities, one such for me being the small encore piece given us by the ensemble at the concert’s end – it turned out to be the animated section of the Poulenc Sextet’s slow movement, which I did think I’d “heard before somewhere” but didn’t recognise! Bridget Douglas comforted me by telling me that people had been caught out before by Zephyr’s repetition of that section of the music: “Out of context it sounds quite different” she told me. That, and the fact that I’d not heard the work before, did give me some comfort, but nevertheless I was abashed at not recognising it for what it was at the time – zut alors!



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