New Zealand Trio in excerpts for the Festival

(New Zealand International Arts Festival)

Music by Beethoven, Ross Edwards, Dvorak, Chen Yi, Ravel, Phil Dadson. David Downes

New Zealand Trio: Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 6 March 2010, 4pm 

(With a contribution from Peter Mechen)

The juxtaposition of single movements from orthodox piano trios and two New Zealand pieces that set music against images was an unusual idea, and one that ran a serious risk of puzzling many of the audience.

To present a concert of single movements risks automatic disapproval by most regular concert-goers and those at all familiar with classical music and its playing traditions. This suggested an effort to court ‘a new audience’ of those unfamiliar with chamber music, or classical music generally. While well-intentioned, the efficacy of such programming is dubious and to have included some very atypical and, frankly, problematic pieces in the programme hardly seemed likely win over any neophytes.

Three of the movements were among the real classics of the repertory: the first movements from Beethoven’s Ghost Trio and Dvorak’s F minor trio, Op 65, and the Pantoum movement from the Ravel trio; the others pieces, both New Zealand and from abroad, were unfamiliar.

As an aside, I must record a certain style-based concern with the trio’s ‘trade name’, NZTrio. In my long career with writing, a fundamental tenet has been the impropriety of abbreviating the names of, inter alia, countries. Look, for example, at the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and the New Zealand Style Book (Government Publications Ltd).

The piano sparkled in passage-work in the Beethoven, the cello spoke eloquently and the playing was of exceptional finesse, balance, refinement, each player demonstrating a polish and virtuosity, perfectly judged dynamics and rubato, that simply puts them in very distinguished company, internationally.

The Dvorak sounded at times like a small concerto, so full and rich was the ensemble, expressing a thoughtfulness, resoluteness, a sanguine quality that are some of Dvorak’s essential characteristics. One of the very small handful of real masterpieces in the 20th century trio repertoire, the Ravel Trio, with its inimitable French sound and its energy, simply left me wanting it all.

Ravel’s movement followed a highly diverting, brilliantly coloured piece by ChenYi, Tibetan Tunes. He is a Chinese-born American and his piece was a successful recycling of a folk tune in western classical clothes and its startling variety of string effects that derived from the Chinese violin, the erhu, were handled with marvellous skill.   

Earlier, we had heard a movement from Ross Edwards’s Piano Trio, written for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition; it began as a duo for violin and piano, easy, tuneful, in the same class as his well-loved violin concerto, Maninyas. There was a dream-like quality that could not have been more at odds with another kind of dream that we were offered in the last piece in the programme by David Downes.

The last two pieces both used images projected on a large screen as part of the performances. Phil Dadson’s Firestarters, cast in at least half a dozen sections, was used to show the unusual, though by now rather hackneyed, games that some composers liked to play with their instruments: using objects to strike or stroke the strings inside the piano, using two violins propped on chairs in percussive ways; later unusual camera angles focused on the players themselves. What about music itself? I closed my eyes to hear sounds that were of the kind that a thousand other avant-garde composers have created over the past half century.

Let me add that I have always had great affection for Dadson’s music with From Scratch, which I first heard in the 1987 Sonic Circus, the wonderful, but last such jamboree of 24 hours of New Zealand music in Wellington’s Town Hall and Michael Fowler Centre.

In David Downes’s piece, Kingdom, it was the images that dominated, more a film with musical accompaniment, of nightmarish character revealing a weirdly disturbed personality. The images varied from ghoulish doll-like figures representing an unhinged family in a surreal, lunatic eating ritual, interspersed with reproductions of medieval portrayals of the cosmos, astronomical charts, wheels of fortune. On the whole, I didn’t get it,

My colleague Peter Mechen reviewed the concert on Radio New Zealand Concert on Monday and reacted more patiently than I did to these two works. I asked him to allow me to use the notes that formed the basis of his review, in order to allow readers a fairer view of the pieces.


“The first of two New Zealand works in this concert was written by Phil Dadson. Phil was, of course the founder of this country’s most original rhythm/performance group “From Scratch”, and has become well-known in the area of experimental and invented instruments, video/sound installations, sound-sculptures and graphic scores.This work was called Firestarters, and it gave the impression, aided by some wonderful close-up camera work of the musicians creatively manipulating their instruments (they did much more than “play” them in an accepted sense!).

“Looking at the screen enabled us to feel as though we had metamorphosed into insects, with an insect’s-eye view of things and an insect’s awareness of barely discernable sounds – because some of these sounds were micro- to say the least.

“Besides the string players, the pianist also contrived out-of-the-ordinary sounds from within the instrument, manipulating the strings with various objects such as a golf ball at one point, and what looked like stones at another (the camera enabling us to “peep” over the instrument’s side and into the heart of the beast). It became as much a visual choreographic outpouring as well as an aural one, and had a kind of unique beauty and grace as such, accompanied sounds of a fabulous, out-of-the-ordinary sense.

“Different sections of the music brought different and innovative sound-makers to play, such as electric fans in the second section, whose tintinabulations against the strings and cases of all three instruments compelled us to listen with what one might imagine was a new dimension of musical awareness. At the end a Dali-esque dissolution of sounds within time was suggested by the players’ rhythms running slowly down to eventual silence – to be aware of such actual dissolution was to again enlarge one’s aural sensibilities in an unexpected and thoughtful direction.

“The concert’s world premiere was a piece by David Downes, written to be played in tandem with a film, a piece of music animation described as an exploration of ritual and fantasy surrounding a family meal. The animations were best described as surreal, though a psychoanalyst might have had a wonderful time ascribed certain subconscious preoccupations with the shapes of the figures and their preoccupations with appetite and obsessive fulfilment, underlined by several close-ups of rodent-like mouths.

“With the Brothers Grimm stories in mind, and the subsequent analyses of the themes, motivations and actions of the stories and characters there for the reading, one could extrapolate at will regarding the composer’s own childhood, and the fantasy/reality syndrome. There was humour of a dark,obsessive kind, underscored by sounds which, in places made one think of Noel Coward’s remark about “the power of cheap music”, while in other places there were more overt references to menace and disturbance.

“The dissolution of order and security at the end, if a trifle cliched, was perhaps to be expected, given that the scenario was dream-like and hallucinatory, but nevertheless the suggested dismemberment and burning of family members made a disturbing impression. Of course, the problem with any piece of music-theatre or animation, is that the eye is sometimes engaged to the detriment of the ear’s ability to register sounds – and something of this process happened for me. I can only report that the composer’s scoring would seem to have underpinned the visuals appropriately, such was the effect of the whole on my sensibilities. I look forward to seeing/hearing the piece again.

“And one could, at the end, only applaud with great wholeheartedness the commitment of a trio of fine musicians in bringing to us an astonishing variety of music and performing it with such incredible verve and skill.”







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *