Netherlands and New Zealand music from SMP Ensemble

The SMP Ensemble conducted by Lucas Vis

VISTAS — music by Karlo Margetic, Louis Andriessen, Jack Body, Dylan Lardelli, Anton Killin, Yannis Kyriakidis  

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University

Friday 26 March 2010

The recent St Andrew’s series during the Festival included a concert by the SMP (Summer Music Project) Ensemble; that comprised music by Polish and New Zealand composers. This concert was entirely of New Zealand and Dutch music. Michael Norris introduced the concert Caprice Arts Trust director . They included the Caprice Arts Trust, the New Zealand School of Music, both universities, the Netherlands-New Zealand Association, KLM and Creative New Zealand. There was one premiere; some pieces were quite new and others as much as 40 years old.  

The title of the concert was Vistas: I suppose honouring Dutch conductor, Lucas Vis, a prominent figure in the promotion of new music. Most of the music in this programme was written for unconventional instrumental combinations and most eschewed the kinds of sounds that have been embraced by the generality of music lovers. Composers of this turn of mind seem comfortable carving a isolating niche, largely rejecting the standard musical formations and forms, such as the symphony orchestra or the string quartet, most kinds of tonal music and even the strains of contemporary music that have found more general acceptance.  

The first piece, written for a probably unique combination, was Karlo Margetic’s Hommage à WL: that is, Witold Lutoslawski. It opened, and closed, with Yoshiko Tsuruta playing with soft mallets on a wood block, soon supported by a dense bed of winds and strings: clarinets and horn; violin, viola, cello and double bass; piano and percussion, and it evolved into an aleatoric exercise (for which Lutoslawski was noted) each instrument playing according to his/her own instinct, but launching afresh at the end of each phase; those points were about the extent of the conductor, Lucas Vis’s, role. Occasionally a definite punctuation point arrived, e.g. with piano and cello; the mood became increasingly disturbed, even frenzied, before subsiding.  

Louis Andriessen’s Zilver was written in 1994. The prevailing character was vivid contrasts of pitch, setting flute against piano, vibraphone and marimba, all of which played identical or closely related lines. While the effect was distinctive, one lost a sense of the individual instruments; this was the effect of much of the music in the concert, for while the ensemble was smallish, several pieces were scored extensively for all together, in this case seven voices that the ear is not accustomed to hearing all sounding at once.

The music, nevertheless, gained in coherence as repeated motifs – gestures rather – were handled, at slowly increased speed and changing rhythms, at one point seeming to make wry allusions to the Viennese waltz. It drew to a close by dismantling the tighter framework that had evolved.

Jack Body’s Turtle Time dates from 1968 – a setting of surrealist poems by Russell Haley. Dated? well, perhaps, but it successfully maintains its character: witty, eccentric, the poems brilliantly articulated by Karlo Margetic, with huge gestures, likewise surreal, that reached out insistently to the audience. The music and its performance by piano Sam Jury), harpsichord (Jonathan Berkahn), organ (Matt Oswin)and harp (Natalia Mann), imposed a sort of irony of very traditional sound sources handled with drollerie and wit.  The words might have been a useful addition to the programme note.

Then came the ‘World premiere’ (I do wish we could just settle for ‘first performance’; I do doubt that even the composer expects a rush of breathless music publishers and promoters wanting performance rights in Buenos Aires and St Petersburg). Dominating the stage was the contrabass clarinet of Justus Rozemond, reaching two meters high, along with piccolo, piano, viola and cello.  

Noh theatrical precepts lay behind Dylan Lardelli’s piece, entitled Aspects of Theatre; where each performer rehearses alone, and the eventual performance is the first time the players have got together. The resulting spontaneous spirit was palpable; the musical experience was of extreme dynamic variety, of seemingly random, widely spaced pitches, whose relationships were irrelevant.  Though I have to plead failure to get Noh theatre, in spite of first hearing 40 years ago at the Athens Festival, and subsequent exposures.

Anton Killin’s Two Moments were approximately that; when its end seemed unexpectedly close to its start, Vis led a second performance there and then. In spite of its brevity, the composer had taken pains to score it carefully for seven strings, winds and an accordion carefully arrayed on stage. Interesting, though the purported depiction of the life of Denisovich and the death of Solzhenitsyn failed to register with me, and I had to wonder about the sort of audience envisaged by the composer.

The last piece, Tinkling, was for a much larger ensemble, ten players. Eshen Teo – flute, Andrzej Nowicki – clarinet, Peter Maunder – trombone, Dylan Lardelli – guitar, Dorothy Raphael – percussion, Yoshiko Tsuruta – marimba, Vivian Stephens – violin, Charley Davenport – cello, Simon Eastwood – double bass, Sam Jury – piano. A reworking, shortening of an earlier piece, based on a riff by Thelonius Monk, there was more for the mind to adhere to than with some of the other pieces.  More familiar musical patterns and procedures were suggested; subtle dramatic moments occurred, and arresting little accelerations; attractive hints of rubato in repeated phrases. Again however, I found the busyness of the scoring prevented distinguishing many individual instruments a lot of the time; why bother then with such detailed instrumentation? Pianist Sam Jury had been particularly notable and conductor Vis singled him out.

There was no question about the accomplishment of the players who devoted themselves with commitment to some pretty challenging music that clearly appealed to this audience. The concert was well-attended and there was long applause for the ensemble and for the conductor in particular.

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