SMP Ensemble: Nexus – Poles Apart

SMP Ensemble

Music by Jack Body, Anton Killin, Simon Eastwood, Karlo Margetic,

Jan.W.Morthenson, Charles Ives, John Adams, Francis Poulenc,

Henryk Gorecki, Richard Robertshawe, Andrzej Nowicki, Carol Shortis

The SMP Ensemble

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts March 2010

Wednesday 10th March

The SMP Ensemble was formed in 2008, and set up as a forum for the work of Wellington-based composers and performers. Over a short period it has, under the direction of Andrzej Nowicki,  already developed a reputation as a fresh and stimulating force in the capital’s contemporary music activity, organising and performing a number of concerts. Its most recent was a presentation at one of the St.Andrew’s March 2010 concerts, set up to run parallel to the NZ International Arts Festival music offerings.

One of the concert’s themes was a Polish connection, hence the “Poles Apart” reference in the concert’s title. A number of the works drew inspiration from Polish writing, history or political events, among them a work by local composer Carol Shortis commemorating the arrival, sixty-five years ago, of a group of Polish refugee children in New Zealand, many of whom still live in this country. Other works by Simon Eastwood and Karlo Margetic took as their starting-points events or artistic achievements whose source was Poland. As it turned out, the concert presented a tantalising mix of home-grown and off-shore music whose sources of inspiration seemed to demonstrate the “music in the air” maxim.

Jack Body’s “Turtle Time” sets a text by Russell Haley, here spiritedly spoken and enacted by Karlo Margetic, his powerful expression of the words and use of the physical spaces heightening the piece’s theatrical qualities. The ensemble produced some lovely sounds which variously chatter, babble, scintillate and clatter, the sound-picture flipping between ambient and pointillistic, sometimes running with, sometimes countering the words of the poem. These constantly-changing colours and patterns of the soundscape were a source of continual delight, apart from the organ’s swell-pedal which I found too crudely applied and rather irritating.  Given that Karlo Margetic used his voice and the stage so well, I wondered whether the musicians and their instruments could have been placed more outrageously antiphonally, emphasising both the fragmentary nature of the realisation and the efforts made by the ensemble itself to bring their individual sounds more in accord with one another. Interestingly, the voice wasn’t microphoned or otherwise enhanced in any way, as it is on the work’s only recording that I know of, made for Kiwi Records in the 1970s – for me the piece worked just as well in the “real” physical space of St.Andrew’s, the sounds exchanging the claustrophobia of the recording’s close-microphoning for a freer, more theatrical interaction. At the piece’s end, the escape by the “voice” from the turtles’ predatory time-snapping, past wave upon kaleidoscopic wave of obsessive instrumental obstruction, had a satisfying, almost ritualistic feel to it in concert. Abstractionists might object, but my feeling regarding a piece such as this, with so many overtly theatrical elements already present, is that the work’s innate capacity for suggesting interactions in visual terms cries out to be exploited further.

Anton Killi’s electroacoustic piece A Priori resembled for me a message in human speech deprived of its consonants, nostalgically accompanied by feed-back-like squeaks, whines and ambient “radio noise” interference, suggesting to my ears memories of the golden age of radio. Along with these half-words underpinned with white-noise resonances came Ligeti-like vocalisings, impulses of communication either dragging themselves from the pupa or distending their resonances into lengthy, ritualistic sequences of mesmeric mystery.  Less equivocal was Simon Eastwood’s “Jericho – Walls Will Fall”, one of several works in the concert with a Polish connection, in this case the music inspired by a protest song from the 1980s Polish Solidarity Movement, describing how walls will fall if people have the will to knock them down. Written for a Brass Trio, featuring trombone, horn and trumpet, the work constantly delights with its inventive explorations over four brief movements. The first sounds plenty of warning warring notes, each instrument in turn allowed to take the lead with its own patternings. Then, Alex Morton’s horn and Mark Davey’s trombone mute their tones and become nature-drones, leaving Dave Kempton’s trumpet to play its own flourishes, before joining with the others in further melodic and rhythmic combinations. A toccata-like piece follows, trumpet and horn stuttering while the trombone swaggers and struts its stuff. By this time the walls seem to have capitulated and fallen, because the fourth-movement brass cantilena is valedictory in tone, though more insistent at the point where things abruptly cease, the fight having been won.

Karlo Margetic’s “Hommage a W.L.” is a tribute to the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, the gesture itself an interesting idea, giving rise to the question regarding which composer’s work should take the credit for whatever success the ensuing piece earns for itself or is accorded. Quoting Lutoslawski’s idea of using aleatoric compositional techniques in a free and spontaneous way, Margetic characterises the older composer’s avoidance of rigour and dry complexity as “a wonderful act of subversion against the dogmatic avant-garde”. The piece (for mixed ensemble) begins with a woodblock-like roll (repeated at certain “get ready” transition-points throughout the work), and a “Bluebeard’s Door” chord immediately following, whose sustained resonances beautifully build the musical argument through melismatic strings-and-wind repetitions towards magically transformed stratospheric explorations of similar material. A string quartet “jams it” along with tattoo-like percussion rhythms, screwing up the tension until the breaking tides wash up and leave aeolian harp-like figurations teetering backwards and forwards, the strings and winds returning to tighten and screw things up again, to the point of near-frenzy. After still more irruptions the energies and tensions slowly dissipate and unravel, brass and piano contributing to a somewhat crepuscular feeling, which the composer promptly and somewhat unexpectedly banishes with an abrupt forte and a pulsating woodblock having the final word. I thought this was a great work, deserving of future notice.

I liked also Jan W. Morthenson’s Unisono, for bassoon, piano and electronics, a piece in which two instruments play with the idea of working in unison, but experience all kinds of tensions while trying to do so. Kylie Nesbit’s bassoon was amplified after her opening acoustic gambit in tandem with Jonathan Berkahn’s piano harmonies, Richard Robertshawe contriving all kinds of timbral modifications to the former, creating almost surreal effects, especially during the ensuing game of chase with the piano, both instruments occasionally pushed to their physical extremities for single notes or chords, and each trying to outdo the other in constructing edifices of sound. Even more of a “cosmic landscape” was attempted by Charles Ives’ 1906 piece “The Unanswered Question”, a work not published for over thirty years after its creation. Ives writes beautifully for the strings at the beginning, the chords slowly oscillating and changing colours before the trumpet enters (here placed at the back of the church, as were wind and brass ensembles), interacting with the antiphonal forces with a view to solving certain of life’s mysteries, but being little the wiser at the end of it all.

After the interval came John Adams’ rumbustious (and, I thought, rather gruff!) tribute to John Phillip Sousa, one which didn’t really do much for me, apart from evoking marching feet and a sense of cumulative excitement. Far more to my taste was the wonderful Sonata for Bassoon and Clarinet by Francis Poulenc, played here at a crackling pace by Kylie Nesbit and Andrzej Nowicki, with sheer momentum and nimble articulation the order of the day right up to the last few drolleries being lightly tossed off. A nicely-judged slow movement, with each instrument a perfect foil for the other, was followed by a finale whose romp of exchange would have melted all but the hardest of hearts. Songful clarinet and droll bassoon momentarily resembled Don Quixote and Sancho Panza setting off home to recover from the latest set of exploits, while the circus clowns returned to flop-start the exchanges for the stop-start concluding statements of the work. A more telling contrast than the Piano Sonata by Henryk Gorecki (he of “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” fame) couldn’t be imagined. Its ferocity and teeth-in-the-bone tenacity owed much to Bartok, with similar drive and folk-like primitives and repetitions. The brief but exceedingly lovely slow movement provided but a respite for the sensibilities before the finale burst into the ambient spaces, drove through contrasting episodes, then teased us all somewhat with whimsical juxtapositionings of energy and reflectiveness towards the end, before finally delivering a brutal-sounding payoff to finish. Great playing throughout by Sam Jury.

This concert had promised both substance and variety, which by this time had been achieved handsomely on both counts, though there was still more to come. Andrzej Nowicki’s whimsically-titled Concertino 5b was light relief after the Gorecki work, featuring two musicians dressed in pyjamas, one with an amplified clarinet and the other working the electronics.

It was an entertaining piece of music-theatre, with the energetic clarinettist gradually running quite seriously out of steam, and going to sleep, making in the process some suitably drowsy sounds. Synthesised resonances of what the clarinet had commented on and shared before added a kind of coda to the remnants of the performance.

Finally, another work with Polish resonances was performed, a short cantata-like piece by Carol Shortis whose music was inspired and based on both a Polish folk-song “Polskie Kwiaty” and a13th-century hymn Bogurodzica, and was written to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the arrival in New Zealand of Polish refugee children in 1944. Most of these children had been separated from or lost their parents and other family members. Carol Sortis wrote “Tesknota” (Yearning”) as a response to the story told by one of these refugees, using the traditional melodies of folk-song and hymn to evoke “Old Poland” before the Russian and German invasions of 1939.

Beginning darkly on a double bass, then a ‘cello, and climbing into the higher strings the music sweetly and lyrically bloomed as the choir entered, with the words “Spiewa Ci obcy wiatr” (A foreign wind sings to you) to the accompaniment of wind noises made by additional voices. Counter-tenor Laurie Fleming rejoined with “A serce teskni…” (But the heart yearns….”), the voice truthful and clear, if not ideally strong in the lower register, so that he’s somewhat masked by the other voices at times. Stronger and brighter was soprano Olga Gryniewicz with her “Stokrotki, fiolki, kaczence i maki” (Daisies, violets, buttercups and poppies), the voice pure, radiant and beautiful, the high note at the start pure and sweet with little hint of strain. From here, strings and piano radiantly sing an almost Martinu-like accompaniment, the counter-tenor and soprano voices rising briefly for the last time out of the instrumental and vocal ambiences which go on to conclude the work. Heartfelt and extremely moving.

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