St Andrew’s: a Tuesday of New Zealand music

St Andrew’s on The Terrace concert series

Tuesday 16 March 2010, concerts at midday and early evening

Lunchtime: New Zealand Music for Woodwind. Music by Anthony Ritchie, Pieta Hextall, Jack Spiers, Gillian Whitehead, Ben Hoadley and David Farquhar

This proved to be a wholly New Zealand day. At lunchtime, a group of mainly contemporary pieces for solo winds or groups and in the 6.30 slot, three string quartets by New Zealand’s first real composer, Alfred Hill.

The lunchtime concert comprised mostly solo pieces for flute, clarinet and bassoon, with only two for several players. Luca Manghi was the busiest player with solo pieces by Anthony Ritchie and Ben Hoadley. Hoadley was also the bassoon player and he founded the group; he teaches at both the Auckland University and the New Zealand schools of music.

Ritchie’s piece, Tui, was typical of much of his music: descriptive, arising from the natural world. The music began to sound from somewhere behind us, probably in the choir gallery, simulating the bird, with staccato notes soon coalescing into broad melodic patterns. The tui gives a composer permission to use almost any sound that the instrument can produce, such is its versatility and imitative powers, allowing the bending of the pitch of the notes occasionally.

Ben Hoadley’s piece was called ‘…after a while only the green of the grass is left’, the last line of a poem that his grandmother wrote, about sparrows. Again the flute plays  bird role, starting with fluttering, then subsiding to into a diatonic melody, a peaceful sequence, livened briefly with fast arpeggios. Again, a virtuosic performance from this Italian who lives in Auckland and freelances between the New Zealand Symphony, Auckland Philharmonia and Christchurch Symphony orchestras. 

The second piece on the programme was 7.0, no clue to the meaning, apart from being a response to the Haïti earthquake – it certainly wasn’t the Richter reading. Composer Pieta Hextall is Wellington-based, playing in several groups including Improv Noise Band, and the RNZAF Band. She studies at the New Zealand School of Music and you might find her helpful in Parson’s Books and CDs.

7.0 is for flute, clarinet (Anna McGregor) and bassoon, starting very quietly with clarinet, then flute and then the bassoon in its highest register; all played in unison or at the octave, briefly; sombre and evolving to coherent harmonies with careful dissonances. The first section ended after intense screaming from the flute. The second section contained more panicky sounds and the last section returned to calm, broken by though lamenting bass notes.

Jack Spiers – late professor of music at Otago University – wrote a piece for solo bassoon in five short movements, as a birthday gift for a friend. Her name, Sheila, provides the material for the Prelude, said the programme note  (I didn’t work it out). It’s a positive, sanguine piece that entices the listener with a sense of discovery; Hoadley was an excellent advocate and bearer of gifts.

The piece for solo clarinet was by Gillian Whitehead: Mata-au, the Maori name for the Clutha River which her Alexandra house overlooks during her Henderson Arts Trust residence. It uses the sounds of Maori flutes such as the koauau and Anne McGregor succeeded brilliantly in simulating these beguiling sounds that were inspired by the movement of the river, its whirlpools and currents.

Finally, a most attractive find in the SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand Music) archives: a wind quartet by David Farquhar, written as a student in London. His note, giving it to SOUNZ, referred to its character, modeled on Bartok’s Sixth Quartet, and commented on the dismissive remarks by his London teacher, Benjamin Frankel. It was clearly the victim of the anti-tonal, anti-audience Gestapo that emerged after WWII and blighted the careers of so many composers.

A series of six movements, a slow introduction to each of three fast movements, there was thematic interest, and plenty of resourceful manipulation of the material throughout. The players, the oboe, clarinet and bassoon previously heard plus second clarinet Tui Clark, gave it a splendid, convincing and affectionate performance, exploring all its virtues and finding no vices of any consequence.

The work was not an ‘exploration’ of some bizarre playing technique or an intellectual concept, or even of a landscape or animal or human being. The music, with no props or narratives, such as Mozart and Brahms were content with, was plenty interesting and enjoyable.

Tuesday evening: Three string quartets by Alfred Hill (Nos 8, 10 and 11) played by the Dominion String Quartet – Yuri Gezentsvey, Rosemary Harris, Donald Maurice, David Chickering

Donald Maurice opened the concert with a short account of Hill’s life and the project to record all 17 string quartets, some of which may have never even been played. All three were written after his retirement in 1934 as Professor of Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium. Only one of the three has been recorded – No 11, and it did emerge as the most interesting and imaginative.

It might be cynical to say that his talk was the most interesting part of the concert, and I wouldn’t do so. It was indeed interesting and by no means misjudged in reflecting Donald Maurice’s enthusiasm for bringing these works to performance in excellent recordings; I did find parts of the quartets less than engrossing.

In each case, the opening phrases of movements portended a work of more substance than in fact emerged as the music developed. Yet there was always the feel of a composer of great accomplishment at work, with a ready source of melody, even if not particularly striking. The Dominion Quartet gave them each well-planned and -considered performances, taking pains over dynamics and investing the music with a rhythmic ebb and flow, attempting to make the development of the ideas as interesting as possible, even when one felt that what was to happen next was ever so predictable.

There were bluesy sounds in No 8, that gave them, not so much a jazz air, but the feel of the palm court. The second movement, an Intermezzo, actually maintained its short life with the feel of a journey commencing, purposeful and filled with anticipation. The later movements were English romantic rather than impressionist in the Debussy sense.

No 10, again, began propitiously and there was a serious cello passage, but the spirit fell away with the appearance of the first phrase of Gershwin’s ‘I got rhythm’; it seemed to prejudice the chance of the recovery of any sort of first-movement solidity. The Scherzo third movement however was rhythmically effective, had a more distinctive character,.

It was No 11 that impressed me most. The harmony was more dense and less given to cliché; there were sequences that, while not particularly original, evolved interestingly. Bluesy strains reappeared but they did not sentimentalise the piece as they had done earlier, and were not so predictable in their handling.

The Allegretto last movement was light in spirit, inhabited by catchy groups of staccato semi-quavers and ideas that were developed more naturally, less predictably than in the other two quartets,

It was an interesting exposure to a significant composer, indeed significant in New Zealand music, both for the large body of music he left and for his serious interest in Maori music, though not in a way that might meet the demands of a later generation of musicologists or ethnologists, who tend to judge not by the standards of the relevant age, but by their own: a serious failing in most spheres of scholarship. 

Three CDs of Hill’s quartets have now appeared on Naxos and the rest of the 17, including those we heard, are in preparation.

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