Sounds contemporary – Stroma and SOUNZ Contemporary…

STROMA: Sequences

Featuring Dave Bremner (trombone), Bridget Douglas (flute), Peter Dykes (oboe), Rebecca Struthers (violin), Lenny Sakovsky (flowerpots),

Hamish McKeich and Mark Carter (conductors).

Berio: “Sequenza I”, “Sequenza VII”; Xenakis: “Charisma”; Rzewski: “Song and Dance”, “To the Earth”; Ross Harris: “Fanitullen”, “Trombone Opera”; Chris Gendall: “Rudiments”.

St Andrews on the Terrace, 1 May 2010

also: SOUNZ Contemporary Award 2010  (preview): Chris Gendall: “Rudiments”; Ross Harris:  “Violin Concerto No. 1”; Chris Cree Brown: “Inner Bellow”.

New Zealand Music Month 2010 began with a highlight – the “Sequences” concert from leading contemporary music group Stroma, which  featured NZ premieres of two recent offerings from Ross Harris and Chris Gendall. These large-ensemble, almost orchestrally weighty scores, bookended a series of  mainly solo pieces showcasing the virtuoso talents of individual Stroma members.

Luciano Berio’s 1958 monodic classic “Sequenza I” gave star flutistBridget Douglas scope for delicate multiphonics, and a twentieth century version of baroque “virtual counterpoint” on a single melodic line. Interestingly, I did not particularly notice any of the microtones and pitch-bends that have become a characteristic of many, more recent, pieces for solo woodwind. Berio’s 1969 “Sequenza VII” took oboist Peter Dykes on a breath-control marathon, with its dissolves from multiphonic fuzziness to “uniphonic” clarity, and – again – the use of contrapuntal lines sketched from contrasting registers (here anchored by a recurrent tonic).

The tense, telling gestures of Iannis Xennakis’ 1971 “Charisma” (fortissimo scrunches, and tremolando slides, on Rowan Prior’s cello; bell-like grace notes on Patrick Barry’s clarinet) were fitting in a work written to commemorate a premature death. More celebratory was Frederic Rzewski’s 1977 “Song and Dance” ( vibes, flute, bass clarinetand contrabass) in which “song” sections with their graceful flute lines and plaintive bowed contrabass, were set against the rhythmic, jazzy “dance” episodes. A later Rzewski piece, “To the Earth” from 1985, had been performed during the composer’s visit here a few years ago. It was a solo (or perhaps more accurately, a duo for one): percussionist Lenny Sakovsky played in a tetratonic scale on four flowerpots (made, of course, from clay – from earth),  while reciting a hymn to Gaia (Earth) translated from the ancient Greek. The effect was one of affecting simplicity.

Ross Harris’s “Fanitullen” was written as a test piece for the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition. Taking its cue from Scandinavian folk fiddling and the legend underlying “The Soldier’sTale”, this “devil’s tune” demanded virtuoso playing from Rebecca Struthers – by turns fiery and ghostly, with polyphony within a single line, as well as double-stopping. Harris’s “Trombone Opera” was inspired by pansori, a form of Korean monodrama for a singer –  with only her fan for a prop – and a drummer. Not a fan in sight with Stroma, but a battery of three percussionists (including bass drum, marimba, and bells) were amongst the support for the recitatives of David Bremner’s golden-toned trombone. Bremner notwithstanding, I did not find the work attractive (it probably wasn’t meant to be). It seemed to belong to the gnarly, knotty sound-world of those discomfiting compositions in which Harris (sometimes courageously) confronts the darker, angst-ridden side of human nature. Among these are “To the Memory of I.S. Totska”, “Contramusic” (one of Harris’s earlier essays for Stroma), and also “Labyrinth” for tuba and orchestra (the NZSO) –  which received a Sounz Contemporary Award (unlike the awards for Harris’s Second and Third Symphonies and for “…Totska”, which were all eminently deserved, I thought the win for “Labyrinth” was suspect, displacing as it did Ken Young’s enigmatic but ultimately powerful Second Symphony).

As in “Labyrinth”, there was a significant place in “Trombone Opera” for tuba (Andrew Jarvis), and as in “Contramusic”, Hamish McKeich featured on the contrabassoon. “Trombone Opera” was written in 2009 while Harris was Creative New Zealand/ Jack C. Richards Composer-in-Residence at the NZ School of Music. The prospective (now current) holder of the  Residency is Chris Gendall. While a student at Victoria University, Gendall was noted for his impressively energetic, rhythmically driven compositions, such as the piano duo “Xenophony”, and “So It Goes”, which won the inaugural (2005) NZSO/Todd Foundation Young Composers Award (in my view, it should have been first equal, along with Andari Anggamulia’s exquisitely Webernian “Les Images”). Even as early as 2002 (with “Sextet”) and 2003 (“Miniatures” for guitar, cello, contrabass and drums), however, Gendall was interrupting his  motoric momentum with passages of fragmentary free rhythm. Gendall has now completedpostgraduate studies at Cornell University, and in his most recent scores, such as the 2008 “Wax Lyrical” (another Sounz Contemporary winner, also performed by Stroma last year), and in “Rudiments”, the ostinati have been almost entirely dispensed with, and the jagged, disjunctive rhythms have come to predominate.

The three movements of “Rudiments” were based on three foundations of music: melody, harmony and counterpoint (rhythm, notably, did not get a mention). The energy of “So It Goes” was still here, but expressed as a kind of textural exuberance (for my part, I miss the metre). In the first movement there was a dense tone-colour-melody, and a progression from single note to cluster. In the second (“Forest for the Trees”) there were some remnants of pulse, while in the third, hints of contrapuntal  imitation. For this piece, the versatile HamishMcKeich packed away his contrabassoon and took up the baton.

Gendall’s “Rudiments” is one of three contenders for the 2010 Sounz Contemporary Award, to be announced on 8 September. While undoubtedly a strong work, it remains to be seen whether it will be a landmark, and whether Gendall will consolidate his current style or explore other areas. Ross Harris is again in contention for the Award, this time with his Violin Concerto, first performed by Anthony Marwood and the NZSO in this year’s Made in New Zealand concert (7 May). Here the soloist wove an almost continuous commentary around the orchestra’s discourse, which ranged from the idiom of Webern, to Berg, to (even) Shostakovich. The episodic one-movement structure could seem either delightfully rhapsodic, or confused and meandering.  Despite the impeccable advocacy of Marwood and the NZSO, I was unconvinced by the premiere. After hearing subsequent Radio New Zealand Concert broadcasts, I have warmed to the work a little, but still remain ambivalent. If time-frames had permitted, I would have  much preferred Harris to have been represented by either “The Floating Bride, The Crimson Village” (Jenny Wollerman, NZSO/Sounz Readings last year; and Made in New Zealand 2010), or “The Abiding Tides” (Jenny Wollerman and the NZ String Quartet,  Arts Festival, 7 March). “The Floating Bride”was a romantically Mahlerian song-cycle, and while “The Abiding Tides” had some of the stylistic diversity of the Violin Concerto, in the chamber work the different styles tended to be confined within separate movements, and furthermore had a purpose in underlining Vincent O’Sullivan’s compelling texts.

Nevertheless, I would put money (if I had any) on Harris winning the Award. My own choice though would be  Chris Cree Brown’s “Inner Bellow” for clarinet and electronics. Performed by Gretchen Dunsmore at the CANZ Nelson Composers Workshop opening concert (4 July 2010), “Inner Bellow” not only seamlessly blended live and recorded sounds, but also created strange new colours from the partially dismantledclarinet, with intervals being compressed (instant microtones!) in some registers. As in “The Triumvirate”, played by the NZ Trio during the 2005 Nelson Composers Workshop, Cree Brown employed an adventurous musical language within a reassuringly conventional structure (with recurring elements suggestive of  a rondo).

Given the calibre of this year’s contestants, whoever receives the Award will be a worthy winner.


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