SOUNZtender – NZ Music going for a song…..

SOUNZtender – the Concert

The Music:

John Psathas – Songs for Simon / Gillian Whitehead – Tumanako: Journey through an unknown landscape / Eve de Castro-Robinson – and the garden was full of voices / Ross Harris – Four Laments for solo clarinet  Chris Gendall – Suite for String Quartet

The Winning Bidders:

Jack C. Richards – John Psathas / Helen Kominik – Gillian Whitehead / Barry Margan – Eve de Castro-Robinson / Wellington Chamber Music Society – Ross Harris / Christopher Marshall – Chris Gendall

The Performers:

Donald Nicolson (piano) – Songs for Simon (Psathas) / Diedre Irons (piano) – Tumanako (Whitehead) / Gao Ping (piano) – and the garden was full of voices (de Castro-Robinson) / Phil Green (clarinet) – Four Laments (Harris) / The New Zealand String Quartet – Suite for String Quartet (Gendall)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 30th May 2010

New Zealand composers putting their creative talents up for auctioning online? Local music patrons, sponsors and benefactors competing amongst themselves for compositional favours from our top composers? Amid the recent shivers caused by icy blasts directed by politicians and bureaucrats against music practitioners and disseminators such as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Radio New Zealand Concert, this composer-inspired project from the Centre For New Zealand Music represented a skyful of sunbeams brightening up a naughty world. Five composers, all previous winners of the SOUNZ Contemporary Award, proposed to each write a work for solo instrument (or, as it turned out, small ensemble) for the five top bidders in an online auction. It took little more than a fortnight for the bidding to bring in more than $20,000 to further assist with the work of SOUNZ in promoting and collecting and making more readily available the work of New Zealand composers.

The resulting concert was the culmination of more than a year’s preparation of the project, whose inauguration took place on May 14th 2009, the ensuing bidding taking place throughout the remainder of that month. The five successful commissioners won the right to work with a selected composer in relation to a particular composition. In each case  there was a degree of collaboration between commissioner and composer, details of which were in some instances (though not all) outlined in the concert’s programme notes. I found the details of all of this fascinating, recalling as it did my readings of past composers’ dealings with people who commissioned works from them – thought-provoking tracings of interaction between creativity and expectation, a process with an extremely colourful history.

So, a little more than a year after the inauguration of the scheme, composers and performers were ready with the fruits of their labours – the overall result was a concert featuring three diverse piano pieces, and a work each for solo clarinet and string quartet. No wonder that each of the performances of these new pieces promised a particular intensity, a sharp-edged focus that would require concentrated and committed listening, the process made all the more direct and immediate by the “shared-space” ambiences of the Ilott Theatre. Those who had been charged with the task of delivery were about to prove the worth of their discharge.

The first of the pieces, John Psathas’ “Songs for Simon” I found something of a disarming experience at first, the pianist (Donald Nicolson) launching into a simple, repetitiously patterned sequence in tandem with pre-recorded percussion. It established a kind of passacaglia form throughout which attractive melodic lines appeared, built up a certain textural ambience, and then gradually diminished, leaving the percussion to “round off” the sequence. The second part, entitled “Minos” by the composer, was much freer rhythmically and harmonically; and presented the fascinating spectacle of a “live” performer interacting in unpredictable, non-rhythmic ways with the pre-recorded sounds. Whereas the first part of the piece (interestingly titled “His Second Time”) had seemed a shade “formulaic” in its regularity, this whole second episode I found extremely compelling due to its improvisatory air. Such was the concentration with which Donald Nicolson seemed to be “listening” to his “partner” the latter’s utterances seemed also to take on a live, spontaneously-wrought quality. I liked the assertiveness of the percussion cadenza towards the end, and the piano’s dreamy, equivocal response which concluded the work. It would have been interesting to have had some inkling of the interaction between commissioner and composer regarding the work, its titles and sections, and its musical content.

Gilian Whitehead’s piece which followed relied entirely on “conventional” piano acoustics, the only departure from tradition being two sections in the work where the performer is invited to extend and further elaborate upon what is already written. Such was the extent to which pianist Diedre Irons seemed to have “swallowed” the work’s whole ethos I found it impossible to tell which sections these were in performance. Commissioner Helen Kominik dedicated this work to her great grandchildren, Kate and Tom Fraser, the composer thoughtfully making reference in her written notes to the music’s journeyings reflecting the progress of time and the coming of new generations. This renewal of life is suggested also by the piece’s title, “Tumanako”, which means “hope”, though a subtitle “Journey through an unknown landscape” gives further dimensions to the music. Arising from a recent trip through the Yunnan province of China, the composer’s inspiration was stimulated by the plethora of images and sensations, partly traditional, partly unknown, that were encountered  and experienced in a short time. The music was intended to reflect this profusion of encounters, and their relatively unrelated juxtapositioning, though I thought  detected a certain recurrence of some motifs. In general, the piece seemed to encompass whole worlds, with ideas often running in accord – sometimes as in a sense of great stillness existing at the centre of rhythmic activity, while at other times with contrasting characters kaleidoscopically changing, bell-like descents alternating with delicate birdsong-effects. Diedre Irons seemed to catch all of the piece’s moods, hold them for our pleasure, and just as tellingly let them go, playing throughout with such freedom and understanding – those deep, upwardly-echoing chords and the slivers of birdsong which ended the work made for one of many such breath-catching moments throughout.

On the face of things putting three piano pieces together at the beginning of the programme seemed a more pragmatic than artistic piece of programming designed to avoid constant piano relocation! In fact, such were the contrasts wrought by each composer’s music that the instrument seemed almost to be reinvented with each piece, perhaps most radically with Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work “and the garden was full of voices”. Bearing the description “for vocalising pianist”, the music requires both performer and instrument to go beyond conventional sound-parameters, the player asked to recite, to whistle and to vocalise, as well as play; and the piano “prepared”, as well as having its strings directly manipulated by the player. Commissioner Barry Margan, himself a fine pianist, took an active part in the music’s initial formulation, suggesting titles for two of the work’s three movements, and working with the composer on various sonic, literary and metaphysical inspirations. The outcome was a piece rich in poetic allusion, the associations intensified by the use of Bill Manhire’s poetry in the titles for both the overall work and its second movement, “moon darkened by song”. On this occasion the pianist was fellow-composer Gao Ping, who, closely miked, entered fully into the performance’s more theatrical aspects, whispering the opening words “I stayed a minute” and using both the piano’s conventional tones and the “prepared” registers of the instrument (which the pianist did in full view of the audience before the music started). The first part resounded with tui calls, antiphonally rendered through the different timbres created by the strings’ augmentations, and contrasted with richer ambiences created by cimbalon-like tremolandi – by contrast, the delicacies of the gently-strummed treble strings gave an other-world effect at the movement’s conclusion.

At the beginning of the second movement I began to wonder whether the pianist’s microphone had actually been set at slightly too high a level for the whistlings and vocalisings – although there was plenty of expressive impact the sounds seemed over-wrought, a shade too “enhanced” next to the piano-tones. Even so, the composer’s “ritualistic” description of parts of the music was adroitly brought into play, as the pianist initiated an almost primitive singing-along with the music’s melody line, as well as speaking in low, chant-like tones and clapping slowly with raised hands, as if invoking an elusive spirit of delight. In between, the piano sounds suggested different kinds of ruminations, surface musings rubbing shoulders with deep thoughts and charged silences, the spoken incantation “moon darkened by song” providing an apt description of the mystery. The “ancient chants” of the finale featured a whispered title from the soloist at the outset, and oscillating repetitions from the piano, the right hand occasionally seeking air and light in the treble, then resubmerging, the repetitions resembling a kind of dance-chant, which builds into an impassioned interplay of half-tone patternings, with resounding bass notes suggesting the abyss below our feet that stalks our existence. As it began, the piece ended as might a ritual, with doomsday-like gong-stroke notes that resounded, lingered and faded away.

Though the solo clarinet featured in Ross Harris’s work which followed provided plenty of contrast with piano timbres, there was no let-up in intensity, as suggested by the “Four Laments” title. Described by the composer as consisting of “four short and rather quiet movements” the music reflected upon and interacted with the sound of each of the movement’s titles, the word for “lament” in four different languages. The first, “Klaga”, was Swedish, slow-moving, very out-of-doors music, its wide-ranging notations suggesting the isolation of vast spaces, and associated loneliness, and a sense of a spirit communing with nature. This was followed by the Yiddish “Vaygeshray”, a rhythmically droll and quirky piece, engagingly angular in places, choleric in others, and with lovely sotto-voce stream-of-consciousness episodes that set off the more energetic outbursts. The “Tangi” movement featured long-breathed lines, flecked occasionally by birdsong, and echoed with haunting “harmonics”, two notes sounded simultaneously, along with the player’s audible breath as a third timbral “presence” (superb playing by Phil Green), creating an almost prehistoric ambience. The last movement was the Gaelic “Corranach”, somewhat redolent of a wake, with its lyrical opening giving way to snatches of mercurial, dance-like sequences, with ghostly jigs and reels fleetingly remembered. Phil Green’s playing conveyed a real sense of living the music throughout, with each sequence drawn into a larger, more equivocal and suggestive world of different life-and death enactments, deeply moving.

Although these SOUNZtender works were originally designated as commissions for solo instruments, Christopher Marshall, the winning bidder for composer Chris Gendall, decided to specify a work for a string quartet. Marshall’s idea was to propose four ubiquitous forms of music and commission a response to each, with a different instrumentalist in the quartet taking the lead in each piece. Gendall’s response was to abstract certain stylistic elements of each form, rather than attempt to imitate with a set of pastiche-style pieces. The result was a set of boldly-etched pieces whose characteristics seemed to leave their original inspirations behind, but whose sharp, if oblique focus still compelled attention in each case.

Canto, the first movement, spotlit the solo ‘cello, whose music represented a struggle to coalesce into any kind of song, despite the efforts of the higher instruments to entice their partner into lyrical mode. The swaying, sighing character of the next movement, “Scorrevole”, conveyed its eponymous character with great delicacy and beauty, while the third movement, “Tango”, seemed to be a kind of “noises off” realisation of the dance, the skeletal left-handed pizzicati evoking something gestural more than sounded. Here, the solo viola juicily intoned the beginnings of a melody amidst the “danse macabre” of the other instruments, which then all rounded on a single note, each voice colouring the contributing timbres and “bending” the pitch to somewhat exotic effect. There was plenty of ‘snap” to the playing from all concerned, suggesting a certain volatility, and rich chordings that broke off their sostenuto character to fragment in different and adventuresome directions. The final “Bagatelle” largely inhabited the stratospheres, the first violin’s harmonic-like shimmerings drawing similar sounds from the other instruments, whose subtly-shifting colourings brought different intensities to bear, before clustering around the tightly-focused tones of the leader in a nebula of other-worldliness.

What worlds, what evocations, what alchemic realisations! All composers except for Chris Gendall were present to share audience plaudits, along with the respective performers, a unique distillation of contemporary New Zealand music-making. People I spoke with afterwards admitted to favourites among those heard, though interestingly no one work seemed to resound more frequently than others throughout the discussions. As with all new music, though, premieres are one thing, and further performances are another – so it will be interesting to listen out for these works played in different settings and circumstances (although Ross Harris’s work “Four Laments” has already stolen a march on the others, being repeated by Phil Green at an Amici Ensemble concert in Wellington again, tomorrow). The commissioners proudly received their presentation scores of the works performed at a function in the Town Hall Mayoral Chambers after the concert – and the project was thus completed. Very full credit to the Centre for New Zealand Music, the directors Scilla Askew (recent) and Julie Sperring (current), its Trustees and volunteers and contributing commissioners and composers, for a notably historic and successful undertaking.

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