A Good Time Not A Long Time – SMP Ensemble

A Good Time Not A Long Time

New short piano and solo works by New Zealand composers


Sam Jury (piano)

The SMP Ensemble

Adam Concert Room,

New Zealand School of Music

Sunday June 27th 2010

The SMP Ensemble, a Wellington-based contemporary music performing group, has gradually become a welcome “presence” upon the local music-making scene. Formed by clarinettist Andrzej Nowicki, the group draws upon the skills of various freelance and New Zealand School of Music performers. Like its longer-established  “big brother” equivalent Stroma, it has a wondrous flexibility in terms of performance, both in playing existing music and in commissioning new works, being able to call upon the services of so many talented musicians. Although this recent concert “A Good Time Not a Long Time” was advertised as featuring mainly solo piano, there were other instrumentalists involved at various times, making for a few diverting surprises throughout the evening.

The bulk of the performance responsibility was borne by pianist Sam Jury, an extremely capable and talented player, who was able to encompass the diverse worlds of the compositions for solo keyboard with quiet, undemonstrative confidence, and (very importantly) what seemed like considerable enjoyment. His programme included a number of established contemporary piano classics by Douglas Lilburn, Anthony Ritchie, Gillian Whitehead and John Psathas, a recently-composed work by Pieta Hextall, and some highly diverting miniatures by various composers, written as submissions for a concert performed at the 2010 ISCM World New Music Day Festival in Sydney.  So, the solo piano component of the concert alone was diverting enough, but the occasional alternatives served to refresh eyes and ears – french horn, strings and contrabassoon all played their part in this process of bringing to audience ears new and thought-provoking sounds.

The concert actually began with a work for French horn, Deux Grand Fanfares by Karlo Margetic, a composer whose work I find constantly stimulating and often surprising, not least of all for his droll sense of humour which occasionally makes a telling appearance. After Alex Morton had gurgled, breathed and grunted his way through an opening fanfare notable for its player’s physical gesturings and the sense of antiphonal spaces created by the contrasting timbres and “exit-points” of the sounds, the composer appeared with a bucket, presumably suggesting either that the musician either was or would shortly be in need of a receptacle of some kind! The second fanfare was delivered with the mouthpiece removed from the instrument, creating what might be thought of in some quarters as an uncanny visual reminiscence of the cartoonist Hoffnung’s depiction of an oboe player. The “plumbing” sounds took us past such visual and aural conventions into a different cosmos of chain reaction involving impulse, player, instrument and listener, a cobweb-cleaning process for our receptivities if ever there was one.

Sam Jury’s first appearance was to give us some Lilburn, beginning with the Four Preludes from the years 1942-4, ritualistic pieces with characteristic rhythms drawn from melodic impulses. A lovely Grieg-like descending sequence marked the first piece, while the second was a sombre and subtly-inflected processional. The third Prelude alternated repeated-note patterns with deep, rich shifting chords, while the fourth was more energetic, a Toccata-like energy driving the music through darkly rich realms, with a lovely, treble-voiced throwaway ending. Two Christmas Pieces for L.B. from 1949 followed, the first singing a gentle, wistful song, and the other depicting distant carollers and resounding bells floating in an ambience of nostalgic harmony. These pieces were dedicated to the composer’s friend, the artist Leo Bensemann, and reflect a shared perception of ritual and natural order in the world. The last piece, Rondino, has the composer’s characteristic repeating note-patterned melodies, the obsessive treble set against a shifting bass to winsome effect.

A number of shortish pieces followed, written by various composers for the 2010 ISCM “Momentary Pleasures” concert in Sydney, works that had to be written in one day. Justus Rozemond’s Humoresque had a quirky, accelerando character, using a triplet rhythm to generate momentum, before contrasting the mood with a nocturnal-like melody, and returning to a skittery scherzando before finishing with a fortissimo chord. Carol Shortis called her piece Momentary Pleasures, creating wistful spaces between treble and bass at the start, the sounds agglomerating into a sphere of rolling triplets, before the energies dissipated once again, a final whimsical phrase suggesting a poem’s words “a caress of momentary pleasures”. Anton Killin’s After Clive Bell evoked a great stillness, into which was hewn a great resounding forte, the music moving and tolling like an earth-clock – very evocative! By contrast, Andrzej Nowicki’s Resonate seemed to reverse the previous piece’s process, massive chords resonating, whispering fragments of melody building up to monumental blocks of sound, saturating the ambiences and gradually dying away, the music for me strangely evocative of dreams. The final ISCM piece was Drying Music by Robbie Ellis, a piece that achieved the distinction of being selected for the actual concert in Sydney – a brief and instantly memorable evocation of a laundrette dryer, a bass ostinato driving a motif that petered out along with the money.

Gillian Whitehead’s Lullaby for Matthew, dating from 1981, and dedicated to the composer’s nephew, worked its well-known enchantments, from the opening’s dynamic contrasts through the lull of the ever-diminishing repetitions, and to the point of sleep. Something completely different was provided by composer Tabea Squire, a work for violin and viola called Reto Doble, a Spanish expression meaning “double challenge”, the piece played by the composer on violin and Greg, her father, on the viola, the work suggesting an interaction not unlike that of bull and bullfighter. The two instruments began by musing on a single note, violin holding the note and viola decorating around and about it, before generating rhythmic repetitions with a Spanish flavour, the players taking turns with the melodic and accompaniment roles of the music’s advancement. What developed was a musical dance of confrontation between combatants, the intensities screwed up ever-tightly to the point where the “coup de grace” was held and savoured, and then delivered. Most enjoyable and compelling!

More “Momentary Pleasures” followed the interval (wonderful refreshments! – prospective SMP concert-goers, please note!), pianist Sam Jury returning to do each composer’s brief but telling conception proud with sensitive, well-focused responses. I loved Pepe Becker’s Snoozing, the sounds having all the colour, ambience and feeling of my own doze-dreams, with the awakening depicted as a couple of involuntary, regretful murmurings. Ben Hoadley’s Ben and T at the Puriri Trees together with Shirin’s Music began as another meditative, Debussy-like soundscape, with sensibilities shaken and stirred by violent irruptions and exotic-sounding declamations, the music crowding around and about the centre with clusters of melismatic figuration. I wasn’t too sure regarding the division-point between the two named sections, but I guessed that Shirin’s Music was more ritualistic and processional, the music’s progress decorated by exotic-sounding ornament and irrupted by flashes of temperament and agitation. Cascades of figurations allowed these energies to run their course, the music returning to the opening processional aspect, the ending wide-eyed and widely-spaced.

Alex Taylor’s somewhat elliptically-titled work alt. generated, like Ben Hoadley’s piece, a world of wonderment at the outset, gathering increasing weight as the widely-spaced arpeggiations vied increasingly with what its composer called “glacial phrases”, the effect dramatic and visceral, and in almost complete contrast with Yvette Audain’s Upon attending a performance of “The Wizard Of Oz” , which readily brought to mind a child’s wonderment at the magic of a theatrical experience, the music infused with treblish brighness and enthusiasm. To achieve true closure of the ISCM bracket of piano pieces, Hayley Roud brought out her wondrously large contra-bassoon to play a piece by Tristan Carter entitled Lilith. Such demonic associations were suggested more by default than by the serpentine sounds conjured from what seemed like a sleeping being, a monster slowly aroused from slumber, the player viscerally choreographing the soundscape with breathiness and impulsive vocalised exhalations, the instrument’s voice abstracted through gesture as it were.

Three piano pieces remained, one a new work by Pieta Hextall, and two other, more established pieces by Anthony Ritchie and John Psathas. Pieta Hextell’s 2010 piano piece Planet Vandal was described by its composer as “a musical impression of a confrontation between whalers and activists on the Pacific Ocean”. The writing has both pictorial and narrative elements, the opening redolent of the vast spaces of a seascape, with tones clustering and reforming, and fragments of a song sounding. As the music’s manner becomes more dynamic, first figurations and then chordal passages begin to generate agitations, leading to syncopations, hammerings and downward cascades of notes, a mood which runs its course and returns the music to the mood of the opening, the song taking the character of a lament, as the sounds gradually disappear. This was the work’s second performance in public, and one hopes it will be heard again before too long (via William Green in Auckland, perhaps?) – in Sam Jury’s capable hands I found it a moving listening experience.

Anthony Ritchie’s attractive Birds and a Steam Train in the Caitlins was written for Ann Saslav for performance in schools, but surely deserves wider currency, perhaps as New Zealand’s answer to Heitor Villa Lobos’s world-famous steam-train evocation. The composer gets it right throughout, taking the listener to the heart of the native bush via rich and verdant harmonies and insistent birdsong, before stimulating gentle locomotions, generating less steam and smoke than atmosphere and nostalgia. Of course, John Psathas’s well-known work Waiting for the Aeroplane is a quintessential nostalgia-trip, having what pianist Dan Poynton once described vividly as a “goosebump-sick” quality, the drifting resonances generating powerful equivocations of presence and distance which never fail to touch deep places within. Sam Jury kept the ambiences together, moving the arpeggiated melismas along, and knitting more closely the agitations of the central section with the overall rhythmic pulsings of the piece, rather than going for maximum contrast – more Stravinsky-like than Schumannesque in his approach. His playing of the piece made an appropriately resonant conclusion to the evening’s music, a sense of something ongoing, despite the immediate sounds dying away…

One thought on “A Good Time Not A Long Time – SMP Ensemble

  1. kate says:

    I was in that concert… I didn’t find Sam Jury played well at all… it was a rather disappointing evening for me…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *