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New Zealand wind music to mark Waitangi Day at Nelson

By , 06/02/2011

Waitangi Winds. ‘To be announced’ (Sketches towards imagining the musical encounter between Tasman and Maori at Golden Bay); Philip Brownlee: Te Hau o Tawhirimatea for flute; Ken Wilson: Wind Quintet; Lilburn: Wind quintet (1957); Harris: Jazz Suite for Wind Quintet (2005)

Zephyr Wind Quintet (Bridget Douglas – flute, Robert Orr – oboe, Philip Green – clarinet, Edward Allen – horn, Robert Weeks – bassoon) and Richard Nunns – nga taonga puoro)

Nelson School of Music, Sunday 6 February, 1pm

A concert to mark Waitangi Day in appropriate fashion took place at lunchtime in the Nelson School of Music. It was given over to wind instruments, driven no doubt by the decision to feature Maori instruments, taonga puoro, largely wind.

The first piece for taonga puoro had been commissioned by Richard Nunns from Martin Lodge, but illness had stopped Martin from getting past a few sketches. Recent studies by Nunns with the late Allan Thomas and others has succeeded in throwing some light on the contribution that music might have made to the tragic outcome of the arrival of Tasman on these shores. Nunns described the scene that has been recreated from what paltry documentary sources there are, ignored by all the Dutch accounts of Tasman’s voyage.

The tribe would have delivered a challenge to the ships that had appeared in their bay and he proposed the long, recorder-like instrument, the pukaea, and the putatara, a small conch-shell instrument. Tasman would have looked for some way of responding. It so happened that some time earlier, Nunns had come across an old Dutch horn known as the mid-winter horn which Ed Allen, NZSO principal French horn, volunteered to manipulate. The exchange between these two fairly primitive horns was an uneasy one, and it was not hard to understand the scope for misunderstanding: a serious challenge had been responded to by sounds that the Maori perhaps interpreted as offensive or insulting: a classic case of people speaking past each other, so that when Tasman’s men set off next morning in the boats everything went wrong.

Culture contact in its most risky form, still to be seen in the phenomena of religion-fuelled strife today. The music’s further development and performance should awaken new interest in the unhappy events of 1642. For now the music which, Nunns remarked, might remain with the name ‘To be announced’, was very incomplete, but Nunns and flutist Bridget Douglas made a brave attempt to realise what the musical exchange between ship and shore might have been.

The following piece written by Philip Brownlee, Te Hau o Tawhitimatea (the breath of the wind god), employed three further instruments; the putorino, another long, recorder-like pipe that has a variety of playing techniques and five distinct functions; the koauau, a small piece carved from a dog bone, though I suppose bones of other mammals would have been used before Europeans arrived; and lastly the small white pumotomoto, used in birth rites, and played into the baby’s fontanella. While Nunns played these, Bridget Douglas played a modern flute and a piccolo.

The rest of the concert was devoted to three wind quintets by New Zealand composers.

The earliest was Lilburn’s of 1966 which has been resurrected in recent years by Ross Harris. Its character was retiring, and suggested a certain diffidence in its musical inspiration that was reflected in tentative weaving among the instruments with musical ideas that bore the familiar LIlburn stamp in their rhythmic shapes and melodic gestures.

Ken Wilson, a former NZSO clarinettist, wrote one of the early, classic New Zealand wind quintets. His idiom is strongly influenced, to no disadvantage at all, by French early 20th century wind compositions such as Poulenc’s; this is a piece that deserves to be heard more often.

The most likable of the three wind quintets was Ross Harris’s Jazz Suite for Wind Quintet., a set of short – mostly very short – pieces that captured a variety of traditional or 1950s jazz, swing, blues, all displaying Harris’s melodic confidence and his feeling for scale and shape.

The Zephyr Quintet gave all three pieces colourful and lively readings.

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