‘NZTrio’ at Paekakariki’s Mulled Wine concerts


Piano Trio in F sharp minor, Hob XV:26 (Haydn), Intaglio (Chris Gendall), Grooveboxes from Swing Shift (Kenji Bunch), Piano Trio in A minor, Op 50 (Tchaikovsky)

The New Zealand Trio (‘NZTrio’): Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano

Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Sunday 27 March 2.30pm (and also, in part, at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre, Monday 28 March)

The Mulled Wine concert series at Paekakariki has become an interesting and singular event in the pattern of music in the Greater Wellington region. Some of the concerts are indeed to be found repeated elsewhere in the region; some are not. The NZ Trio’s concert could have been heard again the following evening at Lower Hutt and I took myself there in order to get a different aural experience and to listen again to the pieces new to me. (I happen to live in a suburb roughly equidistant from Paekakariki, Lower Hutt and Wellington city).

I believe that this was the first visit by the NZ Trio at this series. They would have been charmed by the setting, both by the traditional small-town hall and it location by the sea. The dramatic variety of microclimates visited on the south-west corner of the North Island was dramatically played out too.

Just an hour or so after a phenomenal downpour that cause floods in the Porirua basin, here it was pleasant and partly sunny. Kapiti was moored offshore and the sound of the waves on the eroding beach were sometimes synchronised with the rhythms of the music. I’m sure the players would have been impressed at the enterprise and friendliness of the series organizers, led by Mary Gow, not to mention the mulled wine afterwards.

The players were seated about half way along the western wall with their backs to the sea, and so on the same level as the audience, so there were sight-line difficulties of some.

That placing may have contributed to the way the acoustic amplified the players’ sounds; as well as being too loud, it had the effect of somewhat flattening dynamic nuances.

All three musicians are bachelor graduates of the University of Canterbury and they have all done post-graduate study in the United States. The trio has been around since 2002 and it’s pre-eminent in its field here as well as having built up an impressive reputation overseas. Their present schedule shows over 30 concerts here and abroad this year.

They played two ‘classical’ pieces, one of Haydn’s 40-odd trios, and the only one that Tchaikovsky wrote; plus two shorter contemporary pieces.

No one claims to know all of Haydn’s music, and I hadn’t heard this one in F sharp minor (Hoboken catalogue number XV:26) before. It overflows with drama, colour and variety, making up for a certain lack of charm and memorable tunes. My only misgiving was that the players hadn’t quite got the measure of the hall, which probably affected the Haydn more than the other pieces. Nevertheless, Haydn would have enjoyed the robust and determined force of the performance, even in the more soulful slow movement.

Tchaikovsky’s only piano trio more than occupied all the second half. It’s so full of rapturous and voluptuous melody that it’s easy to understand how certain more ascetic listeners and critics might have considered it sentimental or saccharine; perhaps some still do. Not only did the trio exploit all its overflowing romantic qualities to the full, but they invested it with a facsimile of a full orchestral sound.  Sure, the volume control was still set too high, but it was a flawless performance of surpassing brilliance and power, that surely calls for a recording ASAP.

In between, before the interval, came two contemporary pieces, one of New Zealand, the other from the United States.

The first, by Wellington-based Chris Gendall, was called Intaglio – a term familiar to print-makers. A composition of the experimental kind, free of conventional melody, but rich in non-musical techniques and intriguing relationships between the instruments. It was to hear this piece again that I went to Lower Hutt the following evening. Though the theatre is reputed to have a difficult acoustic, it accommodated the trio’s performance more comfortably in the Haydn, and gave me a clear hearing of Chris Gendall’s piece; though I still failed to recognize any relationship between the musical character and the ‘intaglio’ printmaking process. If, as the composer writes, it refers rather to the process of its composition, its use seems a pointless gesture for the listener. However, a second hearing, as so often, offered a sort of recognition experience, even the seeming random, widely spaced piano hits. And I listened to it with some enjoyment.

It was followed by a part of a New York inspired piece called Swing Shift, capturing in relentless rap rhythms that would serve for break dancers, the nocturnal life of a city that never sleeps.I loved its energy and the powerhouse performance by all three players, employing engaging jazz pulse generated by what the notes describe as a DJ’s ‘beat box’ or ‘groove box’, of the nature of which this audience member is blissfully ignorant.

Possibly, the trio is mildly irritated with my pedantry in preferring to spell out their name. I never abbreviate the name of my country (or any other country) in anything I write. I have always been guided by what today might be becoming old-fashioned printers’ style, as is found in printers’ ‘style books’, such as of the former New Zealand Government Printing Office and The New York Times; they are generally very clear:“Don’t abbreviate!”. Acronyms are permissible when universally used, at least by your particular readership, like NZSO for us.Even stronger is my dislike of calling New Zealanders Kiwis and things pertaining to New Zealand, Kiwi. I find it demeaning, and as an editor I have always taken the liberty of eliminating ‘Kiwi’ from others’ copy.