An Angel Released – music by Eve de Castro-Robinson

Eve de Castro-Robinson – RELEASING THE ANGEL

with: David Chickering (‘cello) / Tzenka Dianova (piano)

Vesa-Matti Leppānen (violin)

Lyrica Choir of Kelburn Normal School, Wellington (director: Nicola Edgecumbe)

Blade / Trilogy (kinetic sculptures by Len Lye)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Conductor: Kenneth Young

Atoll ACD 141

(recorded in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington)

Listening to the very opening of Releasing the Angel, the first music track on composer Eve de Castro-Robinson’s new, eponymously-titled CD from Atoll Records, leaves me “on-the-spot smitten” by the music’s attractive tactile quality. How readily those shimmering orchestral sounds fly towards and wrap themselves around and about my ears! – and how, just as tantalizingly, they fall away, leaving the voice of a solo ‘cello floating in those same spaces. This is, of course, the voice of the “Angel”, a personification inspired by a quote from the great Michelangelo, whose words “First it was stone, and then I released an angel” could be regarded as a metaphor for any kind of creative artistic activity.

In the case of the present recording, the ‘cello is that of the work’s dedicatee, David Chickering, associate principal ‘cellist of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. These artists premiered the piece in 2005, at a concert which I attended, being at the time similarly enthralled by the inspirations of both the work and its performance. Interestingly, I thought the orchestral resonances surrounding the ‘cello just as “charged”, the fashioning of the angel happily breathing life into its context. These “enfolding” ambiences give tongue according to their own lights, at first rhapsodizing, and then becoming more dynamic and rhythmic in their gradually-energised spaces, developing a kind of ritualistic processional,with exotic-sounding themes and instrumentation. After some excited tremolandi the ‘cello indicates it wishes to perform the act of final release, with the help of a few orchestral ecstasies, and a repeatedly whistled motif from the soloist. Suddenly, but timelessly, there’s peace with the then and now, and for the ages. As what happens when one reads Huckleberry Finn, one leaves the spell of this music  with similar regret.

A significant aspect of this new release of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work is the compositional ground it covers for the composer, the oldest work dating from 1987 – Peregrinations, for piano and orchestra, actually written as part of the composer’s doctorate, though revised by De Castro-Robinson in 1990. Despite it being what she calls “an old work” she values its representation of “signature sounds and compositional predilections”. I was fortunate enough to hear this work, played by Dan Poynton with the NZSO in 2006 – but for now, the pianist on the new recording is the superb Bulgarian-born Tzenka Dianova, whose energy and focus gives the writing that wonderful sense of spontaneous re-creation which accords brilliantly with the work’s overall raison d’être.

The work’s got a Ravelian beginning, growing out of what seems primordial material, impulses striving upwards towards the light, then stimulating an incredibly toccata-like frenzy in the orchestra which spawns all kinds of energies – there’s a kind of spontaneous impishness at work, here, in line with what the composer calls her “musical journey….a setting out on an expedition whose destination may not be clearly defined.” So, alongside the pre-planned musical landmarks, there’s an omnipresent sense of things wanting to go in unexpected directions. Out of a becalmed episode comes a violin solo (Vesa-Matti Leppānen), which in turn inspires a flowing cantilena from the strings, opening up the vistas of the orchestra and allowing space for an imposing tremolando to spread across the orchestral landscape. What’s remarkable about de Castro-Robinson’s writing is its transitional skill, an almost osmotic ability to move organically to and from extremes of colour, texture and rhythm. The result is a journey through the landscapes of the mind that sets a momentous feeling in places, against a quixotic and volatile spirit. Right to the end of the piece the “expect the unexpected” principle both keeps our interest and leaves us wanting more from each episode, thanks in part to the total identification with the work demonstrated by pianist, conductor and orchestra.

De Castro-Robinson’s music takes on a polemical edge with Other echoes, the one work on this CD previously recorded commercially, in this case by the Auckland Philharmonia and Nicholas Braithwaite, as part of the orchestra’s “Fanfares for the New Millennium” project of 1999. The music, featuring the imagined calls of the extinct huia as well as the threatened kokako, highlights the dangers for wildlife species posed by human activity; and continues to exert its power to disturb and awaken feelings regarding the issue. Its counterweight on this CD is the heartwarming These arms to hold you, written in 2007 for the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society on the occasion of its 100th birthday, and featuring a collaboration between the composer and poet Bill Manhire. De Castro-Robinson felt a special affinity with Plunket because of her involvement with the organization at the time of the birth of her son, Cyprian, to whom the work is dedicated. It was the first collaboration of hers with the poet, and the first music she’d written for a children’s choir, here, the Lyrica Choir of Kelburn Normal School in Wellington, directed by Nicola Edgecumbe. I’m quoting (without permission) from the composer’s own words, here, from a message she very kindly sent to me regarding the making of this CD………

“A lot of emails to’d and fro’d between Bill and me, and I grew to love his economical approach to the texts which included phrases drawn from a selection of his friends’ Plunket books: fit and well, bonny babe, two teeth, four teeth, crawling now, motions normal, on the move, etc which was delightful to set for the kids in a chantlike style.  Bill’s Lullaby, “Here is the world in which you sing, here is your sleepy cry, here is your sleepy mother, here the sleepy sky…Here is the wind in branches, here is the magpie’s cry…here are these arms to hold you, for a while” was particularly inspirational. Every time I hear my setting of the phrase ‘here are these arms to hold you’, I get a great lump in my throat. That’s what originally told me to use that phrase as the work’s title, and Bill agreed…it was the emotional heart of the text.”

Whosever idea it was to bring in the children’s choir from the distance, as it were,the voices running, laughing, chattering and bubbling with joy at being children, as it were, deserves a special mention in despatches. It makes for the most heartwarming introduction to the music, which is already infused with the magic of a child’s first sensations, and carries readily over into the motoric chanting of “It’s a boy – it’s a girl”, complete with hand-clapping, the music then gravitating, with de Castro-Robinson’s accustomed skill to a lullaby mode, the tones open and spacious, not unlike Elgar’s in parts of his “Sea Pictures”. There are instrumental quotes from nursery-rhyme tunes, and more chantings, this time from comments out of those Plunket Books, phrases that would have resounded in the memories of parents who had such records kept of their babies’ progress throughout those early years.

Concluding the disc with what, in fact, sounds practically like a hiss and a roar, is Eve de Castro-Robinson’s orchestral tribute to Len Lye, the New Zealand-born kinetic artist, sculptor and film-maker. The composer aptly describes the work Len Dances as “quite a romp, lots of dance tunes and so on…” Written in 2002, parts of this work will reappear in de Castro-Robinson’s opera LEN LYE, which will premiere in September next year at the Maidment Theatre. A feature of the work I really like is the use of the sound of some of Lye’s actual kinetic sculptures – Blade, the great twanging blade and cork ball most people associate with him, and Trilogy.

The opening of the work is all motoric and metallic impulse, awakening something that resembles a human pulse – gradually rhythms coalesce and settle into popular dance-forms – the Charleston leads the way, followed by something from Latin America – wonderfully sleazy work from solo clarinet and lower brass, and a gloriously vulgar trumpet. But the clarinet isn’t finished, and sparks off further energies, the percussion taking over and providing a rhythmic framework for the glorious sounds made by some of Lye’s sculptures, in particular, Blade and Trilogy, whose reverberations and resonances have the last word.

I’m certain that the enormous amounts of energy, spirit and technical skill emanating from this production come from the scenario generated by what de Castro-Robinson describes as “three days of intensive, dedicated recording by the magnificent sound-machine that is the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – a composer’s dream!”. Obviously everything came together, musicians and technicians producing a notable sound-document of which everybody involved with can be justly proud. My only complaint – a small but reasonably significant one – is the lack of documentation in the production regarding recording dates and venue (uncharacteristic for Atoll). In every other respect (including the wonderful frontispiece illustration taken from a painting, Birds, by Peter Madden) this is a disc that proclaims a standard for contemporary music’s presentation. Everybody should hear it, and especially those who think they don’t much care for contemporary New Zealand music – there’s an angel waiting to be released in each one of them as well!

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