New Zealand Trio in beautiful Upper Hutt recital

Brahms: Piano Trio No 2 in C, Op 87; Chris Adams: Jekyl Rat; Kenji Bunch: Swing
; Schubert: Piano Trio No 1 in B flat, D 898

New Zealand Trio (Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins –

Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt

Thursday 28 July, 8pm

I have been sorry to miss the first two concerts in this year’s Classical Expressions series at Upper Hutt’s so agreeable arts centre.

Unfortunately, neither of my colleagues had been able to get to them either.

For the record the earlier concerts were by the Amici Ensemble, which comprises leading players from the NZSO, who played, inter alia, clarinet quintets by Brahms and Anthony Ritchie; and the violin and piano of Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons, whose recital included Schubert’s Fantasie in C (D 934 presumably) and Strauss’s Violin Sonata.

It was a calm and cool (not cold) evening and I’d have expected a big turn-out on account of the trio’s programming of two of the most glorious piano trios, by Brahms and Schubert. But the auditorium was little more than half filled; though one has to recognize that these concerts are a little more expensive than comparable concerts elsewhere.

That didn’t lead to performances of any less warmth and richness however. Helped very significantly by the luxurious tone of the piano, this was music, from the very opening unison chords, in the high Romantic tradition, revealing all the emotion and profundity of spirit that Brahms had at his command: the players sounded fully in sympathy and  captured all its opulence and grandeur.

What intrigues me about the slow movement is Brahms’s rhythmic ambiguity which, if not handled with an unerring instinct, can sound uncertain and irregular, but the trio unraveled it all while not losing sight of Brahms’s pleasure in posing little enigmas throughout the course of the several variations which comprise the Andante. Ambiguity is one of the essentials of a work of art.

I was often struck by the happy blending of tone and spirit by violin and cello, and Sarah Watkins’s piano playing was the very essence of the chamber music style, both supportive and illuminating.

Naturally, there is some falling-off of profundity in a scherzo movement, and though the players threw themselves vigorously into it, the music becomes a bit routine (but in a sense that is strictly relative only to Schubert’s finest compositions); the more soulful trio section of the Scherzo, between outer tremolando passages, was played with particular relish. A deep contemplative spirit is replaced in the Finale by something Brahms does well –a certain daemonic flippancy, alternating light and shade, the full-bodied and the ghostly.

Schubert’s B flat trio ended the concert. In this, more than in the Brahms, I felt, the players, while never faltering in their ensemble, found ways to differentiate their parts that made you pay particular attention to them as individual players. Though it is a remarkably balanced group in terms of musical skill and interpretive faculty, I found my attention drawn very often to Ashley Brown’s cello (perhaps through being a cellist of the 5th class myself); for example in the slow, emotionally strong crescendo bowings in the Allegro.

Schubert’s slow movements are usually at the heart of his music, and the impression is easy to conjure up in the late works, in this case, suffering advancing illness, just a year before his death. it seemed to dramatise the lyrical, the emphatic, the meditative, the
despairing even, with special force.

Again in the Scherzo I sense a certain striving for jollity that, on an uncharitable day, might seem a bit false, and I felt the players did hint at a little of that in the playing. The middle Trio section was allowed to be more soulful.

Music as politics
In between these two masterpieces were two contemporary pieces that reflected places and people in a very particular way, a way which might have raised eyebrows in earlier periods when music was expected to be mainly abstract, translating stories or characters through means that were formally and primarily musical. There seems to be no widespread disapproval of ‘programme’ music these days, and a great deal of music is conspicuously inspired by and intended to evoke extra-musical ideas, images, narratives.

Chris Adams’s Jekyll Rat, in spite of Ashley Brown’s elaborate avoidance of naming the MP hidden in the score, was pretty transparent, especially in the second section, Sycophant’s Dance, a sort of Tango in which one could easily conjure the deputé in a TV show dropping his partner on the floor.

It’s curious that so few composers of the past have felt inspired to represent political issues in music; some opera composers did, certainly – Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner in particular – but how many chamber music composers did?. One gets no impression of the political views of Bach, Haydn, Mozart or Schumann…

Having remarked on the ‘programmatic’ nature of the piece, one must observe the clear
marks of a careful and imaginative musical structure, with rather recognizable musical signposts. It was in three parts: ‘Me ne frego’ – ‘I don’t give a damn’; ‘Sycophant’s Dance’; and ‘Insanity represented by Mustard Yellow’ (a remarkably clear clue). The wit lay in the musical invention, as much as in the non-musical aspect: in the scoring for the three instruments, during which I was often conscious of a smile on my face. It led the listener along unexpected paths, to surprising conjunctions of ideas, and it concluded in a diminuendo, disappearing in a puff of smoke or, if you like, up the subject’s hidden orifice.

For all its splendidly overt political message, I felt it also stood on its own feet as a quite extensive piece of music.

Night Flight in New York
The other contemporary piece was by Kenji Bunch, an Oregon-born composer, said in the notes to have emerged as one of America’s most prominent composers of his generation (he’s in his late 30s), but this puzzled me as I could find no website devoted to him and only very odd references to his music: none at all to Swing Shift, which turns out to be the name of a 1984 film, an American big band, an album by an Australian pop group, and so on. No mention of Bunch.

However, the players have supplied interesting background. Sarah sent me Bunch’s website (don’t be led to think Google or Wikipedia are exhaustive reference sources). He’s written a symphony, a great variety of music for large and small forces, been commissioned, inter alia, by the English Chamber Orchestra, St Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, the Naumburg Foundation, and has been broadcast on the BBC and NHK, Japan.

The trio played one movement, Night Flight, the second of the six-movement suite, Swing Shift, comprising three lively and three calmer movements, by Kenji Bunch. Last year they played the sixth movement, Grooveboxes, at Paekakariki. This year the trio are playing movements from Swing Shift at their Auckland Museum concerts this year and Justine says they might play the entire suite some time. Both the movements played so far have been feisty, jazzy and strongly rhythmic. Night Flight is written in a reasonably conventional idiom, strong four-in-a-bar rhythms, with stretches of piano arpeggios and ostinato-like motifs.

The piece was personable, lively and colourful and suggests that the opinions recorded about Bunch are just.

I can imagine a performance of the whole work in a venue like a museum. It’s a pity that none of Wellington’s museums appear to be aware of the common world-wide practice of presenting good music. Sure there is music, but very little evidence of its selection by people with cultivated musical taste or knowledge of the all-important classical repertoire.

A chamber ensemble’s environment
The NZ Trio is among the most accomplished full-time professional chamber groups in New Zealand. While there is a large repertoire for piano trio, much of the 18th century is domestic or salon music, even that of Haydn and Mozart; almost all the relatively few great works are of the 19th century. Thus a piano trio is right to devote a lot of effort to exploring contemporary repertoire, and particularly to commission New Zealand music.

All these things the NZ Trio does splendidly, and it’s to be hoped that the unhappy political and economic environment will not affect the survival of the group. The fresh decision by Radio New Zealand Concert to cease paying fees (forced by frozen funding from New Zealand on Air) to concert promoters for broadcasting rights will have a serious impact on most chamber music groups. However, in the meantime, it will not stop the recording and broadcasting of concerts, though reductions in their numbers might be imposed in due course, as political ill-will towards state-funding of the arts is like a cancer.

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