Two former schools chamber music contest winners return in international roles

Chamber Music New Zealand

Alwyn Westbrooke: “?”, or: Why Gryphons Shouldn’t Dance
Ravel: Trio in A minor
Schubert: Piano Trio no.2 in E flat, Op.100, D929

Saguaro Trio (John Chen, piano, Luanne Homzy, violin, Peter Myers, cello)

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 3 August 2011, 7.30pm

It cannot be too often that two young people who both played in the Schools Chamber Music Contest in the same year appear on the same top-flight CMNZ tour merely ten years later, one as pianist and the other as composer.

Yet that was the case in this CMNZ programme in Wellington, part of a tour of ten centres in New Zealand, to be followed by a five-city tour in Australia. In the local tour, the Saguaro Trio will perform in both the Taranaki and the Christchurch Music Festivals (good on Christchurch for going ahead with their Festival!)

The Trio has had great success since it formed in 2007, the very next year winning competitions in Japan, and in the USA, where all three were then based, and an important competition in Hamburg, where all three now live, in 2009. (The photograph in the CMNZ subscription brochure for this year shows a different cellist.)

In the Hamburg contest, eight different trios were required to be played – a very demanding programme. On this tour, six different works are being performed.

The work by Alwyn Westbrooke, who was a student at Burnside High School in Christchurch when he had success as both composer and performer in the Contest, and uniquely won both the performance first prize (as a violinist with his quartet) and the composition prize, was a commission by CMNZ. Its composer heard it for the first time at the beginning of this tour, in Invercargill.

His work opened the programme. It came over as an experiment in sounds, but with coherence. The word ‘beauty’ does not come to mind, however. Various unusual techniques were applied to the string instruments. I thought ‘There must be some plucking of the piano strings soon’, and sure enough! It seems to be obligatory these days. There was extraordinary playing from all three performers, but especially from John Chen. However, I did not find the work engaging.

The Ravel trio has a very gentle, vague opening, evoking thoughts of ‘Where are we? What key are we in?’ It received strong yet subtle playing. The delicious reverie, particularly in the piano part, summons idyllic thoughts and images. This movement calls on Basque folk dance, and evokes a mysterious atmosphere. As the programme note put it “…a wistful movement… dominated by rhythmic fluctuations and hypnotically shifting harmonies.”

The second movement was quite lively and exotic, yet enchanting. Then came the more contemplative Passacaille third. It was played with fluidity, fluency and finesse. It even became solemn, with use of the lower register of the piano. The final movement gradually livened up – but this is predominantly a mellow, graceful work.

These performers demonstrated first-class balance and blend. Their ensemble was near-perfect in timing, intonation, dynamics, expression and interpretation. Only a couple of times towards the end of the final work did I hear a couple of rum notes.

In the Ravel work the strings tend to work as a pair. The Canadian violinist was a semi-finalist in the Michael Hill Violin Competition in New Zealand last year; both she and the American cellist had thorough techniques and grasp of the music, but both were undemonstrative performers. The deft, accomplished playing of the whole trio made it clear why they had won in Hamburg – and why there was no second place-getter to rival their achievement.

However, the pianist has probably the greater say in the Ravel trio, and John Chen’s playing had assurance yet sensitivity.

Like all of Schubert’s major works the Trio in E flat is quite long – and quite delightful. It is full of fertile melodies and lovely harmonies. Its mood is happy, sombre and exultant by turns.

Listening to the Saguaro Trio, one would think that they had been playing this music together for years, and it reminded me of hearing the great Beaux Arts Trio play it in Wellington years ago; it left a permanent impression. (Menahem Pressler, the pianist in that group, was chair of the judging panel at the Hamburg competition that the Saguaro Trio won.)

A fiery, passionate, yet at times romantic allegro opens the work. ‘…Schubert managed to achieve balance between the instruments, never allowing the piano part to dominate’ as the writer of the programme note said; the performers achieved this equality.

The andante second movement opens with a sombre cello them which is then taken up by the piano; here and elsewhere in the movement the pianissimos were gorgeous. The vigorous scherzo is partnered by a chorale-like trio, of much heavier mood and expression, then the cheerful, extravert finale arrives, thoughtful as well as animated. It returns to the melody of the second movement, played lyrically with rich, sonorous tone by Peter Myers.

The Saguaro Trio is a consummate ensemble; a combination of superb musicians in complete accord. I will be most surprised if they don’t hit the ‘big time’ quite soon.

There was a reasonably good house, but I thought there would be more people come to hear well-known New Zealander John Chen play, and to experience the interesting programme. It was pleasing to see a considerable proportion of young people attending; appropriate, since the players themselves are all young.

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