Strumming and fretting en masse at Old St.Paul’s – the N.Z.Guitar Quartet

Old St.Paul’s Church -Lunchtime Concerts

New Zealand Guitar Quartet

(Owen Moriarty, Tim Wanatabe, Jane Curry and Chris Hill)

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Tuesday 21st August 2012

Perhaps it would have all been double the pleasure at Old St. Paul’s for Frederic Chopin, who was reputed to have said “Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar – save, perhaps two!” – no less than the New Zealand Guitar Quartet was here to put the aphorism to the test. A quartet’s worth of guitar players certainly makes a lovely, rich sound, with plenty of opportunities for all of those individual voices, both leading and in the middle, to interact with one another and create such richly-woven tapestries, in fact, small orchestras of sound.

The concert’s venue – Old St.Paul’s – exerted its customary spell over the proceedings, the beauty of the surroundings making up for the lack of adequate sight-lines for any audience member sitting more than a dozen pews back. Some elevation for the performers (as was constructed not so long ago in St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace Church) would certainly help more people to SEE the musicians, and perhaps enhance the sound-projection (the latter, however, seems perfectly adequate for all but the most distant spectators). A few of the softer passages for solo guitar seemed very quiet, but the sound in tutti made, as I’ve already said, a pretty solid, if finely constituted, instrumental ensemble sound.

Attendance at these Old St.Paul’s lunchtime concerts of late (at least the ones I’ve been to) have been surprisingly good, considering (perhaps, because of! ) the inclement weather – and today’s concert was no exception (the attendance AND the weather!). There’s obviously a loyal following for the venture, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, and in this case the music and the music-making would have contributed greatly to the delight of it all.

The ensemble describes itself in a program note bio as “exciting, dynamic and engaging” – and I’m happy to say that the concert certainly reflected these things. I’ve heard the group play before, and this time around found myself entirely caught up in what was going on, as if everybody’s focus was freshly sharpened and their energies centered right at the music’s heart. Take the opening item, for example, Luigi Boccherini’s Introduction et Fandango, a pleasant though fairly conventional evocation of Spain – or at least one might have previously thought so, until hearing the Quartet’s  full-blooded rendition of the Fandango, digging into the rhythms and accentuating the music’s light-and-dark contrasts. Boccherini? – really?

Jane Curry introduced the next item,a transcription by Owen Moriarty of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, drawing listeners’ attention to one of the players’ use of a 7-string guitar, the instrument making for a greater range and sonority. Whatever the difference, the reworking of the music (in true Baroque style) was a great success, the music’s bubbling energy carrying all before it in both the first and third movements (a pity the opportunity wasn’t taken in between these episodes for a bit of extempore “sounding” of things suggested both by what had just happened and what was to come, as sometimes happens in this music’s performance). But particularly in the last movement, the counterpoints joyously tumbled over one another in away that would probably have had old Sebastian Bach tapping his feet in approval.

New Zealand composer Craig Utting drew some of his inspiration from the Baroque world for part of a composition called Onslow Suite, using a kind of passacaglia-form underlining a kind of lyrical exchange. The music provides the contrast of a middle section that spontaneously modulates asymmetrically and somewhat remotely, before returning to the passagcaglia figurations with increased rapture, finishing with a final chord of benediction – a lovely work, originally written for two pianos, but here most satisfyingly reworked for guitars.

The group then turned its attention to a work by Andrew York, former player-member of the American Guitar Quartet, the group for whom the music was written. This was called Quiccan, a closely-knit etude for four guitars, allowing each player to explore melody, harmony, and accompaniment. The piece started jazzily, resembling the sounds of a distant festival, one redolent with Latin American rhythms and textures. A slower section allowed the players some breathing-space and a contrasted vantage-point, towards which the ensemble redirected its energies, with the help of some “percussive” effects -all very engaging and attractive. A sudden “break-off” point resulted in a chord whose single chime froze the gestural actions of the musicians and allowed the sounds to resonate briefly and depart – a kind of musical metaphor for human existence.

More familiar territories were the items by Manuel de Falla, to finish the program – two exerpts, arranged by Owen Moriarty, from Falla’s El amor brujo ballet, firstly, the Danza del Terror, plenty of repeated notes, driving rhythms and strutting flourishes, followed by the even better-known Danza ritual del fuego, a performance which brought out something of the music’s dark, primitive side at the beginning, and gave plenty of point to the cross-rhythmed accents in the piece’s middle section. Only at the end did I feel the need for a bit more abandonment on the part of the players, something slightly more animal and physical. I wonder, too, whether the emphasis on tuning the instruments is entirely appropriate during the course of these two pieces – to my way of thinking, far better to keep the impetus and atmosphere on-going between the two dances and let whatever pitch vagaries occur be part of the sweep and drive, of this primitive, elemental aspect of the music.

But, nevertheless, a great concert, nicely presented and vividly projected.












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