NZ Trio at Wellington City Gallery – beautiful assemblages

NZ Trio presents ART3

JOAQUIN TURINA – Piano Trio No.2 in B Minor Op.76

ALEX TAYLOR – burlesques méchaniques (2012) KARLO MARGETIC – Lightbox (2012)

ANTONIN DVORAK – Piano Trio No.4 in A Minor “Dumky”

NZ Trio

(Justine Cormack – violin / Ashley Brown – ‘cello

Sarah Watkins – piano)

City Gallery, Wellington

Civic Square

Wednesday 31st October 2012

An inspired choice of venue! – Wellington’s City Gallery is a place that has flexible space enough to play host to chamber music and instrumental performances whose ambiences then take on added dimensions due to their surroundings.

In this case, the performers were Justine Cormack, Sarah Watkins and Ashley Brown of the NZ Trio. On the program were works by Turina and Dvorak, but, significantly with two new compositions by New Zealand composers Alex Taylor and Karlo Margetic. These were not world, but Wellington premieres – Alex Taylor’s burlesque mécaniques was given its first public performance in Akaroa earlier in the month by the NZ Trio, and Karlo Margetic’s Lightbox in July in Auckland, by the same musicians.

Each of the new works seemed like “hot property” especially in the hands of the original performers, and in such close proximity to their world premieres. A different, but no less telling kind of proximity, gave the music’s edge and point greater and bolder relief – on the wall immediately behind the performance platform was artist John Reynolds’ painting Numbering Waves, part of the “Kermadec” exhibition currently on show at the Gallery.

This particular work (commented on as “inspirational” by Justine Cormack during her spoken introduction to the concert) made considerable play with our senses as we listened, a kind of creative enhancement of our experience of four very different pieces of music. And, of course it seemed to evolve as a world for us with each succeeding item, as well as with the changing light over time.

Beginning the concert was a piece I thought of as “high class teashop music” with an Iberian flavour, a Piano Trio by Joaquin Turina. A flowing sigh began the piece, something from the exotic distance but nevertheless engaging, followed by a flowing, Schumannesque melody, the playing taking us from light to light, shade to shade along the way. The second subject made me think of childhood holidays, nostalgic memories of innocent excitement conjured up by the sounds made by these splendid musicians. I was wanting more when the movement seemed to end somewhat abruptly!

Ghostly scampering began the second movement, here put across with plenty of élan, strings and piano nicely cross-rhythmed, then joining momentarily for a biting unison climax – again the salon-like feeling informed a languid interlude and a beautifully-flowing aftermath – gorgeous playing. The third movement’s opening found ‘cellist Ashley Brown steady on the high-wire, in a very violin-sounding register, the opening lento giving way to a variety of episodes throughout, characterful and quixotic, the musicians unlocking and opening every mood for our delight.

Alex Taylor’s piece, burlesques mécaniques was described by the composer as “a rather extroverted collection of grotesque miniatures, whose characters are not people or animals but dances”. Rather like a updated and extremely kinetic “Pictures at an Exhibition” in effect, the piece’s ten sections explored a kind of rhythmic dysfunctionality, whose expression, as the composer suggested, tended to confound rather than conform to the dance element. So the rhythms were often in conflict, and the piano played almost a devil’s advocate, often disruptive role in the proceedings.

The Prologue, which opened the piece, began as the whole intended to go on, the piano abrupt and volatile, the violin spectral, and the ‘cello relievedly holding onto a single note – interestingly, this state of things was reiterated in amplified form in the tenth and final section, which features a violent, confrontational opening, out of which the ‘cello emerged again holding an ambient note, while violin and piano fought a do-or-die battle for supremacy. No wonder that, at the end, pianist Sarah Watkins told us that the work was “wonderfully invigorating to play!”

As well as rhythmic desynchronization, the piece also explored a vast range of instrumental timbres – my notes were filled with descriptive exclamations regarding ear-catching timbres, “strangulated ‘cello tones”, “disjointed, pointillistic violin jabbings”, “piano a flash of colour across a page”, “melting, Dali-esque notes from strings”, and “growling cello voice”. The figurations, too, contributed to the pieces’ different characters, the violin’s and ‘cello’s cross-purposed rhythms in the fourth piece “A Spanner” (guess what rhythms!), and a “toccata trapped in a tunnel” aspect of the following “tumbledry” both extremely well-etched for effect.

And the last movement but one “Chain” even briefly took on humanoid characteristics, with the piano arpeggiating exploratory figures and the strings holding their notes, the effect like breathing or perhaps a heartbeat, certainly a pulse of some kind – for the composer an “alternative, interior world”, and for the uninitiated listener, a case perhaps of “where there’s life, there’s hope”?

So, here was engaging, and in places challenging music – I found it good that all of those individual ear-tickling moments were incorporated within clearly-defined sections giving the first-time listener both sequence and shape for the work as a whole, in fact making a virtue of the stop-go aspect of the piece. With Karlo Margetic’s work Lightbox, the challenges for the listener were different, as the music seemed longer-breathed and more deeply-layered, despite the irruptions and volatilities having a similar kind of timbral and colouristic flair to those of the previous piece.

Perhaps a clue to the music’s individual character was the composer’s statement in the program comparing a piano trio to a “transparent interplay of lines”, suggesting creative impulses and imaginings wrought in longish spans, and having outcomes that reflect these long-term evolutions. Lightbox had a number of these kinds of sequences, such as the gently rocking rhythms at the piece’s very beginning, with figurations turning in on themselves as if reconstituting on the spot, or so it seemed. Another was the piano’s ambient interlude-like sequence, perhaps two-thirds way-through, the sounds gently kaleidoscoping in a slow dance, an mood replicated later by the strings in Aeolian-harp-like mode, an almost ritualistic interaction of the three lines, the composer’s “strangely beautiful assemblage”.

But embedded in these beauties were tensions, the strings near the start finding ever-increasing “edge” in opposing counterpointed figures, before buzzing like angry bees when dive-bombing the piano’s slow, ceremonial dance. Warmth turned to spectral chill as the players resorted to col legno-like gestures, gradually tightening their figurations to breaking-point and dissolution in a sea of piano ambience. Someone made a remark at one point that a youthful audience member at the Auckland performance of this work had exclaimed that the music reminded him of transformers (toys which can change their appearance and character by swiveling and inverting different constituent parts) – and this “out of the mouths of babes” aspect of the remark certainly hit the spot in that particular aspect.

In both works the players of the NZ Trio made the notes sound like “their” music, with committed playing by turns trenchant and lyrical, sharply-focused and delicate. What a joy it must be for composers whose works enjoy such advocacy!

After the interval came Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, a work whose wonderfully layered intensities seemed perfectly in accord with what had gone before it in the concert, music with both vigour and lyricism, heartfelt utterance and gaiety, practically a whole world’s contrasting emotions knitted together in a whole. ‘Cellist Ashley Brown introduced the piece, his playing underlining as eloquently as his words the music’s near-tragic yearning at the opening, ‘cello and piano direct and full-throated in their outpourings, the former then singing as one with the violin before veering sharply into a complete contrast of character with a vigorous dance-rhythm, a precursor of the frequent mood-swings that permeate this attractive work.

I came away from this concert with renewed appreciation of the Trio’s compelling and wholehearted response to everything the group performs, and of the skills, energies and sensitivities the three players readily convey to their audiences – a wonderful occasion.









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