Stroma’s beautifully “luminous horizons” at Ilott



Roberto Fabbriciani (flute)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)


Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Wellington

Thursday, 11th October 2012

Five of the six works in this Stroma concert were New Zealand premieres, and one of these was a world premiere (Paolo Cavallone – Hóros). The odd one out was Yoshihisa Taïra’s highly theatrical and dramatic Synchronie, a kind of “Duelling banjos” for two flutes, which one imagines being readily enjoyed by all but the most conservative listeners. For that reason, I wasn’t surprised to find that it’s already been heard here.

Such a high proportion of unfamiliar music in a concert might be an an enticing prospect for some listeners, and a somewhat daunting outlook for others. Still, it would be fair to say that audiences who attend contemporary classical music concerts are generally pretty dauntless, being well used to having their ears pinned back by the originality of the sounds.

This concert would have thrilled the regularly adventurous ones, but on a number of counts had qualities which would have readily furthered the cause of contemporary music for people who might not have been “regulars” but in this case were attracted to its novelties. While one could have questioned the absence of a New Zealand work, the presentation’s title “Luminous Horizons” suggested an attractively exotic, far-from-here quality about the content which worked throughout superbly well.

A drawcard for aficionados was the presence of legendary flute-player Roberto Fabbriciani, whose virtuoso playing and interest in “new” sounds inspired various European composers from the 1970s onwards to explore what was initially a radical world of microscopic sonorities and nuances in music – what Stroma director Michael Norris called in his illuminating program note “this fragile, transient world”.  At least two of the evening’s works had direct connections to Fabbriciani, with the most recent, Paolo Cavallone’s  Hóros, including in its reference of dedication the Stroma players and artistic directors.

Straightaway Roberti Fabbriciani showed his credentials by opening the concert with a performance for solo flute of Salvatore Sciarrino’s eponymously titled L’orizzonte luminoso di Aton. Aton (sometimes spelt “Aten”) is a manifestation of the sun in Egyptian mythology. This was music born “on the breath” as it were, the sounds eschewing normal tones and pitch and concentrating instead on their edges and undersides, their parameters and foundations. The program note drew a parallel between sound and light in the respect that the latter suggests, defines and obscures its own shadow, the two states indivisible.

Sciarrino’s work created a world of suggested light, activating our imaginations with those aforementioned parameters, and setting in motion what Tennyson described in a different context in his poetry: – “our echoes roll from soul to soul / and grow forever and forever….” Fabbriciani’s evocation of Sciarrino’s world was, for this listener, spellbinding, with player and instrument seeming firstly to fuse before our very eyes and ears, breathing as one. But then sprang up what seemed like in places a fiercely intense dynamic between musician, flute, music and listener, with sounds and gestures constantly varying the focus of attention.

Gerard Pesson’s Nebenstücke was a kind of rumination by the composer on musical memory, focusing in particular on Brahms’ B Minor Ballade Op.10. I liked the composer’s description (reproduced in the programme) of his memory of the piece having “gradually corroded like an object that had fallen into the sea”, but augmented by the same process as well, “encrusted with elements that my own musical works had added to it”. Pesson’s work established a skeletal rhythm at the start, with muffled timbres sounding either waterlogged, or decrepit with age, the piece’s movement causing bits here and there to fall off. Perhaps I was influenced by the composer’s programme-notes, but I did tune into what sounded throughout this opening section like the shades of a ghostly Viennese waltz.

A trio-like sequence desynchronized the music for a bit, a warm string chord coming to the rescue and inspiring the clarinet to breathe some life-blood into the proceedings, the violin accompanying and the ‘cello counterpointing. Ghostly memories paraded before our ears, strings swelling and receding, playing a combination of arco and pizzicato – while the strings consorted thus with the clarinet, the viola explored the stratospheres, until the concluding impulses left us with something of a shadow-world, toneless clarinet-breath and soundless string-bowings putting the dream to rest.

There was more than a whiff of theatricality about Aldo Clementi’s 1983 Duetto, featuring partnerships within partnerships – two clarinets and two flutes, everybody taking up antiphonal positions. Clementi’s “variation on a theme” scenario was begun by Bridget Douglas’s flute, with the others following canonically, but each sounding as if pursuing a kind of improvisatory course, a slightly “curdled hall-of-mirrors” prescription. I found the textures and juxtapositionings wonderfully claustrophobic in places, especially when the clarinets were closely intertwined – at one point they were playing in seconds, and their timbres seemed to completely crowd out the ambiences – by comparison the flute intertwinings had the opposite effect, opening the sound-vistas up and suggesting far-flung spaces.

Roberto Fabbriciani amusingly drew our attention to a squeaky floorboard on which he had to stand while playing Yoshihisa Taïra’s Symchronie opposite Bridget Douglas, armed with her own instrument – this highly combatative piece arose from its composer’s imaginings of Japanese warriors in battle, leaping across clouds in the sky (a scenario somewhat reminiscent of a particular Japanese computer-game my teenaged son went through a recent phase of playing, and which the music also reminded me of), and manifested itself here as a kind of confrontational show-down between two players and their instruments.

Throughout this extremely theatrical and volatile piece I was amazed as to how aggressively-toned the sounds made by a flute could be. Every sound it seemed possible to make on the instruments, and then more besides, seemed to be fetched up by these players, along with occasional normally-vocalised shouts and yelps. But the over-riding feeling at the end was that of some kind of ritualized conflict, with certain protocols observed, despite the unbridled nature of some of the utterances from both instruments.

A piece by Kaija Saariaho followed, Cloud Trio, a work for strings alone, played here by violinist Rebecca Struthers, Andrew Thomson (viola) and Rowan Prior (‘cello). The composer’s own note about the music evocatively described the different instruments’ pictorial and structural functions in the piece – the upper (violin) and lower (‘cello) instruments evoking reverberation and shadow respectively, in between which the viola created the substance related to these effects. Saariaho indicated she was inspired by cloud formations over the French Alps, and her writing during the opening section of the work had what seemed like an intensely “analogue” character, lines filled with curves, bends, stretches and dissolutions, which suggested constant, gradual evolution.

The players beautifully caught both the energies of the second part, with the process of formation and dissolution sped up to a frenetic pace, and the toccata-like asymmetric patternings of the brief third movement with its follkish-dance suggestions. And the instruments beautifully coalesced throughout the lazily unfolding final movement, its melodies and figurations beautifully dovetailed by the composer, everything drifting in a similar direction overall while maintaining a kind of impulsive independence.

Roberto Fabbriciani returned with the ensemble to finish the concert with Paolo Cavallone’s Hóros, written this year for Fabbriciani and the Stroma ensemble, and here given its world premiere. This work was practically a flute concerto, and, like Aldo Clementi’s work earlier in the evening, took an existing piece of music as its starting-point, in this case, Chopin’s E Minor Prelude. This time, though, we actually heard a recording of the Chopin, played in the darkness immediately after the reading of a poem by Cavallone, the text of which was printed in the program – a meditation concerning spaces, distances, and boundaries.

From the darkness of this extremely theatrical opening came light and the sounds of instruments being activated by breath and bow, and developing a rich spectrum of colour and texture. Confrontations and re-inventings followed, the solo flute playing Mercutio to the ensemble’s Romeo, leading and teasing, light-fingeredly suggestive and gently mocking, the music opening and narrowing spaces between lines and timbres as did the Chopin Prelude. Over the last few pages the composer took us to different realms, the ensemble “reinventing” the ambient space of the opening, and making peace with the soloist.

So many notes, all of them unfamiliar ones! – but thanks to some judicious programming and excellent playing, and bags of individual and ensemble personality from flutist Roberto Fabbriciani and the Stroma players, I found this concert a stimulating and warmly intense listening experience.





























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