A long and circuitous route from the Guildhall

New Zealand School of Music presents:

A Guildhall Trio Reunion

Barbara Hill (flute) / Debbie Rawson (clarinet) / Donald Maurice (viola)

with Jian Liu (piano)

Music by Max Bruch, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Maurice Durufle, Alfred Uhl, Francois Devienne, Jenny McLeod

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus,

Victoria University, Wellington

Wednesday 27th March, 2013

“…..a musical reunion? – ooh, yes, a lovely idea! Remember some of those things we unearthed and played, and had so much fun with? Yes, they’ll sound great, especially with a few wines, and plenty of yummy food – what’s that? A concert? You mean, the real thing? – an audience? – Ooo-er! – eh? – what was that? – No, not at all! – I’m on if you two are on! What gave you that idea? – I’m keen if you’re keen. Yeah, a couple of those things are at home somewhere, at the bottom of some pile. No, it’ll do me good! What about you? – you haven’t played that since when?……well, it won’t have gone stale, then……”

Of course one “invents” scenarios for effect – and truth is often stranger, funnier and more interesting than any fabricated exchange. But this trio of musicians, made up of Debbie Rawson, clarinet, Donald Maurice, viola and Barbara Hill, flute, were simultaneously flatmates and fellow-students at London’s Guildhall School of Music during the 1970s. During the intervening years they’d mostly gone their separate musical ways, except for periods where two members of the trio played together in different ensembles – but up until this present concert the threesome hadn’t performed together or alongside each other since their student days.

Now, along with the help of pianist Jian Liu, the three reunited for the present concert, though most of the repertoire presented involved no more than two of the group at any one time. Happily, the last item on the programme did use the whole ensemble – Jenny McLeod’s Suite – jazz themes was written in 1987 for the Zelanian Ensemble, in fact while Debbie Rawson and Donald Maurice were both members of the group. So the reunion was complete, and honour was well-and-truly satisfied.

Throughout the concert pianist Jian Liu’s playing was both the solid rock on which the different instrumental combinations stood and delivered, and the chameleon whose aspect adapted its tones to whatever was required by the music’s character at any given moment. The programme was largely a twentieth-century one, with the honorable exception of a Duo for flute and viola by Francois Devienne (1759-1803). Though Max Bruch (1838-1920), is generally thought of as a nineteenth-century romantic, his Eight Pieces for clarinet, viola and piano, four of which were played here, were written in 1910.

It was the Bruch which began the concert, Debbie Rawson and Donald Maurice joining forces with Jian Liu to give us Nos. 2, 5, 6 and 7 from those Eight Pieces. At the age of seventy the composer probably wasn’t concerned with fashionable trends in composition, drawing instead from a lifetime’s experience of his own creative impulses and other people’s music. So the Nachtgesang (No.6) which opened the concert had a mellow, sometimes Brahms-like, sometimes Schumannesque character, here beautifully realised, with the players taking turns to accompany one another most sensitively.

The short No.2 (Allegro con moto) was rather more lively, again reminiscent of Schumann, and with the piano part expressing miracles of quiet, nervous agitation (there was a delicious gurgle of appreciation from a very young child in the audience, right at the end of the piece!). No.5, the Rumanische Melodie was true to its description, the solo violin gypsy-like, and the folksy clarinet rhapsodizing by turns gaily and darkly. And what a contrast brought out by the players with the Dvorak-like No.7, beautifully setting the long-held melodic lines over infectious skipping energies, all with the lightest of touches.

Heitor Villa-Lobos’s music isn’t heard nearly enough in our concert-halls, and the composer’s brief but high-output Chôros No.2  merely whetted our appetites for more. One of a series of diverse instrumental combinations, this one threw Barbara Hill’s flute and Debbie Rawson’s clarinet together, lyrical outpourings, angularities and all, Debbie Rawson advising us at the beginning to “tighten our seatbelts” in anticipation of the same – a highly diverting and totally idiosyncratic entertainment.

No greater contrast could have been devised than with the music of Maurice Duruflé which followed, the Prelude, Recitatif and Variations for flute, viola and piano. Where Villa-Lobos’ music seemed all knees and elbows and nervous energies, Duruflé’s richly resonant sound-world conjured up depths of feeling whose surfaces occasionally shimmered and bubbled, realms of liquid and of air brought into active play, and presented for our delight and wonderment. Only during the final variations did the music take on a more physical aspect, and almost always with a light touch, though the notes were appropriately and splendidly scattered over a wide area by way of the work’s exhilarating conclusion.

I’d not heard any music previous to this concert by Alfred Uhl – by dint of the work’s title Kleines Koncert, and the composer’s Viennese connection, the spirit of Mozart seemed to be present from the start, although Uhl was very much a twentieth-century composer, with a number of film scores to his credit. Pianist Jian Liu introduced the work, emphasizing its wit and charm, and its references to the music of other composers. I thought its opening very burleske-like – crashing chords, running chromaticisms and sinuous melodies created a kind of “music for the pictures’ ambience. I particularly enjoyed the “half-lit” sequences, the eerie harmonies and half-tone shifts – all great fun! The players also appeared to enjoyed themselves greatly, moving with relish from the mordant wit of the duo-cadenza-like exchanges at the first movement’s ending to the gothic, dark-tread of the music at the slow movement’s beginning, with viola and clarinet sounding their notes like warning-bells at sea.

As if enough swirling energies hadn’t been expended by this time, the work’s finale reached new heights of vertiginous abandonment, driving the music giddily along within  the confines of closely-worked harmonies. It was a “heads down and scamper” kind of scenario among the musicians, their full-blooded playing screwing up the tensions brilliantly right to the end – all very accessible stuff, uninhibited and entertaining.

Barbara Hill was the obvious choice to tell us about the next composer’s work, as the other musicans would have been quite breathless for a while after putting across Uhl’s riotous music so engagingly. And, of course, Francois Devienne’s work featured the flute, in a duo with the viola. An eighteenth-century composer, performer and teacher in Paris, Devienne’s music isn’t well-known to concert-goers, though there’s a fair deal of it extant,  (over three hundred numbered works, mostly involving wind instruments). This two-movement work nicely contrasted an expressive style at the outset, with a more energetic Rondo, the latter incorporating a photo-finish kind of ending, which must have gone down well with the punters at the time. Barbara Hill and Donald Maurice conveyed a palpable sense of enjoyment to us of both the music and of their partnership in realising its many delights.

There can’t have been many classical music concerts which featured a musician talking about putting down a hangi on a back lawn somewhere in London, as Donald Maurice did here by way of illustrating a context for the group’s connections with the next item and its composer. Jenny McLeod’s work Suite – Jazz themes splendidly performed its dual function of entertaining its audience and rounding the concert off most satisfyingly. Debbie Rawson invited people to dance if they felt so inclined at any stage, which added a kind of physical dimension to people’s listening, even if no-one actually leapt from his or her seat during the performance.

The work’s five movements had many ear-tickling sequences, particularly the first one, Zelania, with its syncopations and “wandering stresses”. The following Chaconne lazily drifted its sounds through ambiences of memory and nostalgia, its slow dance evoking a very rural and idiomatic feeling of familiar vistas. In contrast, the perky Blue Classic had an almost “Beckus the Dandiprat” feeling about it, chirpy, droll, and very much with “attitude”, the cross-rhythms leading to a lovely throwaway ending.

The following Reverie seemed like a kind of daydream or sleep-encircled experience, sounds almost turned in upon themselves, with just touches of reverberation here and there – its taciturn aspect throwing the final Gypso into bold relief, rhythms flailing from piano and viola, saxophone lustily calling out juicy and jazzy themes and flute counterpointing merrily above it all. And to cap it all off (possibly because the hangi wasn’t quite ready out the back!) Donald Maurice insisted that the group play the final Gypso again, ostensibly because, in his own words to us, something “wasn’t quite right”.

The group’s reprise seemed more freely and energetically characterised, the different instrumental roles more sharply-focused – though being able to hear them twice in quick succession in this piece would have on its own “cleansed” everybody’s listening palette. Altogether, it made for a splendidly-delivered ending to a happy and rewarding musical occasion.




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