Stroma’s second Mirror of Time – a “Rogues’ Gallery” of Music


Music by: Michael Norris, Jean-Féry Rebel, Thomas Adès,  Anthonello de Caserta, Heinrich Biber,

Louis Andriessen, Carlo Gesualdo, Philip Brownlee, Josquin des Prez, Arvo Pärt,

Thomas Preston, Erik Satie, Matteo da Perugia, Mieko Shiomi, Anon (14th C.)

(all arrangements by Michael Norris)

Stroma: Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Rebecca Struthers (violins) / Andrew Thomson (viola) / Rowan Prior (‘cello)

Kamala Bain (recorder(s) / Rowena Simpson (soprano)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Artistic Director: Michael Norris

St.Mary of the Angels, Wellington

Friday 26th April, 2013

With some surprise I read in the Stroma program booklet that this was in fact the SECOND “Mirror of Time” Concert presented by the Ensemble, following on from an occasion in 2012 – had I recently awakened from a kind of “Rip Van Winkel” sleep, or something? I had been to and reviewed a couple of Stroma concerts that year, but I couldn’t remember a “Mirror of Time” title, or a similar theme, even thought the expression dégustations rang a bell. Furthermore, if the first of these explorations of short but visionary, ground-breaking compositions from the Middle Ages to the present day had been as entertainingly assembled and characterfully performed as this present one, then I had indeed missed something special, while in my “sleepwalking” mode.

Having the beautiful and old-worldly church of St.Mary of the Angels available for music performance is invariably a kind of “added value” for performers and audiences alike – and so it proved on this occasion. From out of the ambience of this most atmospheric venue came the first notes of this concert’s music, the quartet of performers antiphonally placed for maximum effect, playing a twelfth-century plainchant theme “O igneous Spiritus”, written by Hildegarde of Bingen, and arranged here by Michael Norris.

Each player gave us his or her own particular variation of the plainchant tune, the effect being an awakening a kind of “music of the spheres” fancy, or, in Hildegarde’s own, if differently-contexted words, sounds “on the breath of God”. The playing, too, had a kind of other-worldly quality, heightened by drawn-out harmonics and occasionally tempered by exotic, vocal-like slides between the notes. I liked Michael Norris’ likening of the effect to “stained-glass” encapsulations of past echoes, preserved for all time. As the musicians finished playing, each one came up to the platform in front of the audience – a nice, ritualistic touch.

From then it was delight following upon delight, really, though one was never sure exactly what shape or form the delight would be presented in (which are the most exciting kinds of delights – as everybody knows!). Having properly gotten an ecclesiastical version of Michael Flanders’ famous “pitch of the hall” (from his and Donald Swann’s show “At the Drop of a Hat”), the musicians (strings joined by a recorder – well, two recorders, more of which in a moment) then proceeded to “let ‘er rip” with a shocking discord made up of a tone cluster, written two hundred years ahead of the likes of Henry Cowell and Penderecki. This came from the pen of French Baroque composer Jean-Féry Rebel, whose dates (1666-1747) make him a near-contemporary of JS Bach, though the former’s innovative experiments with rhythm and harmony put some of his music light-years apart.

As Michael Norris pointed out in the program, this and many of the pieces in the evening’s concert were arrangements of originals, rather than being “authentic” realizations, the intention being to emphasize for listeners the music’s more innovative content. Rebel’s work “Le Cahos” comes from his ballet “Les Élemens”, the full score of which has been lost in any case, leaving a “performing edition” put together by the composer for amateur use at home – so tonight’s performance was perfectly in scale with the composer’s intentions. Strings were partnered by a recorder, firstly a sopranino, whose piercing tones could be heard through the discordant opening, and then a treble instrument taken up as the music increasingly featured solo lines – it was all a bit like a rather more elemental manifestation of Vivaldi.

Leaping forward in time to the music of Thomas Adès from such radical expression suddenly didn’t feel so big a deal in this context, though in other ways Adès’ work “Lethe” made a marked contrast to Jean-Féry Rebel’s chaotic seismic irruptions. Here, Rowan Prior’s beautiful solo cello suggested the Lethe River, interwoven with eerie harmonics from the other strings, the effect not unlike a slowly revolving kinetic sculpture, or else movements from an age-old windmill out of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”. Such antiquities used by a contemporary composer helped bridge the gap to the music of one of the concert’s earliest featured composers, Anthonello de Caserta, a 14th century song “Dame d’onour en qui” featuring the soprano voice of Rowena Simpson. De Caserta’s rhythmic configurations were a delight and a tease for the ear in this sparkling performance.

Heinrich Biber’s music is better-known, of course, and we enjoyed his “Mars”, an exerpt from Battalia à 10, with the ‘cello using a sheet of paper inserted between the strings for a “snare” effect. A different kind of unorthodox instrument use was employed by the Dutch contemporary composer Louis Andriessen in his “Ende”, requiring the player to use two recorders simultaneously, Kamala Bain rising spectacularly to the occasion, tossing the pitches between instruments and giving us an exciting acccelerando at the end.

The work of another contemporary composer, Wellington-based Philip Brownlee, followed that of Carlo Gesualdo, the latter’s music employing chromatic shifts to wonderfully haunting effect, in the madrigal “Io puri respiro in cosi gran dolor”, some sequences having an almost Gothic feel to them. Rowena Simpson’s bell-like voice both enriched and wrestled with the parallel string lines throughout, voice and instruments then “finding” one another at the end of the piece’s dying fall. Not Gesualdo, however, but Giovanni Gabrieli provided the Kiwi composer with his starting-point for “Canzona per sonare: Degraded Echoes” (a world premiere), the opening tones “summoned” as it seemed from faraway places, a sombre medieval sound made of long-held lines from strings and recorder, the lines and harmonies vying with the actual timbres, giving we listeners the opportunity to think spatially, or else indulge our preoccupations. An agitated middle section, aleatoric in effect, underlined rhythmic and pitching gestures, encompassed by piercing tones from the recorder, and took us at the end to edges of known territories, where wonderment begins.

Josquin Des Prez’s brief but beautiful “Agnus Dei” from his “Missa l’homme arm super voces musicales” threw some light upon Arvo Pärt’s following Da Pacem Domine, the latter inspired by medieval plainchant, and saturating our sensibilities with its wonderful drawn-out timelessness of utterance. And to draw us briefly from these and following enchantments came a brief soupcon from the little-known 16th-century English composer Thomas Preston, an organ piece with a strangely bitonal bass-line, strings and recorder simultaneously following separate harmonic pathways, and creating lines whose relationship sounded oddly and ear-catchingly ambivalent.

Ambivalence of various sorts certainly hovers about many of the works created by the uniquely fascinating Erik Satie. We heard an arrangement of the Prelude to his incidental music to a play “Le Fils des Étoiles”, one whose use of an offstage soprano voice and muted strings underlined the general exotic mysticism of the music and its context. Throughout I kept on thinking of Shakespeare’s “Tempest” – soundscapes of air and water created from those disembodied tones were added to Satie’s preoccupation with harmonies based on the interval of a fourth. All of it made for ambiences “rich and strange”, and had a utterly captivating aspect.

The rest brought us back to solid earth with plenty of sheerly visceral fun, Italian composer Matteo da Peruglia’s fifteenth-century 3-part canon given the “treatment”with two more parts added and the original tempo given a turbocharged “take two”, and an arrangement of the anonymous 14th-century song “Cuncti Simus Concanentes”, an energetic homage to the Virgin Mary with bells and hand-clapping thrown into the festive mix. This was after the string-players had picked up and rearranged their music on the stands from which they had been ignominiously blown by a hand-held hair-dryer, Kamala Bain employing a different kind of wind instrument to disruptive effect in Japanese composer Mieko Shiomi’s “Wind Music”. Of course, had it been Stockhausen’s music, helicopters might have arrived, and there would have been an awful din – so we were grateful that the turbulence created here, though annoying for the musicians trying to make sense of their written parts, was more-or-less containable.

All in all, a terrific assemblage of inventiveness on the part of artistic director Michael Norris, and of performance skills from the members of Stroma.










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