Beauty and truth from Amici at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society 35th Anniversary Concert

Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong, Cristina Vaszilcsin, violins; Julia Joyce, Andrew Thomson, violas; Rowan Prior, Andrew Joyce, cellos; Hiroshi Ikematsu, double bass; Kirsten Simpson, piano)

Mozart: Grande Sestetto Concertante in E flat, K.364 (allegro maestoso, andante, presto)

Christopher Blake: Māramatanga (Rangiātea, McNaught, Sisyphus)

R. Strauss: Metamorphosen

Waikanae Memorial Hall

7 July 2013

The Waikanae Music Society has formed a laudable habit of commissioning a new work to celebrate each of its fifth-ending anniversaries.  Jack Body and Kenneth Young have both had commissions; this time it was the turn of Christopher Blake.  Most laudable, too, is the length of time for which its committee members have served; President Helen Guthrie has been on the committee for 29 years!

The programme began with Mozart, the work not under its original title Sinfonia Concertante or in its familiar setting for violin, viola and orchestra, but for string sextet of two violins, two violas, cello and bass.  Directed from the first violin desk by Donald Armstrong, convenor of the group, it certainly sounded different in this combination.  The arrangement by an unknown hand was extremely skilled, giving melodies to all the instruments that in the full version were for violin and viola.

As Armstrong suggested in his opening remarks, the original work would have been played, under its original title Sinfonia Concertante, by a small orchestra in a venue much smaller than those typically used today.  I still missed the broader background sound of an orchestra, despite the superb solos; notably the excellent double bass solo from Hiroshi Ikematsu in the first movement, and the viola solo from Julia Joyce in the andante movement.

The beauty of form and melody were to the fore, as always with Mozart.  There were so many charming touches, some unexpected.  Each movement was full of transforming character.  Slight aberrations of intonation were perhaps more obvious in this configuration than they would be in that for which the music was originally written.

The programme note stated that Christopher Blake’s music for piano quintet was about the enlightenment of religious faith.  This was seen in the Maori context, the opening movement being named for the church at Otaki.  The second movement was named after a comet, and the third based on the philosophy of Camus, and on the Greek character condemned to push a rock uphill, forever.  The link between Maori and the Greek gods is surprisingly topical, given the recent repeat performance of John Psathas’s Orpheus in Rarohenga, and a very fine current exhibition at Pataka in Porirua, of Marian Maguire’s wonderful etchings and lithographs linking Maori and Greek characters, Titkowaru’s Dilemma.

The work began with strummed cello, becoming gradually louder.  The other strings joined in, some pizzicato with strings deliberately hitting the finger board.  The piano entered, and the movement became a string quartet with shimmering piano in the background.  The piano followed up with a sombre, intoned melody while the strings played pizzicato again.  The movement ended as it began, with the cello.

The opening unison of the second movement perhaps suggested the open night sky; its crescendo sounded like a planet rising.  Other-worldly sounds continued.  Interlocution from the piano built up to passionate outbursts, then a mellow, muted section followed.  Meanderings by all the instruments ended the movement.

The third movement, reflecting the bleak philosophy of Frenchman Albert Camus had a gloomy tone, overall.  In places it was confused and hectic, with elements of a different, more positive attitude in a skipping piano part.  After this, the rapidly repeated, almost tremolando phrases of the strings had a pessimistic slant, and their angular melodies brought a dismal mood that the piano then joined in.  There were some gorgeous harmonies for the strings, before a declamatory ending.

Māramatanga means enlightenment; this exploration of some of its aspects certainly justified another hearing, at which one would hope to be further enlightened by and about the music.

Metamorphosen is usually played by 23 strings, but this version for seven strings is apparently based on Strauss’s original sketches.  His mourning for the destruction of so many symbols of German culture during World War II is amply heard in the music; one hopes that he also looked to a metamorphosis from that shocking state to a better one.  He certainly had good reason to be gloomy, as he saw the destruction around him.

The music brought forth beautiful playing from each individual in the group.  The cadences, progressions and harmonies had highly emotional effects.  The work grows gradually and almost imperceptibly with a wonderful build-up of tension and gorgeous tone.  After a time it took on a more optimistic aspect, in the midst of restless searching, the while clothed in romantic beauty.

As compared with the Mozart work, Strauss made considerable use of a variety of dynamics, and depth of sound.  This was a powerful performance.  A beautiful viola solo with quiet accompaniment had me wondering – is it describing resignation or resolution?  The firm, even at times harsh passage that followed suggested rejection, not acceptance.

A return to more peaceful pastures was mellow, but turned to poignancy – and perhaps resignation at last.

A fine concert illustrated why it is that the Amici are frequent visitors to the Waikanae Music Society.  Their tackling of such a varied programme always had the ring of truth.



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