SMP Ensemble plays Contag for “The Crowd”

Forty-second Wellington Film Festival 2013 presents:

The Crowd

Silent Film with live score performed by SMP Ensemble

Composer: Johannes Contag
SMP Ensemble conducted by Karlo Margetic

Paramount Theatre,  Courtenay Place, Wellington

Sunday 11 August 2013

This film dates from 1928 and is in the timeless tradition of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It was written and directed by King Vidor, and the score was commissioned by Creative NZ from young Wellington composer Johannes Contag. The 12-piece SMP Ensemble comprised a handful of strings, flute, clarinets (including bass), bassoon, percussion and piano, a selection which gave Contag a varied colour palette to work with, and the tools he needed to support the wide sweep of settings, emotions and characters depicted in the film.

The composer comments of the film that “Despite being received very well at the time, its bold modernism and systemic cultural critique defy most Hollywood tropes. Already an enormously successful director, King Vidor had the rare privilege of flouting studio expectations, and consequently there’s not a single hero or villain to be found here. Instead, we are treated to an engaging dissection of everyday city life, one that refuses to succumb to the predictabilities of comedy and tragedy alike. What really makes The Crowd a delight to watch is its underlying love story……..It is in its astute depiction of the romantically mundane that The Crowd wins us over, making us care for the underdog despite his follies.”

King Vidor’s film is a poignant drama of a charming but all-too-fallible dreamer and the exasperated woman who loves him unconditionally and never gives up on him through thick and thin. The dramatic range of this screenplay presents an enormous challenge for the composer – almost two hours of non-stop music for scenes that encompass the dreamer’s gentle rural upbringing, the shock of a parent’s premature death, the heady thrill of setting off to seek his fortune in New York, the grinding reality of employment as a pen-pushing clerk in a vast office, then the romantic encounter that drives the remainder of the plot.

Each of these settings was sympathetically handled in Contag’s score, with the frenetic pace of New York life being perfectly captured in his Twenties-style ragtime idioms. The colour of the score more than compensated for the 35mm Black and White medium which seems so spare to modern viewers. The scoring for the courtship and honeymoon scenes trod a masterly knife edge between the extremes of lust and tenderness, with never a hint of predictable banality. The central part of the screenplay covers the mundane realities of daily work and commuting, and the monotony of suburban life for the stay-at-home wife and children. This called for essentially background music but, given that,  I nevertheless felt that Contag’s writing here was somewhat short on melodic, rhythmic and  tonal variety. It became rather pedestrian compared with the earlier score but, that said, his sense of drama was still keenly expressed in his very effective use of silence at key dramatic moments.

The latter part of the screenplay covers the increasing pressures on the marriage that result from the heartrending death of their daughter – a catastrophe which catapults the husband into a reckless decision to quit his pen-pushing job. Contag captured the poignancy of grief and crippling self doubt with great sympathy, together with the agonized indecision of a wife who still unswervingly loves her man, but has finally reached the end of her tether. When their fortunes finally seem to be recovering, the score sashays effortlessly into a conclusion filled with the brighter moods of optimism and hope.

Bouquets are due to the Film Archive and Creative NZ for putting their efforts and funding into this very successful collaboration between the composer, the Wellington Film Festival, and the local SMP Ensemble, who did such justice to the score. Together they made possible the only live performance of this year’s festival, and the fact that the house was sold out well in advance demonstrates the soundness of backing this endeavour. Hopefully this will be just one of many similar collaborations in the future.





Polished and admirable performances of trios for flute, cello and piano

Mulled Wine Concerts, Paekakariki

The Homewood Trio (Bridget Douglas – flute, Andrew Joyce – cello, Rachel Thomson – piano)

Haydn: Trio in F for flute, cello and piano, No 1, Hob XV:17 (No 30 in the Robbins Landon list of all the trios)
Charles Lefebvre: Ballade for flute, cello and piano
Villa-Lobos: The Jet Whistle
Philippe Gaubert: Trois aquarelles (Three Water-colours)
Martinů: Trio for flute, cello and piano

Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Sunday 11 August, 2:30pm

A relatively unusual ensemble usually calls up music that is similarly off the beaten track, and this was no exception.

The best known name was Haydn, though the piece would probably have been known almost only to flutists and those who happened to have a 2003 CD on the Concordance label by three Wellington musicians, Penelope Evison (6-keyed flute), Euan Murdoch (classical cello) and Douglas Mews (fortepiano). They recorded all three of Haydn’s flute trios using period instruments, most distinctively Douglas Mews on Victoria University’s fortepiano.

Haydn wrote these three piano trios in 1790 with the treble part scored for the flute instead of the violin. They are numbered 28, 29 and 30 by Haydn scholar H C Robbins Landon, and are nos 15, 16 and 17 in the Hoboken catalogue. Both catalogues include them among the total of some 45 works for piano trio.

If that had been a somewhat too scrupulous attempt at authenticity, so lacking much robustness, this performance on a Schimmel piano and modern flute and cello, made few gestures in that direction. The piano opened boldly and the flute had all the marks of modern orchestral sound, though acknowledging the habits of the ‘classical’ period through a fluent range of sparkling ornaments. The cello’s role was confined mainly to the doubling of the piano bass line.  In total, the players paid full attention to the music’s formal shapes, the modulations and changes of tone, the variations, and the teasing pauses and phantom closures and the whole work emerged as a great deal more substantial than might have been imagined. Haydn is predictable only in his delight in the unpredictable.

Flutist Bridget Douglas explained how she had come across the score of Charles Lefebvre’s Ballade among a collection that had belonged to long-standing NZSO principal flute, Richard Giese. Lefebvre was not a major French composer, a near contemporary of Massenet and Fauré, but there was no doubt, listening to the affectionate and studied playing by these musicians, that even a merely competent piece can become delightful and interesting in imaginative hands. All three determined to find the maximum enjoyment and interest in the music, the cello in particular catching my ear in quite striking passages. It deserves to be more played in contexts such as this.

Brazilian Villa-Lobos wrote a lot of music for unusual combinations and The Jet Whistle, for flute and cello, is a good example of his originality and quirkiness, some might say eccentricity. Its first movement is much given to endlessly repeated notes and gestures that can strike one as time-filling; the second movement is allowed to be more lyrical and again the players accorded it a degree of attention and care that rewarded its listening. It’s most famous for the build-up in the third movement of a screeching whistle from the flute, simulating the sound of a jet aircraft preparing for take-off on the tarmac. Last time I heard it, Bridget Douglas (I think it was) was in a space that allowed her to let rip with the final shriek that might do significant hearing damage; she was a little more restrained this time.

Philippe Gaubert was another rather minor French composer of a generation later than Lefebvre, born in 1879 (c.f. the wrong date in the programme). He was primarily a flutist during an age when the flute
was extremely popular, so most of his not inconsequential compositions are for that instrument. His Three Water-colours depict three scenes:  ‘On a clear morning’, ‘Autumn evening’ and ‘Serenade’.

Though not likely to be mistaken for Debussy, Gaubert cannot help being influenced by him or Ravel, his greater contemporaries; the morning music ripples with arpeggios, dreamy, seeming to flow effortlessly from his pen; the evening creates a more sombre mood though I can’t claim that my mind was filled with crepuscular imagery; a Spanish feel enters in the third water-colour, with more distinct atmospheric and rhythmic changes. Even if Gaubert is no Ravel, his music is listenable and charming, emerging without marks of great toil such as to tax the listener.

Martinů was hugely prolific; much of his music is so characterful and marked by such vivid melody and insistent rhythms, that it is memorable and commands more attention than most of the other music heard this afternoon. I have known this trio for years though cannot recall where heard, and a rehearing only confirmed my affection for it.

A friend and I reflected sadly on the fact that we could recall none of Martinů’s six attractive symphonies being played in this country.

The music plunges straight into passages of clear, well-constructed themes and their varied repetition, the flute typically soaring over other busy motifs from cello and piano. The second movement seemed to fall somewhat into a repetitive routine though it recovered charm towards its end. Its last movement starts misleadingly: the flute with a slow solo statement. But there’s a sudden bursting into life with the arrival of a moto perpetuo which eventually comes to an almost Haydn-like stop, only to resume in a meditative, exploratory phase. It leads to a coda in which an insistent rhythmic motif takes hold and builds to a finish that is positively exciting in a way that little post-WW2 music is.