Works written for New Zealand School of Music Staff
Stephan Prock: Stradivariazioni
Ross Harris: Sunt lacrimae rerum
Martin Riseley: Intermezzo for Lenny
Ross Harris: Three Sandcastle Songs / Shtiklekh
Adam Concert Room, NZSM
Friday, 23 August 2013
The New Zealand School of Music’s last lunchtime concert before the mid-semester break was a recital by NZSM staff members of works especially written for them by current and previous VUW and NZSM staff members.
Stephan Prock teaches composition at the School. His Stradivariazioni was commissioned by Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons for a 2011 Chamber Music New Zealand tour. In effect a suite of six movements, the initial themes (based on musical ciphers) were subjected to five variations, each bearing the name of a Stradivari violin. Le Rossignol (“The Nightingale”) was a contemplative nocturne, with bird-like turns and trills. Firebird was appropriately Stravinskyan. Le Messie (“The Messiah”), named after an instrument that was kept hidden and never seen (and now in a museum, still unplayed), began with a slow introduction, rich in open-pedal resonance, on Irons’s piano. Riseley took up his violin as if to play, then put it down again, and again, and again, tantalising us -will he play? Won’t he? (Did he? I’m not telling!)
Unlike the previous variations, the last two, Red Diamond and Alard, were run together without a break, which was somewhat disconcerting. This finale segment was attacked with great gusto, Riseley straining to get the most from his instrument.
Prock’s genial style here could easily have been that of the nineteenth century. Martin Riseley’s, in his Intermezzo for Lenny (from a violin sonata), was that of the twentieth, with hints of jazz in its witty phrases (a tribute to Leonard Bernstein). It was characterised by lean counterpoint between Riseley’s violin and Jian Liu’s piano, and built up to a strong, late climax.
Ross Harris’s musical language, though of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, seemed timeless in the 2013 Sunt lacrimae rerum. As with many of Harris’s other compositions, it was inspired by tragedy (the Virgil quote, “There are tears in things”, was found in a book on the Holocaust). Inbal Megiddo captured the sense of lament in the falling phrases of the long cello introduction, before Jian Liu added a spare counterpoint on piano. It built, hesitantly, towards a sub-climax before subsiding with a sigh to a bare piano line, the cello silent. This would have made a poignant ending, if it were the end of a shorter piece. This, however, was to prove something more substantial, leading on the a scherzo section with a fortissimo climax before returning, with assured pacing, to cello cantillation and an exquisite high harmonic on which to end.
Like Sunt…, Harris’s Shtiklekh gave the impression of several movements compressed into one, this time celebratory rather than sombre, as rollicking foot-stomping sections were interspersed with more pensive passages. Performed with great aplomb by the trio Galvanised, it was informed by Harris’s experience playing in a Klezmer band. Debbie Rawson’s earthy, pitch-bending soprano sax deputised for the Klezmer clarinet, amplifying Rebecca Steele’s introductory flute line, while Diedre Irons on piano had an almost Satiesque ‘Gymnopedie” moment.
The Three Sandcastle Songs set poems by the Nelson-based Panni Palasti, whose memories of wartime Budapest provided the texts that formed the heart of Harris’s Fifth Symphony (premiered in Auckland in August, and broadcast by Radio New Zealand Concert). These poems spoke of calmer times, of living in Kororareka (Russell) after she had emigrated to New Zealand. The songs were fresh, and sung by a seasoned and sensitive interpreter of Harris’s vocal music (notably The Floating Bride…), Jenny Wollerman.
The first song, Invitation (“Come with me/to the edge of the sea”) flowed and tripped along until it slowed to its elegiac conclusion (“the dead may know what we can’t guess”). The second, Manifesto, featured arpeggios and some discreet word-illustration (“the mad swirl/of deranged particles”) on Jian Liu’s piano. The third, Kororareka Ruins , was more declamatory, and I wondered why it was not placed between the two more melodious songs for the sake of balance and contrast. In Palasti’s book Taxi! Taxi! (Maitai River Press, 2008), the poems appear in the order in which they were performed, but that would not seem to be a compelling reason to keep them that way. Perhaps Harris (who has written some very dark compositions, such as Contra Music and As if there were no God) wanted to leave us with the image of “a cobweb/so ancient/it won’t catch a thing again”, rather than Manifesto’s “surge towards infinity” and the hint of transcendence that ends the Fifth Symphony.