Stroma, with percussionist Claire Edwardes

STROMA presents Event Horizon

Stroma, conducted by Hamish McKeich, with Claire Edwardes (percussion)

Alison Isadora: Cornish Pasty / Gyorgy Ligeti: Continuum
Jeroen Speak: Musik fur witwen, jungfrauen und unschuldige
Gerard Brophy: Coil / Steven Mackey: Micro-concerto

Ilott Concert Chamber

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Stroma’s recent concert featured works by two expatriate New Zealand composers, Jeroen Speak and Alison Isadora, both past graduates of Victoria University.

Speak, based in England, is currently in the country with his partner, Dorothy Ker, who holds the 2013-14 Lilburn House residency (Ker’s own […and…11] is scheduled for performance by Stroma at its next concert on 1 September). This August concert, Event Horizon, was named after Speak’s mini-concerto for piano and three percussionists, which in its turn was inspired by the stark paintings of Wang pan Yuan, Taiwan’s “prince of loneliness”.  As it happened, due to an insufficiency of percussionists, the eponymous work disappeared over a different event horizon – like that surrounding a black hole. In its stead, we had another composition by Speak, Musik fur witwen, jungfrauen und unschuldige (“Music for widows, virgins and innocents”, 2005) which had previously been premiered by Stroma. This proved to be a music of quietly intense, fleeting gestures (punctuated by side-drum strokes played by harpist Ingrid Bauer and violist Peter Barber), that gradually developed a sense of direction as repeated phrases hinted at an emerging underlying pulse.

Speak’s enigmatic title was drawn from that of an earlier composition, developed from a chant by Abbess Hildegard. The name of Netherlands-based Alison Isadora’s Cornish Pasty (2010) was similarly opaque (the programme note described the food, but not the music). The piece began with a starburst of sound, with tremolandos from Emma Sayers’ piano, Nick Granville’s electric guitar, and Steve Bremner’s vibraphone, creating a moving sound-object, through which melodies emerged from Rueben Chin’s and Hayden Sinclair’s soprano and tenor saxophones. Almost unrelentingly dense (in marked contrast to the sparseness of Musik fur witwen…), this composition, too, had a sense of direction and satisfying shape, gradually slowing down and thinning out after some interjections from Dave Bremner’s trombone, evolving from a texture-based piece to a predominantly rhythm-based piece.

I thought I detected some similarities here with Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (whose Zilver was performed in 2010 by SMP Ensemble under visiting conductor Lucas Vis), and also with some elements of minimalism. Continuum (1968) might have been Gyorgy Ligeti’s study in minimalism. This pulsating texture of trills and tremolandos has been played in Wellington, in its original harpsichord version, by Donald Nicolson.  Stroma’s “stereo” arrangement for marimba and vibraphone (impeccably realised by Claire Edwardes and Thomas Gulborg) had the odd (and enchanting) effect, for me, of  being “music in the head” (like the South American difference-tone flutes, demonstrated by Alejandro Iglesias-Rossi). Also affecting – and surprising – were the sustained, singing tones that were elicited from these percussive instruments.

Featured star, Claire Edwardes, performed solo in fellow Australian Gerard Brophy’s 1996 Coil, its dynamic contrasts and short, lively phrases demanding virtuoso control of the vibraphone’s pedal for both sustain and staccato effects.

American Steve Mackey’s Micro-concerto (1999) saw Edwardes take up small, hand-held instruments (such as claves, guiro, and whistle) along with the more conventional drums and vibes, for a five movement concert piece with small ensemble. The fourth movement, a warm-toned duo for Edwardes’ marimba and Rowan Prior’s cello, was especially enjoyable. The more vernacular-friendly style of both Mackey and Brophy made for a satisfying balance with the adventurous works in the first half.

Stroma’s next concert (Sunday, 1 September, 4pm, VUW Hunter Council Chamber) will feature (along with the Dorothy Ker, and former NZ resident Gao Ping), the versatile bass-baritone (and actor) Nicholas Isherwood. Last here in 2009, he performed then Stockhausen’s Havona (with electronics), and Sciarrino’s Quaderno di Strada (with Stroma). Both compositions had the uncompromising severity of late works: one was, the other not (thankfully, Signor Sciarrino is still with us). On 1 September, in “Goddess and Storyteller”, Isherwood will be performing in two dramatic vocal works by Iannis Xenakis.

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