Worlds of experience and sensibility – the Antipodes String Trio

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts Series:

Antipodes String Trio

LARRY PRUDEN – String Trio (1953-55)


WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART – Divertimento for String Trio in E-Flat K.563

Antipodes String Trio:
Amalia Hall (violin) / Nicholas Hancox (viola)
Sarah Rommel (‘cello)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 18th August, 2013

This was a concert that looked interesting enough on paper, but then really caught fire in performance. Its disparate parts came together simply and directly to produced the kind of combustion whose glow remained long after the last notes had been played.

The Antipodes String Trio has changed its personnel over the last couple of years –  the 2011 line up which toured New Zealand included Christabel Lin (violin) and David Requiro (cello), along with the present violist, Nicholas Hancox. The group was originally formed as a result of connections between students who were attending different various music conservatories and institutes in New Zealand and the United States.

The present group has a different violinist, Amalia Hall, and ‘cellist, Sarah Rommel, who met while attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where both are currently doing postgraduate studies. Previously, Amelia Hall and Nicholas Hancox had played together in the NZSO National Youth Orchestra. Nicholas Hancox is presently based in Germany, as principal viola of the Lubeck Philharmonic Orchestra.

For a group whose members spend much of their time pursuing individual career pathways, their playing demonstrated a remarkable unity throughout. Undoubtedly a good deal of this “esprit de corps” comes from an avowed commitment to help promote what the group calls ‘‘the under-utilised repertoire of the string trio, which many great composers throughout music history have contributed to’’

To my ears they realised much of the essential character of each of the works they performed – the breezy, out-of-doors angularity of Larry Pruden’s work, the contrasting ferocity and ghostliness of Penderecki’s piece, and the noble energies and fluid graces of Mozart’s Divertimento.

The programme note for the Pruden work cited Bartok as one of the chief influences, though I kept on hearing Tippett-like impulses in places. Not that the composer borowed consciously from other music, as it’s entirely natural that resonances of past encounters with various works from other sources would crop up in anybody’s music.

Here, I enjoyed the first movement’s restless energies, with the few moments of repose allowing the shades of a marching song to peep around the corners in places, and bringing forth a lovely alternating interplay between violin and viola. The second-movement Serenade (separately transcribed by the composer for string orchestra, as “Night Song”) featured beguiling open-air harmonies and delicate, watery pizzicato sequences, including a full-throated,  superbly-focused mid-movement “tutti”, filled with feeling.

The third movement’s delightful interchanges again brought the Tippett of the Double String Orchestra Concerto to mind, high spirits giving way to beautifully inward-sounding ambiences, almost Aeolian in effect in places, thanks to the rapt, concentrated instrumental soundings from these players. I also liked the Trio, with its viola-sounded echoes of the opening Vivace, poised here to perfection.

Continuing the mood-contrasts, the finale’s Lento tranquillo brought austere beauties from each instrument, the slow, fugal character of the music allowing the intensities to build systematically and inexorably – perhaps more “tragico” than “Tranquillo” in places, though the purer, more “ritualised” tones of the strings after the full-throated lines had run their course did suggest a kind of “home is where the heart is” aspect at the end. I thought these players gave of themselves so wholeheartedly throughout – so much so that we in the audience felt the “wrench” at the end when the sounds were broken off and all spells ceased.

What a contrast with the ferocity of Krzysztof Penderecki’s slashing chords at the very beginning of his String Trio! These brutal, hammered-out episodes alternated with lyrical and whimsical sequences for each solo instrument making for an ambience harsh, volatile and surreal in effect, after the Pruden work. The players threw themselves and their instruments into these sequences with playing of great verve, relishing the contrasts of colour, tone and emphasis, and creating as powerful and telling an atmosphere with their muted, spectral realisations as during the more forceful moments.

Viola, then violin by turns introduced the fugue-like second movement, the intensities leading back into the ferocious chords of the work’s opening, the music motoric and insistent, like some of Shostakovich’s, expressed most excitingly with some trenchant playing.

When it was over, I thought of the worlds of difference between the two works we had just heard. I found myself thinking of Douglas Lilburn’s telling descriptions of Penderecki’s music in his landmark “A Search for a Language” talk, prompted by thoughts regarding the relationship of musical language to experience. And Lilburn goes on to point out that other creative minds have stressed the importance of finding universal truths in our own lives’ framework. The result? – a telling contrast here between the respective worlds of two composers.

A kind of synthesis of universal truth, life-experience and innate genius can readily be found in the music of Mozart, whose Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat K.563, which took up the programme’s remainder, seemed to somehow enrich the contexts suggested by both of those first-half works. Written in 1788, in the wake of financial difficulties for the composer, and from the same period as his last three symphonies, it’s a more serious and profound work than the title “Divertimento” suggests.

I thought the Trio’s playing had real “girth” throughout the first movement, bring out the music’s nobility – for me, only Beethoven, in works such as the “Eroica”, approaches Mozart in his wondrous “E-flat” mode. The group took us on a true voyage of exploration with the music’s development – from the golden, sun-drenched strains of the opening we were suddenly plunged into realms of mystery and unpredictability, the figurations containing such a variegated set of emphases – beautiful work, especially, from viola and ‘cello in thirds in places.

A dignified, heartfelt Adagio was followed by a “kicking-up-its-heels” Minuet, with each instrument given the chance to bend its back to the dance, then engage in expressive, even volatile exchanges with a partner in the Trio, before returning to the dance. The players enjoyed the Theme-and-Variations Andante, as well as the rather more rustic second Minuet, one with a delicious waltz-like first Trio – its “ready-steady-go” beginning was here pointed most engagingly – and a pretty, very feminine second Trio, again delightfully characterized.

Apart from a surprising single mis-hit from the violist at one point, the group’s delivery of the Allegro Finale was excitingly spot-on in terms of accuracy, flow, expression and interchange. It was playing that brought out the quote from musicologist Alfred Einstein, reproduced in the program – “Every note is significant – every note is a contribution to spiritual and sensuous fulfillment in sound”….the Antipodeans’ performance  here embodied that comment, playing into each other’s and into our hands, so that we in the audience were able to partake fully in the musical feast.

I do hope we shall hear much more from this talented and engaging trio of musicians.









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