Gorgeous concert of New Zealand commissions for voice and harp

Te Koki New Zealand School of Music:
Pluck; a concert of New Zealand music for harp

Works by Anthony Ritchie, Graeme Downes, Pepe Becker, Lyell Cresswell, Gillian Whitehead, Chris Adams, Claire Cowan, Ross Carey and Mark Smythe.

Helen Webby (harp), Pepe Becker (voice)

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Friday, 13 September, 7.30pm

Everyone at ‘Pluck’ would have been delighted by what they heard.
The works were commissioned by an enterprising Helen Webby, with support from Creative New Zealand.  Most of the composers are New Zealand residents, but several are currently based
overseas.  All the works were written for full-size orchestral harp – pedal harp – unless otherwise stated below.

Anthony Ritchie’s Angels Flow was certainly apt to its title: evocative, misty, and at the end, feeling unfinished, as if it wafted off into spiritual worlds.  It was an appropriate piece to commence a recital of harp music, but more excitement was in store for the moderately-sized audience (there was musical competition elsewhere in the university precinct).

Also based at Otago University, Graeme Downes is an expert on Mahler, and on rock music.  I had not heard any of his compositions before, but despite the rather technical programme note, it proved to be an interesting and varied piece: Introduction and Scherzo.  It opened in a minor
mode, then changed quite abruptly.  There were many delicious moments of arpeggios and techniques of playing at varying levels from top to bottom of the strings. The tempi were quite fast, and the music was jazzy in places.  Towards the end, it struck me as pianistic in character.  Overall, it was a very attractive work.

We are certainly familiar with Pepe Becker as a singer; although I knew she composed also, I had not heard anything of hers for a long time. Her piece was titled  Capricorn I: Pluto in terra.  Knowing little of astrology, much of the programme note was over my head.

The work opened with the strings stopped by a piece of paper between them, giving a tonal quality
rather like pizzicato on a violin.  Then there were low wordless vocal tones from the harpist, and a melody for the left hand, while the pizzicato continued from the right hand.  The paper was removed (in an act of sleight of hand), but the same fast rhythms continued, as did the vocal tones, plus knocking on the soundboard.  All of this made for a dramatic and interesting piece – and difficulty for the performer, but nevertheless she succeeded without problems, it seemed.

Lyell Cresswell, who has lived in Edinburgh for many years, maintains his links with New Zealand.  He wrote his piece based on words by the poet Fiona Farrell, which were written after the February 2011 earthquake.  They had particular relevance, since the poet had been playing “with a harp ensemble under Helen’s tutelage”.  The words related the reaction of the harp and of the cups and plates when the earthquake happened.  Telling, and amusing were the lines about
harps making fine companions in disaster. “You can float on a harp as the ship goes down” and “You can hold onto a single string/ Find your way through a broken city.”

Pepe Becker’s singing was incisive yet smooth in this dramatic piece, which was played with great
panache and a range of fortes and pianos. The disaster was splendidly depicted.

Last in the first half of the concert was Gillian Whitehead’s Cicadas, the vocal part setting a text by Rachel Bush.  Naturally, the insects were depicted in the music, as Whitehead “focuses on the life cycle of the cicada and its mesmeric song.” Whitehead proved yet again to be superb at setting words to music, and also at bringing out the theme through the music.  We heard the cicadas emerging from the ground, and their rhythmic vibrations accompanied the words, epitomising the part that said “…say to themselves over and over.”  At one point Helen Webby used a kind of vibrato on the high notes, employing both hands to achieve this, then smoothed over the strings with both hands, giving an eerie effect.  Such ‘twentieth century harp techniques’ were credited in the programme note to great French-American harpist Carlo Salzedo, who died in 1961 at the age of 76.

I found the singing of the words rather shrill in the bright acoustic of the Adam Concert Room.  However, this was a very skilled composition, and performance.

Following the interval we heard Strata by Chris Adams (another composer with strong Otago University connections).  It employed, in addition to the harp, a ‘loop pedal’.  This is an electronic device, operated by the harpist using a pedal, which can play a loop of the music (the loop could be earlier recorded, or recorded during the performance, I learned later, and is much used by pop musicians). The performer could play with the loop as accompaniment, or without it, or activate the loop on its own, playing its part over and over, with no ‘live’ intervention.

The piece began with what sounded like a medieval melody, modal in nature.  The charming melody was played over a repetitive bass accompaniment.  The disadvantage of using the loop was the clicking noise as the pedal was depressed and the electronics started and stopped.

Claire Cowan’s piece was The Sleeping Keeper, for lap harp and pedal harp.  However, since Helen
Webby couldn’t play two harps at the same time, the loop pedal was employed again to activate the electronic version of the lap harp’s part.  At one point, she used the metal tuning key on the strings to produce a sustained metallic sound from them.  As the programme note said “the piece conjures up… the constant movement of water…”; the resonant sound in ACR was right for this evocative piece, full of the atmosphere of dreams.  However, I believe there was amplification in those piece employing the loop pedal.

The repetitive bass was most effective; the use of the loop pedal made for more complex, and louder, textures than the harp could conjure up on its own.

Ross Carey’s … valse oubliée… was for a wire-strung harp of 22 strings.  This small harp 22 metal strings was placed on a high padded stool and Helen Webby played it standing. What an incisive sound this harp has compared with the pedal harp!  Carey was the only composer to use this smaller instrument.  His piece was in an improvisatory style, with pleasing turns of phrase.

Finally, we heard Moto Mojo from Mark Smythe (Pepe Becker’s brother).  In tonality and rhythmically the piece was similar to Pepe’s composition.  It was true to the title, and to the note “to make the listener feel a sense of momentum” but it was certainly not without melody and charm.  I can believe in amplification used like this – it truly enhanced what can be a very quiet instrument.  The piece made a beautiful ending to a gorgeous concert.  It’s not always that you
can say that about a programme of totally new music.


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