Distinguish Strike and Psathas from the hoi poloi of noise makers of the gig world

New Zealand Festival

Between Zero and One: Ensemble: Strike Percussion

Composer: John Psathas ; Visual effects: Tim Gruchy

St. James Theatre

Monday 10 March, 7:30 pm

Strike is regarded as the country’s premier percussion ensemble and the performance was promoted in the Festival programme as “Inspired by ancient and modern rhythms – from tribal beats to dubstep – Between Zero and One was written for Strike by internationally renowned New Zealand composer John Psathas…….. Intimate moments will draw you in – the epic finale will blow your mind.” The programme comprised a series of items for varied instrumental combinations, with all six players involved in each.

The opening number was an unbridled display of highly complex drumming rhythms, with each player using a different kit in individual locations on a vertical scaffold. It was a highly impressive start that showcased the extraordinary skills of the group, but after a while the repetitious bass drum beat and excessive volume became a relentless assault.

It was a relief to move to a piece built round the gentle tones of gamelan-like gongs and marimbas, but again the writing was highly repetitive to the point of becoming hypnotic, almost soporific. However this trend was dramatically reversed by an exciting and very clever number where the audience was deliberately drawn in to provide percussive rhythms and sound effects with clapping, stamping, shuffling, hissing and explosive voice interjections. It was very successful both as a highly creative composition, and in the way it bound the ensemble to the listeners.

In succeeding numbers the players moved to a wider range of instruments, such as African drums, and even expanded the group to nine or ten performers by using interactive projections of guest musicians from around the world, who played simultaneously with the stage group. Tim Gruchy’s colourful visual projections, both as backdrops and translucent front screen “curtains”, were featured throughout the concert to enhance the compositions.

It was an ambitious project that propelled the Strike group fairly and squarely into the gig world, which can only benefit from its extraordinary technical mastery and grounding in the classical percussion tradition. But on this occasion, Strike did itself a real disservice by adopting the excessive volumes of pop, and its reliance on thumping heavy bass lines. Despite using earplugs, I could not subject my ears to “the epic finale” which was reportedly incredibly loud.

Finesse and musicianship is what will distinguish this ensemble from the hoi polloi of noise makers out there in the gig world, and they should never lose sight of that.


Marc Taddei and NZSO with a splendid Sibelius Fifth

New Zealand Festival and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei

Sibelius: Karelia Suite, Op.11 and Symphony no.5 in E flat, Op.82

Michael Fowler Centre

Monday 10 March 2014

For those of us who have always been in love with Sibelius’s unique sound, this concert was a lunchtime treat; for those not so afflicted, it should have resulted in recruiting new disciples.  Over the last seven or eight years, the wonderful radio series Letter to Sibelius by Marshall Walker, broadcast twice in its entirety during that time and with individual programmes frequently requested on ‘Your Choice’ on RNZ Concert, has established or enhanced the interest in and appreciation of this composer for many, I am sure. 

Not least has been the effect of Symphony no.5, which was Walker’s father’s favourite.  Its enchanting melodies, innovative orchestration and lively rhythms captivated him – and us.

The concert began with the well-known Karelia Suite.  The thrilling opening to the first piece (Intermezzo) from the horns, at first open then muted, set the scene for this music of dances inspired by the Finnish region of Karelia.  We then took off on a wonderful ride through the forest, with sleigh bells and all.  After a grand climax, the sleigh receded into the distance and the horns ended their calls with a lovely cadence. 

The second movement, Ballade, opened with plaintive woodwind, followed by strings, both in the minor key, which sank to sotto voce before building up to a grand theme on the oboe, played against pizzicato cellos.  After this was played around with, the movement ended. 

The Alla Marcia last movement is probably the best known, with its jovial dance, followed by the stentorian clarion calls from the brass.  These musicians played their prominent part superbly, with plenty of support from their colleagues, notably the percussion department. 

Sibelius’s singular writing for brass was manifest again, in the horn entry, as though from afar, at the beginning of the symphony.  This was followed by woodwind calls played with nuanced gravity.  A gentle string entry was followed by brass, some of whom were not absolutely spot-on during the build-up to the spooky chromatic theme on strings.  This is followed by a glorious three-note rising theme, with brass again taking the lead. 

We need to remember that all of Sibelius’s symphonies were written early in the twentieth century, thus, to my mind, giving the lie to the statement broadcast on radio today, that Shostakovich’s fifth symphony was the greatest symphony of that century.

The slow movement opens with pizzicato cellos presaging the theme that is passed around the orchestra, flutes in particular giving it a beautiful rendering, played in thirds.  The festive nature of the music, first performed at celebrations for the composers 50th birthday, was fully incorporated in the NZSO’s playing at this concert. (However, I constantly heard in my head Marshall Walker singing the words his father had put to the theme: ‘Because I’m fifty, I know I’m fifty’!).  The brass were submissive in the background for once.

From pizzicato and staccato, the music turns to be lush on the strings, briefly, before it is back to pizzicato.  As in the Tchaikovsky symphony last week, the brass are grandly dominant through much of this symphony, and after being submissive here they soon assert themselves again.

With virtually no gap, we proceeded to the third and final movement.  It has been described as ‘some of the most stirring music even Sibelius ever wrote.  It has a monumental energy…’.  The busy strings play a fugue before the wonderful theme of rising fifths, played in thirds, on the brass.  (Did Stephen Schwartz consciously or unconsciously copy this music for his 1971 musical Godspell?).  As it changes key, it grows and swells to become an all-encompassing declaration, both joyful and uplifting.  In each movement there are hints of themes from the other movements, giving the work a unity, despite all its variety and changes. 

A counter-theme brings a more sombre tone, while the brass continues trying to promote the original one.  These two themes develop together in a paean of triumphant exaltation, leading to ecstatic separated final chords. 

The work received magnificent playing from the orchestra, especially in the final movement; the audience responded warmly.