Diverting woodwinds a delight from first to last at St Andrew’s

New Zealand Music for Woodwind

Natalie Hunt (b. 1985)  Winter (Winter is dedicated to Debbie Rawson and the saxophone students of the New Zealand School of Music)
               Reuben Chin (alto saxophone) and Ben Hoadley (piano)
Philip Brownlee (b. 1971)  Stolen Time
Kamala Bain (recorder) and Ben Hoadley (dulcian)
Kenneth Young (b. 1955)  Elegy for Saxophone Quartet
               Saxcess: Debbie Rawson (soprano saxophone), Reuben Chin (alto saxophone), Simon Brew (tenor saxophone), Graham Hanify (baritone saxophone)
Gillian Whitehead (b. 1941)  Venetian Mornings
The Donizetti Trio: Luca Manghi (flute), Ben Hoadley (bassoon), David Kelly (piano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 14 May 2014, 12:15 pm

This was a concert I headed to with simply no idea of what to expect. It proved to be a delight from first to last. All the works explored the less frequently heard registers and timbres of the various instruments involved, and all evoked moods of reflection and introspection that are not often associated with music for instruments like the saxophone family. It has always baffled me why “classical” composers should have so seldom used the delicious possibilities that these lovely instruments offer, and likewise the matchless grace and individuality of the cor anglais. But that’s another story; there were no cor anglais works here.

Natalie Hunt’s brief Winter piece saw the alto sax floating above the piano with lyrical, almost modal melodic lines that rose and fell in pitch and intensity like the in- and out-breaths of sudden fright followed by relief. Reuben Chin’s playing was beautifully tailored to the moods of the music, and Ben Hoadley’s accompaniment perfectly balanced to the solo line.

Stolen Time was given its first performance at this concert. “Philip Brownlee is a composer and sound artist based in Wellington. His musical interests include forming connections between recorded sound and instrumental performance, and between composed and improvised musics.” (Programme Notes). It was interesting to hear a modern work for two medieval instruments, particularly the lesser known dulcian. This is a Renaissance woodwind instrument with double reed and folded conical bore, more often called ‘curtal’ in English.

The predecessor of the modern bassoon, it flourished between 1550 and 1700, though it was probably invented earlier.  The piece unfolded as a delicate counterpoint between the two solo voices, opening with a spare unison melody that evoked, for me, images of Fiordland bush in the dead of night. There we can indeed steal time from our over-busy urban lives, and listen to the enquiring bird calls that cut into the matchless silence of the rainforest.  The recorder floated on top with light, trilling, fluid lines, over intermittent calls from a Kiwi exploring a few notes outside its normal range, and the occasional honk of a bittern. All closed into the night time silence with another spare, fading unison line…… I was left hoping that we will hear more of Philip Brownlee’s wind writing in future.

Kenneth Young provided some notes for the next work in the programme: “My Elegy for Saxophone Quartet was written especially for my good friends and colleagues of long-standing, Debbie Rawson and Graham Hanify. The melancholy and elegiac nature of saxophones, in general, had always been something I wanted to investigate and base a work on, so when Debbie asked me to pen a work for Saxcess this was very much on my mind as a concept. The real impetus came in 2010 when our family suffered the passing of a much-loved and valued member. It was a truly sad time and that sadness would seem to have found its way into this piece.”

The work opened with a melody from the soprano sax, where Debbie Rawson’s exquisite dulcet tone set the contemplative mood for the whole piece. This developed as a series of conversations between solo melodic lines for the various instruments, and solos accompanied by the rich warmth of the ensemble harmonies. Sadly we heard only a brief snatch from the solo baritone, whose rich warm timbre merits a whole solo work in its own right. The performance was marked by most sensitive playing, beautiful phrasing and the artistry of superb dynamic control. It closed with a final soprano line that faded into breathless silence……..

Venetian Mornings”, writes Gillian Whitehead, “is dedicated to my dear friend Jack Body as a celebration of this 70th birthday. We first met while visiting Venice independently in the 1960’s. One night we went to hear Peter Maxwell Davies’s new work Vesalii Icones performed by Davies’s group the Pierrot Players. It was a very humid evening; we could hear continuous distant rumblings of thunder as we went into the concert hall and eventually a huge storm broke. We went onto emergency lighting during the piece. Jack introduced himself after the piece. When we left the hall, we discovered Venice had been cut off from the world, a tornado had come out of the sea, overturned a ferry and destroyed a camping ground. A number of people were killed – 12, maybe – but if it had been earlier or later, many more would have died. After that concert Jack and I would meet for breakfast each morning, and have been friends ever since.”  (Programme notes).

The work opened with a very beautiful baritone solo which passed to a pianissimo flute line as one imagined the city barely emerging from the morning mists of the lagoon. It became briefly more lively, but again retreated into soporific silence. The second episode was marked by more animated repetitive rhythms and see-sawing harmonies from the Trio, with melodic writing that was full of beautiful exchanges between the instruments. But the mists finally triumphed as the ending retreated into a fading pianissimo. I’m not sure this work would have been particularly meaningful without the programme notes; but with that background provided, the music vividly recalled all those long-forgotten memories of one’s OE in Venice years ago, when it really was mist over the awakening lagoon and not the stench of thick smog.

This event offered a wonderful opportunity to hear some very special Kiwi work, and I can do no better than to quote my colleague Lindis Taylor, who remarked: “I thought it was a lovely, adventurous little concert, particularly the Whitehead.” (though he would like to add that he found each of the pieces thoroughly diverting in totally disparate ways).