Remembering David – a Farquhar tribute from the NZSM

A concert of music by David Farquhar (1928-2007)

Presentation curated by Jack Body
Music performed by staff of
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Jenny Wollerman (soprano) / Martin Riseley (violin)
Jane Curry (guitar) / Jian Liu (piano)

Sonatina for piano (1950) / Three PIeces for Violin and Piano (1967)
Eleven Pieces from Black, White and Coloured for piano (1999-2002)
Swan Songs for voice and guitar (1983)
Six Movements from Ring Round the Moon for violin and piano (1953 arr. 1992)

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University, Kelburn

Thursday 8th May

This extremely timely concert was organized by Jack Body as a tribute to one of his former teaching and composing colleagues, David Farquhar, on the seventh anniversary of the latter’s death.

Born in Cambridge in 1928, David Farquhar was one of a group of fledgling composers which included Larry Pruden, Edwin Carr, Dorothea Franchi and Robert Burch who studied composition with Douglas Lilburn at the renowned Cambridge Summer Music School during the late 1940s. Afterwards, on completing his degree in Wellington at Victoria University, Farquhar then took himself to England, joining Burch, Carr and Pruden for two years of further composition studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London under the tutelage of Benjamin Frankel.

Returning to New Zealand in 1953, Farquhar joined Professor Frederick Page’s Music Department at Victoria University, managing to balance teaching duties with composition, and producing at least one landmark piece of home-grown music along the way – the Dance Suite for small orchestra, “RIng Round the Moon” written to accompany a stage production by the New Zealand Players. Another work which achieved something of a public profile, albeit briefly, was the 1962 opera “A Unicorn For Christmas”, performed for Queen Elizabeth during a 1963 Royal Visit.

Of course, “Ring Round the Moon” in its various guises has captured people’s affections like none other of Farquhar’s works – I think partly because it doesn’t have any of the slight austerity that seems to me, rightly or wrongly, to be hung about the neck of much of the composer’s output. Even so, there’s so much more of Farquhar’s music which ought to be better-known, some of which we were able to hear performed in this concert.

Other pieces – the most shamefully-neglected of which I think is the First Symphony – await their turn in the scheme of things. Farquhar wasn’t a self-promoter of his music, unlike his contemporary, Ted Carr, though the music of both has entered that realm of curious neglect which composers Ross Harris and Jack Body touched upon in a radio interview prior to the Farquhar concert.

There’s grown up a kind of “lost generation” of New Zealand music, being the work of composers who came immediately after Douglas Lilburn, a list including, of course, David Farquhar, and (as Jack Body pointed out) that of HIS teacher, Ronald Tremain.  Yes, one or two works by these people did “cut through” the Sleeping-Beauty-like thicket and get themselves established – besides “Ring Round the Moon” one thinks of Larry Pruden’s “Harbour Nocturne” as a kind of “Kiwi classic”. And one remembers both Farquhar’s Third Symphony and Pruden’s String Trio being performed in Wellington, well, relatively recently.

But apart from these good deeds shining out like candlelight in a naughty world, the gloom that’s here overtaken the compositional output of people such as the aforementioned Ted Carr and Ronald Tremain, as well as that of Robert Burch and Dorothea Franchi, not to mention slightly later figures like John Rimmer and Kit Powell, has been pretty London-foggish. Another figure whom I’d include is Christchurch’s John Ritchie, whose music seems to get little more than parochial attention, when there are pieces by him which should be well established in our regular concert programs.

Perhaps, as Ross Harris seemed to me to suggest, this process of neglect has a kind of inevitability – like T.S. Eliot’s cat, “The Rum Tum Tugger”, who ” will do what he do do, and there’s no doing anything about it!” In which case, the same process obviously creates in time a kind of need to fill the void, which in turn propagates concerts like the present one – thanks, of course, here, to that “nurseryman extraordinaire”, Jack Body.

As well, there’s a current crop of performers who are ready, willing and certainly able to assist with whatever rehabilitation process is mooted, as was demonstrated to us in the Adam Concert Room on this occasion. After Jack Body’s welcoming speech, the concert proper began with a Sonatina for piano, dating from 1950, written by Farquhar after he’d left New Zealand to take up studies in the UK at Cambridge University. A note in the program told us the the work was published only in 2009 by Waiteata Music Press!

In this three-movement work, pianist Jian Liu revelled in the first part’s explorations of keyboard timbres – at first, brief phrases created a somewhat restless feeling, though the colourings held the angularities together. Then the music gravitated towards the lower piano registers, less agitated in effect, but deeper and slower, almost leviathan-like – not menacing, but sombre and sonorous, with upward irruptions of impulse keeping a kind of spatial awareness of things alive. These bright, glint-like sequences led to a quiet, enigmatic coda.

The second movement, marked Andante, I found almost ritual-like in its step-wise aspect, with an accompanying flourish, the latter following the melody as a train follows a bride’s dress – counterpointing voices played hide-and-seek, the pursuers then throwing their victims in the air to sparkle and scintillate before coming to earth and taking up the stepwise gait again, the flourish somehow detaching itself and leaving us with a piquant impression. The finale’s running, angular figurations were brilliantly activated by Liu, whose energies exuberantly realized the toccata-like middle section, and, after a breath-holding pause, signalled the end with a grand flourish.

I scribbled lots of notes during the next item, the 1967 Three Pieces for Violin and Piano – however, the marking for the first movement, “Improvisando”, says it all, really. I was reminded here of my own youthful, awkwardly shy attempts to engage girls I fancied in conversation, by the piano’s fitful, broken fanfare-like figurations, to which the violin responded with edgy, distant held notes, frequently with harmonics and occasionally punctuating its iciness with impatient, dismissive gestures.

I’m not sure whether the second movement’s “Pizzicato” represented a kind of thawing-out of relations, but the pianist’s plucking of the strings in the piano’s body and activating the lowest ones with a timpanist’s stick seemed to accord more readily with the violinist’s pizzicato notes at first, the increased engagement continuing with the violinist’s fly-buzzing sonorities enjoying the pianist’s strumming of the instrument’s strings. The final piece, “Risoluto” had fanfares (violin) and strumming harps (piano) each player demonstrating a kind of determination suggested by the music’s title, the pianist at one point knocking on the instrument’s body with his knuckles, and the violinist amplifying the fanfare figures before skittishly delivering an abrupt payoff.

Then came the first of two exerpted brackets from a piano solo collection called “Black, White and Coloured” – a typical Farquhar-ish exploration of the different characteristics of music written using either white or black piano keys and their treble/bass/inverted combinations. The first “bracket” was dominated by song, realizations of Negro Spirituals and of songs by Gershwin amongst the items. While finding the idea interesting, I thought some of the pieces too skeletal and bloodless compared with the originals, especially the Negro Spirituals – had I not known the pieces’ origins, I wouldn’t have missed those bluesy intensities put across by various great singers I could recall in my memory, and perhaps given the composer more credit for his relative austerities.

Similarly in the second set I thought the idea worked better the more obscure the music – so while I thought the opening “Silver-grey moonlight” too simplistic in its treatment of Clair de lune, the famous folk-melody, some of the others worked well, though there seemed a reluctance on the composer’s part to do very much with the basic thematic material. I thought the most successful realizations in the second set were “Chorale Prelude” and “Clouds”, in particular, the latter, which brought from Farquhar’s sensitivity to detail some timeless, floating ambiences of beauty and nostalgia.

More successful – in fact, spell-binding in effect – was the song-cycle “Swan Songs”, a 1983 work for voice and guitar, performed here by soprano Jenny Wollerman and guitarist Jane Curry. Framing the cycle at its beginning, middle and end were quotations from Orlando Gibbons’ well-known madrigal “The Silver Swan”, hand-in-glove with traditional song, and texts from Carmina Burana as well as by the composer. On the face of things, a kind of hotchpotch, but in performance, a magical evocation of worlds within worlds, bringing together instances of creative impulses leapfrogging over centuries to make heartfelt connections, one I found delightful, piquant and extremely moving.

With sonorous and evocative guitar-playing from Jane Curry setting the scene, Orlando Gibbons’ evocation of beauty brought forth spoken exclamation at first from the singer, and then, briefly, melody. Together with limpid guitar notes  the singer continued through through a section of the traditional “Swan swam”, evoking stillness and grave beauty. The third section, “Anxieties and Hopes” used the composer’s own text, a setting urgent and anxious, with darting impulses and broken figurations, guitar and voice overlapping, breaking off for a sequence of soaring, impassioned beauty before returning to the previous agitated state of things.

Gibbons’ music returned as a kind of “quiet centre” of things, before the work took a somewhat bizarre turn, quoting the “roasted swan” text from Carmina Burana (also famously used by Carl Orff in you-know-which-work!) – a droll lament for the sweetness of times past, affectingly sung and played by Jenny Wollerman and Jane Curry. After a brief reprise of the singer’s call to the swan, over a guitar ostinato, Gibbons’ music made its concluding appearance, the singer arching the voice over a lovely guitar solo with the words “Farewell, joy……” – brief, and ambient, and beautiful.

Before the programme’s final music item, composer Ross Harris contributed a brief but moving reminiscence of David Farquhar, constructing an engaging picture of a colleague with a number of distinctive traits – a concise and ordered thinker and creative spirit, responsive to challenges, (fiercely competitive especially when playing tennis, which was a great love – in fact the end of tennis for Farquhar seemed to symbolize the end of life…..). Ross Harris talked about a composing legacy of finely crafted music, describing its composer as “ultimately modest”.

The evening’s final, appropriately-chosen item (how COULD it have been left out?) was the violin-and-piano transcription of “Ring Round the Moon”, an arrangement made by the composer for the concertmaster of the NZSO, Isador Saslav, in 1992. I remember, a goodly number of  years ago, introducing myself to David Farquhar as an “admirer” of the work, and the composer graciously acknowledging the gesture by way of seizing his then wife Raydia D’Elsa around the waist and dancing a few steps with her in front of me, explaining that they would dance their way through the music he composed at the time to “try it out”. I’m sure the composer would, had he been present, have relished the playing of violinist Martin Riesley and pianist Jian Liu, despite his well-documented frustration at what he considered the piece’s disproportionate popularity.

Somehow, the immediacy of the violin-and-piano textures brought this memory of our meeting back to me more readily than did any of the orchestral versions of the dances – everything came across as more flavoursome than I ever before remembered, the violin’s piquant re-echoings of the linking motif at the conclusions of some of the pieces, the crunchy harmonies of the Galop, the bar-room atmosphere of the Tango, complete with exhausted-on-their-feet couples, the contrariwise harmonies in the Trio of the Polka, and the alterations between instruments in the Two-Step, complete with the link-motif’s lovely “falling-down-the-slope” effect. To finish, the Finale was encored, the music in this performance as angular, chunky, exuberant and wonderful as ever.

For those people who’ve read to this point, my humble apologies for the lengthy review! – but I hope you’ll conclude from all of this that Jack Body’s and the musicians’ efforts on behalf of David Farquhar’s music were eminently worthwhile.







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