Stroma’s third “Mirror of Time” – thoroughly engaging fun


Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Rebecca Struthers (violins)
Andrew Thomson (viola), Rowan Prior (‘cello)
Rowena Simpson (soprano), Kamala Bain (recorders/percussion)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Michael Norris (artistic director/visuals/programme)

Sacred Heart Basilica, Hill St., Wellington

Thursday 26th June, 2014

As I listened to this highly diverting and thoroughly engaging assemblage of music old and new, expertly put together by Stroma’s artistic director Michael Norris and stunningly performed by the ensemble and its conductor, Hamish McKeich, I was struck repeatedly by the profoundly unoriginal, but nevertheless compelling thought that this presentation was great fun!

Perhaps that observation might appear trite to some people, unworthy of inclusion in a “serious review”. But given that music of all kinds is performed for people to enjoy rather than endure, I imagined that for a good many concert-goers who regularly attend symphony, choral and chamber concerts, the thought of any encounters with “serious” music written after 1950, would straightaway come into the “endure” category. The idea of attending a contemporary music concert would be as remote for some as going to a lecture on, say, ancient Etruscan circumcision practices.

For a goodly number of years I’ve been going to exciting and innovative contemporary music concerts presented by both Stroma and Auckland’s 175 East, as a critic treading a fine line between being an enthusiast for new music and a representative of the general music-listening public. It’s certainly true that some of the works played by these groups are challenging and cutting-edge – but it’s good to keep in mind that so Beethoven’s music was to many music-lovers in the early 1800s!

For me part of the process of dealing with this music’s unfamiliarity was to accept it totally as a “new” experience, rather than try and unduly analyze or anatomize it – again and again I told myself that “these sounds are to be enjoyed”, and I reacted to them as wholeheartedly as I could on that basis. But to a greater extent than ever before, I think, during Stroma’s latest “The Mirror of Time” presentation, I found myself actually connecting with the music-performance as I would that of any of my favorite music – on a visceral, emotional and (I flatter myself!) intellectual level of response.

True, I didn’t go so far as race down to the library the following day and get a book out on the ancient Etruscans! But Stroma’s organization of the concert and wholehearted, skillful playing of these pieces of music, ancient and modern, convinced me, once and for all, that contemporary music can engage, excite, inspire, soothe, stimulate and satisfy as profoundly as can any music from any era. Of course, this was something I knew in theory, but was here enjoying as a practical, real-time, flesh-and-blood phenomenon. Exhilarating!

From the concert’s very beginning, we in the audience were made to feel as though we were part of the performance, encircled as we were by a quartet of string-players, each one positioned in a corner of the church’s nave. Stroma director Michael Norris put it well by remarking in the program note how “the spatialized position of the quartet gently sets in motion the resonance of the church”.

The “timelessness” of the sounds created by the musicians well reflected the music’s origins – a 1400BC Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, wife of the Moon God, a melody preserved for 3,500 years on clay tablets found in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit. Various attempts to “render” the melody, written in cuneiform, or “wedged script”, have been made by scholars, with one by Marcelle Duchense-Guillemin used here by Michael Norris, who reworked the tune for strings which play entirely in harmonics and in the form of a “prolation canon” – ie, one in which the individual voice-parts use variations of speeds and synchronizations. The result was totally mesmerizing.

Most of the subsequent pieces in the concert demonstrated different ways of presenting canonic treatment of music, the following Agnus Dei by Josquin des Prez being a particularly closely-worked example, with a delay of only one beat between the top two lines and a “crab-canon” (the same line, with one played BACKWARDS against the other!) taken by the two lower voices – wot larks! It must have helped that each of the higher voices was taken by a “pair”, but nevertheless it must have seemed for the performers like high-wire acrobatic work, at times! Soprano and recorder were interestingly paired, the singer (Rowena Simpson) bright- and shining-voiced, the recorder (played by Kamala Bain) mellow and dusky, but the timbres still coming through, the blendings with the strings in places exquisite.

Simon Eastwood’s work I had encountered previously at a 2008 NZSO/SOUNZ Readings Workshop, on that occasion a piece called Aurum, which I liked a lot. Here the composer’s starting-point was a quotation from Plato’s Republic, words describing a kind of journeying of souls to a point where universal structures of the cosmos are perceived as spheres and axes of light – the Spindle of Necessity is the thread-gatherer which collects and plays out these lines, enabling the revolutions of all the spheres and their orbits.

Ethereal, almost mystical in effect, the words were mirrored by the sounds of this work, the tones “analogizing” to and fro, up and down, stretching, bending binding, and loosening, growing in intensity and rising in pitch before falling away to almost nothing – subsequent irruptions, clusters, tensions, even a claustrophobic scream! – were all gathered in by the spindle, at the end a single note around which the sounds were safely bound. It was a case of new music that in some ways to my ears sounded strangely old.

14th-Century composer Johannes Ciconia provided some diversions from these play-for-keeps austerities with some lively, dance-like four-part (one part added by Michael Norris!) canonic interweaving, involving both pizzicato and arc strings accompanying voice and recorder in a song Le ray au soleyl, the words a kind of long-term medieval weather-forecast. The work’s exuberance in performance contrasted with the inner world evoked by Mary Binney’s work Enfance, which followed, a setting of haiku-like verses by Rimbaud dealing with past happiness and present disillusionment – spare music, whose silences serve to underline the focus of each note played and sung, a remarkable demonstration of “less is more”.

Another Agnus Dei, this time from Pierre De La Rue, who here demonstrated an almost Tom Lehrer-like mathematical exactitude in his setting of part of his L’homme arme Mass, by way of producing a richly-canopied, ritual-like processional. It was something whose textured framework provided a telling foil for Rachael Morgan’s Interiors II, which followed. Written for string quartet, these were sounds whose very fibres proclaimed their intent, from the opening solo violin’s initial single note through harmonics, octaves with gorgeously “bent” unisons and curdled timbres, the opening’s silvery tones wonderfully besmirched by later guttural, claustrophobic utterances, dying away as light and life were consumed.

The excitement continued with sixteenth-century composer Cipriano de Rore’s Calami sonum ferentes (The pipes that sound), a convoluted but hauntingly beautiful setting – one that might have temporarily unnerved soprano Rowena Simpson, who pitched her opening notes too high, and had to begin again! The music made an excellent match for the highly expressive manner of the author, the Roman poet Catullus – the poet’s weeping at the start was depicted graphically by the obsessive chromatic figures, as both voice and recorder in thirds and fourths firstly sounded the lament of loss, then at “Musa quae nemus incolis”, ravishingly invoked the Muse through whom the former’s grief could be expressed.

A different kind of Muse was summonsed by the recorder-playing of Kamala Bain during Maki Ishii’s anarchic Black Intention, a work that featured the gradual undermining of a Japanese folk-tune played on a single recorder by the introduction of a second recorder played by the same player, immediately striking a discordant note – like a disputation! As the second recorder attempted to “muscle in” on the first, player Kamala Bain firstly vocalized agitatedly while still playing, then suddenly roared at the top of her voice, and bared her teeth as she picked up a stick and furiously and resoundingly struck a nearby tam-tam!  We were thunderstruck – almost literally!

What better release after such demonstrations of frustration than to ride into battle and indulge in some sabre-rattling? Which is what the musicians did under the auspices of Heinrich Biber, with Die Schlacht (The Battle) from “Battalia”, a 17th Century equivalent to the 1812 Overture, strings angrily snapping and biting at the air. How different a scenario to that of Jack Body’s Bai whose sounds alternatively suggested playful “Make love, not war” energies, Andrew Thomson’s viola imitating a traditional Chinese “dragon-head” lute-sound in its characteristic ‘sliding” melodic aspect, supported by pizzicato violins and ‘cello.

And by way of refuting the “music should be heard and not seen” idea, the fourteenth-century French composer Baude Cordier provided us, by way of the musicians’ performance and a projected image of the manuscript – exquisitely “drawn” – with an example of “eye music”. This was a chanson whose words Tout par compas suy composes (With a compass I am composed) describe the notated layout of the music as well as its circular canonic motion – a refined and cultured game of chase, with the voice closely pursued by the recorder.

Chris Watson’s piece sundry good was a celebration of the musical device called the “ornament”, a kind of dissertation with gestural examples, instruments talking with one another in a playfully stylized way – in exchanges that varied both tempi and timbre, and which coalesced and deconstructed just as quickly – a middle sequence sounded to my ears like a kind of descent, from which tendrils began to push their way upwards and intertwine, before seeming to “take fright” with individual scamperings, patternings, and thrummings. It was as if the “ornaments” of the title were looking for love, but finding the dating sites a bit rough for comfort. As with Flanders and Swann’s famous Misalliance from their “At the Drop of a Hat” revue, I sadly feared a tragic end to the story (only to the heart, of course!) – the hushed tremolandi which concluded the piece suggested as much – a kind of ambient wilderness (or “what-you-will”) at the end.

Afterwards, it was all on deck for Carmina Burana with which to finish – the ensemble hove to with a lusty rendition, complete with handclapping, percussion and vocalizations, of a song from that famous manuscript, Tempus Transit Gelidum (The time of ice is passing), with the piccolo recorder “jigging” the rhythm, and giving a kind of medieval “hoe-down” feeling to the music. Verses and choruses enjoyed plenty of dynamic variation, and the strings’ harmonics most engagingly sang some of the accompanying lines, for all the world sounding like little piping wind instruments.

Yes, a good deal of “critical babble”, I know – but it all delighted me so much – I couldn’t have imagined a more enjoyable evening of music-listening.




















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