Diverting and wide-ranging concert from the SMP Ensemble

SMP Ensemble: Nachtmusik

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht for string sextet, and other music by Salzedo, Britten, Biber, Brad Jenkins and Cilla McQueen

Jennifer Newth (harp); Gregory Squire and Tabea Squire (violins); Peter Barber and Megan Ward (violas); Jack Hobbs and Charley Davenport (cellos); Rebecca Steel (flute); Karlo Margetic (clarinet); Nick Walshe (bass clarinet); Chris Gendall (conductor)

St Peter’s church, Willis Street

Friday 14 November, 7:30 pm

The SMP Ensemble’s programmes, often devoted to experimental, New Zealand music, are not always particularly easy for the average classical music lover to enjoy. This one, advertising Schoenberg’s best-loved piece, Verklärte Nacht, guaranteed pleasure. But word of it had obviously not got out as the audience was sadly small.

The first half did include a couple of, shall we say, unusual pieces, but it began and ended with harp player Jennifer Newth performing two established harp compositions that were intrinsically beguiling, but also played with astonishing virtuosity and exquisite delicacy. Carlos Salzedo was born in Paris of Sephardic Spanish parents, and later came to find an affinity with the Basques. He took up the harp as a child and gained a world-wide reputation becoming a famous virtuoso as well as composer for his instrument. Read the interesting entry in Wikipedia which draws attention to his wide-ranging musical activities as composer (for music in many genres), conductor, teacher, and to his international reputation in the general musical world and around the world.

Salzedo’s playing is described in that article as characterized by clarity, facility, articulation, fluidity, and subtle phrasing. They were some of the words that came to mind as I listened to Jennifer Newth’s enchanting and breathtaking performance of Chanson dans la nuit.

Jennifer returned before the interval to play the Nocturne from Britten’s Suite for Harp which he wrote in 1969. I was not familiar with the piece and might have been hard pressed to identify its composer. After the preceding two New Zealand pieces, it emerged as main-stream, genuinely musical, exposing Britten’s idiomatic and imaginative writing for the instrument. Its nocturnal setting did not prevent
its becoming muscular and emphatic as it progressed through this incisive and insightful performance.

Brad Jenkins (notes in the programme leaflet about the composers and the music were rather limited; and, incidentally, the meaning of the acronym SMP seems to be ever concealed: I am told it stands for Summer Music Project) is a young Wellington composer who won the Douglas Lilburn prize at the New Zealand School of Music in 2012 for the piece played here, Nocturne No 1. It belongs to the long tradition of experiments in sound that seem to be an essential part of a student composer’s equipment in the ‘coming-of-age’ process. It involved ‘players’ positioned on all sides of the audience: piccolo/flute Rebecca Steel (her second appearance for me this week), cellist Charley Davenport, dismembered clarinet Karlo Margetic, bass clarinet Nick Walshe, viola Peter Barber, violin Tabea Squire, all conducted by Chris Gendall. Jenkins’s aim was to deconstruct the character of each instrument by removing all its essential tonal sounds so little more than breath or the swoosh of bow cutting through the air was audible. Slowly, hints of pitches emerged and the sounds became more abrasive, scrupulously unmusical ion the normal sense. I wondered as I listened whether this was what the world would be left with after its conquest and domination by ISIS or the Taliban.

Cilla McQueen is known to me, and I suppose most, as a poet; but here was another departure from the orthodox. Her ‘score’ of Rain Score 2 was reproduced on the back page of the programme: a spiral formed by faint, interlacing seaweed or elementary life patterns. The septet stood in a semi-circle in the front: the two violins, the two clarinets, Peter Barber, Charley Davenport and flute. Again, orthodox sounds were few as the players improvised, imitated, in a sort of aleatoric process, though there were sheets of paper on music stands visible to some players that presumably offered a bit of notated guidance. The performance even involved the mysterious effect of bowing the cello below, but not apparently touching, the strings.

The main draw for the concert was the original, string sextet version of Verklärte Nacht. Here, the string players already mentioned were joined by cellist Jack Hobbs.  I was immediately entranced by the performance, in an acoustic that was beautifully adapted to it. There was something in the sound that drew attention, as it hasn’t before for me, to the marvelous variety of the piece’s scoring in which each instrument has the most interesting individual lines, and there were entrancing utterances and delights in many short passages from, for example, Hobbs’s cello and Megan Ward’s viola.

The episodes of the poem’s story, depicted graphically enough in the score, were dramatized with particular clarity and with the emotional generosity that had obviously attracted Dehmel and Schoenberg to explore the lovers’ delicate situation. It’s interesting that Schoenberg later dismissed the poem as repulsive and sought to have the music heard as independent of it. Thus commentaries that relate the sections to episodes in the couple’s nocturnal experience are, like most attention to the ‘programmes’ of music, unhelpful and distracting.

But those thoughts do not detract from the delight one feels at the evolving shapes and emotions, key changes, acidulous harmonies that Schoenberg presented to the Vienna of Johann Strauss and the Secessionist movement. This performance captured the floaty, suggestive transfiguration; and it must have been a delight to be involved in such a beautifully integrated performance.

The concert ended with a couple of German lullabies, in which Tabea joined as gentle, subtle singer. And then Heinrich Biber’s The Nightwatchman had Greg Squire singing the words from the rear, coming forward in woollen jerkin and cloth cap for the second stanza. The light slowly dimmed as players left one by one to diminuendo staccato notes, to end a diverting and highly enjoyable concert. One regretted deeply that so few were there to enjoy it.


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