Pianist Nicola Melville’s visit home with a diverting entertainment and a tribute to her teacher

Chamber Music Hutt Valley
Nicola Melville – piano

Chopin: Nocturne in B, Op 62 No 1
Schubert: Sixteen German Dances, D 783
Debussy: Estampes (Pagodes, La soirée dans Grenade, Jardin sous la pluie)
In memory of Judith Clark:
      Gareth Farr: Gem
      Ross Harris: In Memory
Eve de Castro-Robinson: Chat
Jacob TV: The Body of Your Dreams for piano and boom box
William Albright: Dream RagsSleepwalkers Shuffle and The Nightmare Fantasy RagA Night on Rag Mountain

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Thursday 5 March, 7:30 pm

The first recital in the 2015 series from Chamber Music Hutt Valley presented former Wellington pianist Nicola Melville. Nicola was raised in Tawa and took her bachelor’s degree at Victoria University and later studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She now teaches in Minnesota.

Last month I heard her in a concert at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson where she played several of the pieces we heard at Lower Hutt (see my review posted on 8 February).

The theme, or rationale, of the recital was Nicola’s affection for her piano lecturer at Victoria University, the late Judith Clark who had a profound influence on a generation or two of Victoria students. Three of the pieces were commissioned by Nicola from composers who’d had contacts with Judith, others were pieces that she’d played under Judith’s tutorship.

Nicola is a splendid representative of the increasingly common kind of musician who’s determined to communicate, unpretentiously, occasionally self-deprecating, and who wants her own fairly obvious love of her job to be shared by her audience. Speaking of which, while there were quite a few young people and of her composers (Farr and Harris) in the audience, the number of ordinary citizens could have been larger

Nicola changed the order of pieces in the programme, and the Chopin item was changed from the advertised Mazurkas to the not-so-familiar Nocturne in B, Op 62/1, which she had played while a student of Judith Clark. It’s an interesting piece with a somewhat tentative, arpeggiated opening soon followed by a gentle melody. It was nocturnal and lyrical apart from sudden break-aways, with sprints up and down the keyboard.

Schubert’s sixteen German dances revealed several that were familiar as individual pieces that crop up in student tutor collections. The early ones were simpler, more closely connected with the soil, with heavy-footed peasants and they became more sophisticated, calling for more elaborate, exhibitionist playing (and dancing). Though no doubt all would be classed at Ländler, the triple-time forerunner of the waltz, they display much variety and Nicola’s treatment was playful, light-hearted, brusque, energetic, some moving to the minor key towards the end: not always perfect but played with gusto and delight in the flourishes, ornaments, and unpretentiousness that is both Schubert and Melville.

Debussy’s three Estampes capture his flair for putting a sophisticated European stamp on traditional music from other places. Most marked in Pagodes where the characteristics of the gamelan can be heard, though hardly such as a Balinese or Javanese might recognise. Then Grenade (the Spanish city, which the French spell with an ‘e’, to confuse it with the Caribbean island), with a slightly jazzy episode; and finally in a French garden under the rain. Some hammering notes suggested a pretty heavy downpour, but more general were dancing flurries of pluvious notes.

The three pieces written to honour Judith Clark followed the interval: Gareth Farr’s a rather gentle, intimate piece that suggested Debussy, but also no doubt, Lilburn; Ross Harris’s Gem was a reflective piece that expressed a sadness and poignancy, in which I found myself contemplating its structure, its thematic ideas and their development, without much success.

Eve de Castro-Robinson’s Chat was a contrast: spiky and lively, capturing the sort of penetrating, alert conversations one could have with Judith Clark, perceptive, careful, aware of a possible differing opinion.

A piece by Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis who calls himself Jacob TV in the States, called The Body of your Dreams: a satire on the consumer society, the obsession with thinness and fitness, advertising, the piano accompanying a recording of a TV advert for a miracle weight-loss programme. The cajoling, dissembling American voice and the piano fitted together well; it was funny and though musically unimportant I guess, it used music as a permissible and seductive vehicle for ridicule and satire. Nicola’s own enjoyment fed that of the audience.

Finally a composer with whom Nicola had studied, William Albright, whose interest in ragtime may well have sparked or at least coincided with Nicola’s own, and her flair with the Scott Joplin idiom. The two pieces called Dream Rags were punchy, rhythmically emphatic;  Nicola showed herself very much at home with them, certainly an update on the turn-of-the-century originals with harmonies and fractured phrases that might have alarmed Joplin. But there was no alarm in the Little Theatre: a general delight in this and in the entire concert.


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