Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand
Bach: Orchestral Suite no.2 in B minor, BWV 1067
Lilburn: Diversions for Strings
Mozart: Flute Quartet no.1 in D, K.285
Mendelssohn: Octet in E flat, Op.20
Former particpants in the chamber music competitions: Wilma Smith (director, violin), Justine Cormack (violin, viola), Lara Hall (violin), Natalie Lin (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Bryony Gibson-Cornish (viola), Ashley Brown (cello), Victoria Simonsen (cello), Victoria Jones (double bass), Bridget Douglas (flute), Douglas Mews (harpsichord)
Michael Fowler Centre
Thursday, 18 June 2015, 7.30pm
The players, all former winners or participants, and in some cases adjudicators, in the schools chamber music contest (first sponsored by the Bank of New South Wales which became Westpac Bank, and now by New Zealand Community Trust) are giving concerts in 15 centres to celebrate 50 years of that contest.
The annual event now involves hundreds of school students in chamber music, and has given opportunity to many who have gone on to professional careers in music performance and teaching. The ensemble is named in honour of the late Fred Turnovsky, who was one of the key figures in the founding of what is now Chamber Music New Zealand, and from whose Foundation regular sponsorship is received.
What a line-up of performers! It’s always a pleasure to welcome Wilma Smith back to New Zealand, and the energy and warm sonority of her playing must be at least partly responsible for these attributes being notable in this concert. For the most part the women wore brightly coloured dresses – perhaps Brown and Mews should have emulated them with coloured silk shirts, rather than boring dark suits?
The programme as played differed from that originally advertised: Elgar’s Serenade for Strings had been dropped, and the Mozart work substituted. The order was changed too; logically, the Bach was played first rather than the Lilburn, as Wilma Smith informed us in some brief remarks, using a microphone.
The playing of the Bach was in baroque style, though with modern instruments. The players stood for this work (apart from the cellist and bassist). Hearing the seven movements, with their varying tempi, from a small ensemble like this, one could really follow the individual parts better; for example, I heard much more of what the cello and bass were playing than I ever have from listening to the work on record or radio.
There were ten players, all ‘spot-on’ all the time, without benefit of conductor. It was delightful to hear agile and elegant flute playing from Bridget Douglas (albeit, of course, on a modern metal flute), in the second movement (Rondeau) especially. The taut rhythms of slow and fast movements alike, were simply a great pleasure to hear. This was pure music played by highly talented and skilled musicians in full accord with what they were playing and with each other. The final Badinerie, perhaps the best-known of the movements, is such fun, and surely reveals that J.S. Bach had a sense of humour.
Douglas Lilburn’s centenary year was celebrated with his five-movement Diversions for Strings. For this, the harpsichord and flute were banished, and a second cellist introduced, and the ensemble was seated. This was vintage Lilburn at his most delightful. The pizzicato of the vivace first movement set a cheerful tone, which was contrasted in the second (poco adagio: espressivo) by the modal feel to the writing, that featured rich harmonies, and attractive solo passages from Wilma Smith. The presto third movement illustrated the lovely contrasts between movements, and Lilburn’s humour, in introducing an extract from Rossini’s William Tell overture. The fourth movement (andante) was restrained and elegant, thoughtful and solemn, while the allegro finale proved to be a rhythmically strong end to the piece.
Mozart’s quartet was written when he was in his early twenties, and is neither complex nor lengthy. It features a lovely pastoral opening theme. The mellow strings of Cormack, Gibson-Cornish and Simonsen contrasted with the more incisive flute of Douglas most attractively. The adagio second movement also had a pastoral feel, but with hints of pathos. It included the solo flute playing against pizzicato from the strings. This movement led straight into the rondo, a very quick finale, with lots of scampering around in a dance alternately boisterous and elegant. Lovely legatos contrasted with pungent staccatos.
Last but not least was Mendelssohn’s superb and justifiably popular Octet. As a friend said to me afterwards, “it is golden sunshine”. It has been said that this work is far more advanced and complex than anything Mozart wrote at the age Mendelssohn was when he wrote it: 16. What a genius! The uplifting rising cadences of the opening always bring a smile to my face. It is not often heard live in New Zealand, due to the difficulty of bringing together eight players in a chamber music concert; though I recall a 2014 performance at Waikanae from the Amici Ensemble as well as a notable performance by the New Zealand String Quartet and the Lindsay Quartet at an International Festival concert in Wellington some years ago; and it has appeared at the Nelson chamber music festival occasionally.
The gorgeous singing tone from Wilma Smith, and the mellow violas, were particularly notable. The players gave everything in energy and resonance to the jubilant first movement. The sombre andante began with violas and cellos; the wonderfully fluent violins followed, all revealing much light and shade in the music.
This music is not busy or in a hurry; serenity rules. It was noticeable that this work held the audience’s attention more than anything else on the programme. The third movement (scherzo) is reminiscent of the composer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music: butterflies, or fairies, dart here and there, and wonderful themes are passed around between the players. The finale is presto – and how! Its periodic climaxes are very satisfying, as is the fugal treatment of themes from earlier movements.
This was brilliant writing – and playing! The concert was a fabulous treat. It was well-attended, the downstairs of the Michael Fowler Centre being pretty well-filled; the upstairs is not used for chamber music concerts. The playing throughout was well-nigh impeccable and its clarity was glorious. Bravo!