Mellifluous reeds hold sway at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series
NZSM Clarinet Students’ Presentation
Tutor: Debbie Rawson

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Having recently enjoyed the concert given by the NZSM’s saxophone students, I found myself looking forward to hearing their “wind cousins”, the clarinettists, do their stuff.

On the way to the concert I found myself thinking of what one would call a group of clarinettists  – of course, players themselves may well have devised their own unilaterally-accepted collective term, of which I’m unaware.  Nevertheless I had fun turning over words in my mind such as “colony” or “chorus” (both rather humdrum), before more enterprisingly (and more naughtily) entertaining descriptions such as “conundrum”, “coven” or “calamity”.

Whatever the case, and whatever the reality, there was certainly nothing calamitous about the playing of these young musicians. Right from the very beginning there was delight to be had, beginning with Laura Brown’s sensitive and flowing performance of the third Movement Andante Grazioso from Brahms’ First Clarinet Sonata. Especially winning was the player’s delivery of the Trio, beautifully withdrawn tones shaped convincingly into a whole, and with lovely support from the pianist, Hugh McMillan.

A different kind of sonority was presented to us by bass clarinetist Patrick Richardson, relishing the chance to demonstrate the distinctive tones and timbres of an instrument whose raison d’ete seems little more than to “double” other instruments’ lines in orchestral works.

I was delighted to encounter a work I’d never heard before, Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong. Written originally for ‘cello and piano, these pieces have been transcribed for any number of instruments, the bass clarinet being particularly suited to the composer’s original choice in terms of range and colour.

Patrick Richardson played these short pieces with such evocation as to banish thoughts of winter and take our sensibilities to times and places that seemed like a world away. I was particularly taken by the beauty of the playing in the fourth study, featuring a tune I didn’t know but which nevertheless seemed to open my “nostalgia floodgates” – this despite the somewhat quirky title of the original, “She borrowed some of her Mother’s Gold”. Again, there was support of great sensitivity from the pianist, this time Kirsten Simpson.

The relationship between clarinet and saxophone was underlined by the next item, featuring saxophonist Genevieve Davidson – an Etude (No.3 from a set of 15) written by Frenchman Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), a prolific composer who was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, and who associated with and influenced people like Poulenc, Roussel and Mihaud but whose music has been since overshadowed by theirs.

The études (written in 1942, for saxophone AND piano) are less “display virtuoso” pieces than “examinations” of the former instrument’s resources – and Genevieve Davidson’s gorgeous, seductive alto-sax tones brought out all of the music’s tender and contrastingly energetic characteristics. Her playing captured both the waltz-rhythms’ graceful manner and the livelier polka-like mid-section’s insouciance – a delightful performance.

Laura Brown returned with a small but heartfelt 100th birthday gift for composer Douglas Lilburn, in the form of the second movement from his 1948 Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano. We were told by Brown to “listen for the morepork during the music’s middle section”. Beginning with characteristic pianistic sonorities, the music allowed the clarinet some opening declamation before requiring from the player some deeply-wrought, withdrawn tones, pushing back the work’s vistas with every utterance – the morepork’s voice chimed clearly in the piano part. Apart from some difficulty in voicing one or two high-lying notes, Laura Brown’s sounding of the movement was as ambient, flowing and lyrical as one could wish for – a birthday treasure, indeed.

Came the colony/chorus/what you will onto the platform next to perform a different kind of delight – an arrangement for clarinet quintet (if I remember rightly, Debbie Rawson thought possibly by New Zealand composer Ken Wilson) of the allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Op.10 No.2 Piano Sonata. Joining Laura Brown and Patrick Richardson for this exercise were Jess Schofield, Rebecca Adam and Brendan Agnew.

Well, whomever “Anon” was, or is, the arrangement worked splendidly, in my opinion. Beginning with the bass and B-flat clarinets, the music’s purposeful opening gestures grew gracefully upwards to their flowering-points (with double-note figurations for Beethoven’s octaves when the passage was later repeated – a deft touch), the lighter-toned instruments nicely “opening out” the sonorities. The players beautifully observed the more “relaxed” aspect of the Trio section, giving the phrases time to breath, and affording some relief from the ever-so-slightly vertiginous swing of those opening ascent

The group sprung a nice surprise upon us at the piece’s conclusion – we were treated to an ungazetted performance of Bach’s famous “Air on a G-string” , again, an arrangement that fell most gratefully on the ear, the players sensitively augmenting the dynamics in places, which served to confirm something of the music’s inner strength and indestructibility.

Back to Genevieve Davidson and her saxophone, for a performance of music by another lesser-known French composer, Florent Schmitt (1870-1958), whose music is regarded in some quarters as “the greatest that nobody has ever heard of” – among the laudatory critical appraisals of his work that I found was the following: – “it (the music) shimmers with bold conviction, elemental intensity and and a fearless harmonic vocabulary”. Given that there’s nothing like a “cause” to bring out shoals of enthusiasm for a neglected genius, on the basis of the short but intensely beautiful work we heard, the rest of Schmitt’s output would be well worth investigating.

Songe de Coppelius was a work inspired by a well-known tale of E.T.A.Hoffman, one also used by another French composer Leo Delibes as the story for a full-length ballet, Coppelia. Brief, but in places hauntingly beautiful, the music’s depth of feeling was here expressed by both players, Genevieve Davidson coaxing from her soprano sax a beguiling variety of colours and dynamics. The music’s  sense of mourning at the outset was gently interspersed in places with more rhapsodic languishment – it all further demonstrated the innate musicianship and judgement of this gifted young player.

Finally we were treated to the distinctive timbres not merely one reed but two, in the form of a work for oboe, the instrument played by Annabel Lovatt. This was a piece by Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda (1801-1866) yet another prolific but neglected composer whose work was “given an airing” by people involved with this concert. Incidentally, “Kalliwoda” is the somewhat unfortunate Germanised version of the composer’s “proper” native Bohemian name, Jan Kalivoda, which I’ve actually never seen written as such on recordings or in reviews of his music.

Unaccustomed as I normally am to such things coming my way, I was pleased to be able to indulge in some one-upmanship regarding Kalliwoda’s name, as people I spoke with after the concert had never heard of him (I must, however, shamefully admit to not having heard any of his music!). Annabel Lovatt told us that at the time this work was written, pieces for solo oboe were rare indeed, and that she would “do her best” to bring it all to life for us. She was too self-deprecating, as she gave a terrific performance of what turned out to be a full-blooded virtuoso work.

Entitled “Morceau de Salon”, the music began gently on the piano, the oboe joining in with melancholy tones, here intoned beautifully, and confidently dealing with technical hurdles such as wide leaps and exposed phrasings with admirable fluency. As the piece proceeded the virtuoso demands made of the player seemed to crowd in, as if jostling one another out of the way – there may have been one or two notes missed in the florid hurly-burly, a phrase or two snatched at a little too eagerly – but Annabel Lovatt certainly engaged with the music, and emerged at the piece’s conclusion triumphant, having obviously given her “all”.

A highly entertaining and informative concert, then – expert playing and presenting of some highly diverting and fascinating music.

















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