Technically brilliant, varied and versatile recital by New Zealand Guitar Quartet

New Zealand Guitar Quartet
(Christopher Hill, Jane Curry, John Couch, Owen Moriarty)

Djembe by Andrew York
Capriol Suite by Peter Warlock (arr. Owen Moriarty)
Three Short Pieces by Mike Hogan
Percussion Guitar Music: Kalimba, Kangogi, Berimbao by Jurg Kindle
Ratschenita by Jack Body (arr. Owen Moriarty)
Music in Four Sharps  by Ian Krouse
Onslow College Suite by Craig Utting (arr. Owen Moriarty)
Bluezilian by Clarice Assad

NZSM Concert Hall, Massey University, Wellington.

Wednesday 16 September 2016, 7:30 pm

Djembe is based on its namesake, a traditional African stretched-skin drum played with the hands. To reflect these origins, York makes full play of the various drumming abilities of the guitar with wonderfully lively writing, as well as other clever effects like harmonics. York’s passion for this ensemble combination (he is a former member of the renowned Los Angeles Guitar Quartet) shone through every bar. The group effectively exploited its wide dynamic contrasts from the most delicate pianissimo to full throated vigorous ensemble volumes, and it was a great choice to open the programme.

Warlock’s  familiar  Capriol Suite was very successfully arranged by Owen  Moriarty, and sounded most convincing for guitar quartet. The various voices were clearly expressed, and we heard a wide dynamic range that did full justice to the characteristic surges of the work. The playing enhanced the contrasts between the energetic, almost breathless numbers, and the sedate, courtly measures of such movements as the Pavane, and finished with a gutsy flourish in the final Sword Dance (Mattachins).

Wellington-based Mike Hogan’s Three Short Pieces opened with a brief snippet called A Bad Ant, described by the composer as “essentially a rhythmic exercise which focuses on the spaces between the notes, alternating fast flourishes with broad rests”. I found that the stumbling rhythms held very little appeal as a concert offering, sounding frankly like no more than the earlier piano study on which they were based. Song for Mum is another snippet lasting a couple of minutes, but it was crafted in a simple, transparent style, and its gentle delivery from the quartet seemed fresh and attractive. The Ed is a pentatonic number, apparently named for the $5 denomination of the banknote showing Sir Edmund Hillary. Any connection seemed extremely remote and unlikely to me except as a convenient numeric “handle”. The music had no hint of the measured, rock-solid  approach that I associate with Ed Hillary, but was full of lively extrovert energy that was attractive and invigorating in its own right.

Percussion Guitar Music is based on African and Afro-Cuban rhythms and by imitating archaic percussion instruments. Kalimba is the name of an African “thumb piano” (Jurg Kindle). To achieve the Kalimba sound on the guitar the quartet dampened the strings with a bubble wrap insert underneath. Kindle had suggested a handkerchief, but the substitute was very effective, giving a muted, semi-staccato delivery to the sound that in no way diminished the lively and energetic delivery from the group. Kangogi are bells used in the traditional music of Ghana, and the piece used gentle harmonics very effectively to evoke the sound effects, dying away to nothing at the close as though a traveller hearing the chimes were moving gradually out of earshot. Berimbao is scored using a pencil to strike the strings in order to resemble the sound of this instrument, which was first brought to Brazil by slaves from Angola. The three pieces of this suite gave great play to the versatility of sound effects that can be produced by the classical guitar, and was an excellent and interesting choice to include in the programme.

Ratschenita is Jack Body’s transcription of music from a Bulgarian village band. The quartet’s enthusiastic delivery of its lively idioms and energetic 7/8 time evoked milling crowds and busyness in a highly colourful performance that built to an exhilarating climax.

Ian Krouse based his Music in Four Sharps on Dowland’s Frog Galliard. The beautiful renaissance original makes only intermittent appearances that I personally find barely sufficient to provide adequate cohesion throughout the piece. Nevertheless, the quartet did full justice to the wide range of styles it encompasses, from drifting “hymn-like musing” (Krouse) to the build-up of a passionate climax.

Craig Utting’s Onslow College Suite (originally written for six hands on two pianos) has been very convincingly arranged by Owen Moriarty for guitars. The quartet projected the colour  and liveliness of the opening and closing movements most effectively, and provided an evocative contrast in the central Romanza where a wistful melody hovers over the passacaglia theme from the bass of the lower seven string guitar.

Bluezilian comes from the pen of multi-talented Brazilian musician Clarice Assad, “accomplished as a classical and jazz composer, arranger, pianist and vocalist” (Programme notes). Jane Curry said that Assad was the only woman composer of guitar music that she had been able to find, so this is a unique piece in the quartet’s repertoire. It is full of quirky rhythms and pauses, with occasional forays into melodic idioms and episodes of traditional strumming. The tonalities are also highly mobile, contributing to a piece that seems to reflect the many and varied interests of the writer.

The audience was treated to an encore realisation of the traditional Tarantella dance, by a Chilean folk group who were political exiles in Europe. The frenetic music graphically depicted the frenzied dancing of a victim of a tarantula bite, building into a hectic race to the finish, which was carried off by the quartet with a most enthusiastic flourish.

Although there was the occasional uncharacteristic departure from the group’s normal impeccable precision of entries, this was a concert that amply demonstrated the technical and musical skills of the New Zealand Guitar Quartet.  The programme, however, included very little repertoire that showcased the wonderful melodic and romantic qualities of the guitar, which are for me paramount elements of its remarkable versatility. The almost unrelieved scurrying of successive numbers would have been enhanced by the contrast of repose and reflection.



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