Viola d’amore takes place with guitar and cello in lovely NZSM-based trio

New Zealand School of Music

Archi d’Amore Zelanda (Donald Maurice – viola d’amore, Jane Curry – guitar, Emma Goodbehere – cello)

Music by Paganini, Handel, Piazzolla, Lilburn, Michael Kimber

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus, Victoria University

Friday 16 October 12:10 pm

The last concert of the year in the university school of music’s Friday lunchtime series. I’ve been getting to too few of these rewarding little concerts in the past few years – a failing that I’ve commented on before.

But I was very happy to be there today to listen to what could be described as a somewhat experimental performance: the putting together of two modern, conventional instruments with one, the viola d’amore, that was common between the late 17th century and the end of the 18th, although its use has continued in particular situations to the present, for example in some operas, including Madama Butterfly.

So the viola d’amore was an odd late-comer to and eccentric member of the viol family which was being superseded by the violin family from the late 17th century. The viola d’amore is about the size of the modern viola, held under the chin; it has seven strings plus seven sympathetic strings which resonate with the sounding of relevant pitches on the bowed strings.

It was an enterprise led, no doubt, by NZSM violin and viola teacher, Professor Donald Maurice, who has been drawn to explore this uncommon instrument which can add a subtly different quality to an ensemble, and even to the colour of an opera score.

Strangely, none of the pieces in this concert were written for the viola d’amore, yet each piece sounded thoroughly idiomatic in the amended guise in which the guitar, too, was an unforeseen presence.

The first was a Terzetto for violin, cello and guitar by Paganini (who was a guitarist too). I have to remark that the sound of the viola d’amore was a bit less than comfortable in the beginning, not as close to the warm, mature voice of the viola as I’d expected, but rather thinner and less romantic. When, finally, the cello emerged with the leading voice the whole sound came into much better focus, particularly with the charming guitar contribution. Then there was an engaging conversation between cello and viola d’amore. In the second movement, Andante larghetto, a pretty waltz tune lent a nostalgic quality to the whole and the sound of the viola really did settle down, though the effect of the sympathetic strings didn’t seem to contribute what I’d expected to be a slightly richer array of sonorities from those strings.

Handel was closer to the early phase of the viola d’amore’s existence though I find no evidence that he wrote for it. The Lento from this sonata in G minor for two violins however, was quite lovely with one part given to the viola d’amore and the second to the cello.

Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango offered Jane Curry the chance to play a part actually written for her; but it was also the opportunity for Donald Maurice to change instruments, from that tuned in D major to a second one tuned to A minor. The reason for this was that the instrument is treated like many of the wind instruments, as a transposing instrument, the fingering following the written notes, but not their sound. They played the Café movement of the four movement suite, the guitar with a dreamy, rhapsodic sound and the viola d’amore more mellow than previously. It sounded a very decorous café enlivened with polite, charming music.

It was a real pleasure to hear the first two of Lilburn’s Canzonas. The first is best known because of its beguiling tune which suggests, to me, that had the composer been encouraged to write more in this vein, there could have been a Lilburn equivalent of Farquhar’s Ring round the Moon music. The arrangement for these three instruments was imaginative and effective with guitar picking up the originally strummed viola part and the melody passing delightfully from viola d’amore to Emma Goodbehere’s cello.

The biggest piece – about a quarter of an hour – was Variations on a Polish Folk Song (Ty pójdziesz górą) by American composer Michael Kimber, originally written for viola and string orchestra, based on what sounded like a characteristic peasant folk song. Maurice spoke about the group’s planned trip to Poland next year when they will play this.

Three of the middle variations include a vocal part, presumably the song itself, which the players explored the options for: in Polish? in English? And then because of the innate musicality of the vowel sounds, Maori was settled on. Donald Maurice’s niece Renée Maurice was recruited to sing, and it intrigued me to hear her adopt a singularly authentic Maori quality, with little grace-note-like catches at the beginning of some phrases. As well, a second vocal line was taken rather engagingly, as a moonlighting job by Jane Curry, continuing with her bright instrumental part. The variations were, well, various, some dance-like, some lyrical, some rather dark and disturbing. There was even time to notice the evidently tricky viola d’amore part that Maurice handled, with hardly a slip in the big challenge of bowing only one at a time of the seven only fractionally differentiated strings, not to mention fingering three more than usual strings with the left hand.

The trio is scheduled to play again at the lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s on The Terrace on Wednesday 11 November.





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