Feast of music, art and ambiences – NZTrio’s “Zoom” at Wellington’s City Gallery

NZTrio: Justine Cormack (violin), Ashley Brown (cello), Sarah Watkins (piano)

John Musto: Piano Trio (1998)
Chris Watson: Schemata – three views of an imaginary object (2009)
Elliott Carter: Epigrams (2012)
Alexander Zemlinsky: Trio in d minor, Op. 3 (1896)

City Gallery, Wellington

16 June 2016

Appearances of NZTrio at the City Gallery are always a special event. There’s the wine, the fruit juices, the food, the opportunity to meet interesting people, the art (in this case, quirky, occasionally beautiful, watercolours by Francis Uprichard). Oh, and there’s the music.

A feature of NZTrio presentations (this one titled “Zoom”) is their inclusion of New Zealand work. Often it is specially commissioned, as were the David Hamilton and Ken Young pieces in their preceding concerts. Schemata, however, was composed when Chris Watson was Mozart Fellow at Otago University, and premiered by another group. From his early work as a recent graduate (such as …vers libre… and Derailleurs, heard at the Nelson Composers Workshops around 2002 and 2003, Watson has demonstrated an ability to create an ebb and flood of tension while using an atonal, semi-serial idiom – no mean feat in the absence of a sense of harmonic direction (an exception is the bass clarinet solo Mandible, which I’ve never warmed to: it seemed to me like a collection of effects). In the three movements and three minutes of Schemata, pauses separate terse gnomic gestures (Webern lives!), with Cormack’s violin, Brown’s cello and Watkins’ piano each taking turns to begin each movement. The tension and resolution comes in the late climax of the last few moments, where dense flourishes are beautifully resolved into piano resonance. A miniature masterpiece.

Epigrams was Elliott Carter’s last composition, written when he was 103. The first of the twelve short pieces felt very much in the same world as Watson’s. But I soon got an impression of a different, distinctive musical voice. Chamber music is commonly described as a ”conversation among musicians”, and Carter took this one step further: the rhythms are characteristically speech-like, the “conversation” often brought to a peremptory full stop by a flourish, chord or note from on of the instruments (typically the piano).

John Musto, another American composer, has some 41 years to go to reach 103. His two-part Piano Trio might be thought of as “polystylistic”, but within a fairly narrow range of styles – there is little that is Watsonian or Carterish here. The minimalistic rippling arpeggios on Watkins’ Bechstein (Steinway? Nein way!) might have been something from Philip Glass, with elegantly flowing melodic lines from Carmack’s violin and Brown’s cello – these elements return in a kind of informal rondo. There are light fast sections that suggest Prokofiev, there are jazzy syncopations, there is a hint of tango right near the end, and there are passages of rich, almost schmaltzy Romanticism: was Musto being sincere, or was he being ironic, “sending it up”? I can’t make up my mind. But the members of the Trio played it with absolute conviction.

Rich (and sincere) Romanticism was the hallmark of Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1996 Trio. Brahms saw the score (in the original version with clarinet) and was impressed. Though Zemlinsky was a pupil of Bruckner, and later a teacher (and brother-in-law) of Schoenberg, I heard little of either composer in this Trio (at a stretch, a few sequences, and descending pizzicato lines on the cello, could have come from Bruckner). What I heard was overwhelmingly Brahmsian, densely written, even overwritten, especially in the first movement. In the second, Watkins’ solo piano interlude, and Carmack’s ghostly high violin, offered welcome relief, as did the lively finale, with more of Brown’s cello pizzicato.

This concert showcased one of New Zealand’s top ensemble’s mastery of a wide range of repertoire (familiar and – in this case – unfamiliar), as well as their admirable commitment to New Zealand music.

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