Emma Sayers – piano recital of connections, dedications and premieres

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
CONNECTIONS, DEDICATIONS – a piano recital by Emma Sayers

W.A.MOZART – Variations on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint” K.455
JACK BODY – Five Melodies (1982) – No.5
ROSS HARRIS – For Judith Clark (2011)
DAVID FARQUHAR -Telephonic No.13 (721-230) – Eve Page
DOUGLAS LILBURN – 9 Short Pieces – Nos 1,2DAVID FARQUHAR – Black, White and Coloured – (Homage to G.G.)
ANTHONY RITCHIE – Three Pieces for J.A.R. – Fanfare / Aria for Anita / Perpetua

Emma Sayers (piano)

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

Wednesday, 22nd June 2016

Emma Sayers began her recital with the Mozart Variations, then spoke briefly to us by way of welcome, outlining how the remainder of the program had come about. She had been approached by composer Anthony Ritchie to perform a set of pieces written in memory of his parents, the whole (Three Pieces for J.A.R) named for his father, John Ritchie, with one of the set (Aria for Anita) remembering the composer’s mother. Incidentally, the work was originally commissioned by (and dedicated to) Margaret Nielsen, a long-time friend of John Ritchie.

Almost straightaway the pianist was, she told us, reminded of other music written by people either associated or contemporaneous with John Ritchie, which she thought would “sit alongside well” in a larger tribute – hence the “Connections, Dedications” title of the recital. The Mozart Variations on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint” was, however, a separate goal marking a return to solo public performance, and put in an amusing context by the pianist as, in her own words, “something I couldn’t manage when I was pregnant, because my tummy kept getting in the way of the arm-crossings”.

I was surprised that it had been such a long time (May 2005) since I’d last written about an Emma Sayers solo recital – her playing of the Variations certainly underscored the things I wrote about her then, and served to remind us of what we had been deprived on in the interim. That particular solo appearance was prior to Middle C’s formation, so I feel justified in quoting from my notes for the radio review, regarding her playing of Bartok’s Op.6 set of 14 Bagatelles – “…Sayers took us on a marvellous journey through what seemed like the “landscape of a musical mind” with all its individualities and influences….” as those words applied equally to what she gave us here of Mozart’s at St. Andrew’s.

The first thing which struck me was her playing’s vivid and forthright character, contrasting the contained, tasteful treatment of the theme with the full-blooded flourishes of the first variation’s phrases, done with flair and theatricality. At the risk of thumping a particular tub of mine, I feel compelled to venture the opinion that this was “timeless” Mozart-playing in an entirely appropriate grand piano context, the piano used to “orchestrate” the music in a way that the composer could well have imagined himself, though never actually experienced as sound coming from his own instruments.

Again and again I found myself marvelling at Sayers’ ability to invest her phrasing with some ineffable impulse of characterization which compelled one’s attention, at one and the same time realizing and transcending the composer’s “classical” context and bringing into play something intensely and universally human about the music. It all seemed so “free”, so spontaneous and alive – and yet Mozart was always Mozart, even if such energy and physicality might be thought more the preserve of Clementi or even Beethoven. By way of “exploring” the theme rather than merely decorating or prettifying it, Mozart employed a range of expression here brought out by the pianist in as direct and unmannered a way as seemed possible.

If it seemed like a recital of two, or even three parts on paper, in practice there was no lessening or burgeoning of intensity in Sayers’ playing from the Mozart throughout to the home-grown items assembled to “connect with” and pay tribute to John Ritchie and his music. Beginning with the last in the set of Jack Body’s Five Pieces for Piano, we were taken by the music to a world of light and shade, its components turning and flickering like a magic kind of kaleidoscopic wheel, and bearing our sensibilities unobtrusively but gradually into different realms, from which we emerged changed, our delight replaced by sobriety at the transitory nature of things, at the piece’s end.

Ross Harris’s work For Judith Clark, was written by its composer for the 80th birthday of one of Wellington’s foremost piano teachers (and, appropriately enough, played here by an ex-pupil, who had also played the piece at her former teacher’s’s funeral, in 2014). It’s a beautiful, sonorous piece, taking shape like some kind of frozen soundscape being brought into view and explored from different points. Deeply-rooted frameworks were laid down, and set against the play of light on the various surfaces, the pianist ensuing the serenity of the hues were occasionally enlivened by volatilities, an evocation of a goddess whose aspect occasionally flashed and scintillated, giving fair warning to those in close proximity.

Next we heard a work Sun and Shadow by David Farquhar, one of a number of pieces called Telephonics that he composed for various friends and associates, using their telephone numbers as a basis for the pieces’ composition. Farquhar stressed that the pieces were intended as a series of “musical offerings” rather than as “portraits” of the people involved. This was a piece dedicated to the artist Evelyn Page, and, by association, her husband Freddie Page, who established the Victoria University Music Faculty in 1945, which Farquhar himself was to join in 1953 after his return from a period of study at London’s Guildhall. The music conjured up an impressionistic effect, with resonantly flowing harmonies and brilliantly-etched flashpoints, Sayers allowing their interactions plenty of room to “play out” and eventually subside within the piece’s enfolding silences.

The last time I heard Emma Sayers at an actual keyboard was when she gave a performance of Douglas Lilburn’s Nine Short Pieces in conjunction with Stroma, who performed responses by various composers to each one of the pieces. Here, she revisited the first two of the Nine Pieces by way of paying tribute both to the composer and to Margaret Nielsen, to whom Lilburn in 1967 gave a bundle of unpublished pieces of piano music, collectively labelled “Crotchety at 51!” along with the words “See what you can make of these”. Nielsen was, of course, Lilburn’s “preferred interpreter” of his piano music, and had given the premieres of many of the individual works, so it seemed logical that he would entrust her with the task of creating some order from the apparent chaos.

Sayers in her notes talked about the “searching quality” and the “quirky character” of the pieces, and her remarks were borne out by the performances we heard, the first piece epic, jagged and far-flung, the second impish, angular, questioning and wryful. Again, it was the “character” of each piece which was unequivocally presented to us – under Sayers’ fingers, the music in both instances seemed to know exactly what it was doing.

David Farquhar’s music again featured, this time a piece from a different collection of pieces, entitled Black, White and Coloured. This was one called Homage to G.G. (George Gershwin) – a brilliant transcription of the song I got rhythm, flavoured by the technique of writing for one hand on the white keys of the piano, and for the other on the black, resulting in some ear-catching sonorities. Sayers gave the accented phrasings just the right amount of “ginger”, bringing out the piece’s drolleries at the beginning and unerringly building the music’s trajectories towards the bluff humour of the ending.

And so to Anthony Ritchie’s commemorative Three Pieces for J.A.R. – music intended by the composer to reflect different aspects of his father, John Ritchie’s life. Before the pieces were played, Anthony RItchie spoke briefly and movingly about Margaret Nielsen’s friendship with and support of his father over the time of their association. The first part of the work, Fanfare, marked John Ritchie’s long involvement with brass players, both in bands and orchestras, using a simple, chant-like figure at the beginning subjected to all kinds of different harmonic modulations, some progressive, others all elbows and knees, harsh and abrupt. A deep-toned, briefly sounded sequence made a humourful ending to the piece.

The second piece, Aria for Anita, brought Anita Ritchie, John’s wife into focus – making reference to her soprano voice, Anthony RItchie quoted part of Solveig’s Song from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, one of her favourites. The music’s recitative-like opening suggested a high voice at first, then varied the line with an alto-like response, the phrase-ends coloured at several points with the interval of a fifth. The music seemed to accrue its own ambient warmth, figures sounded out and then left to resonate as a context in which newer motifs could appear – a deep, rich bitter-sweet climax grew out of the exchanges,  as a strummed accompaniment to the soprano/alto voice exchanges allowed the music to deepen and linger before gently disappearing.

From the silence came Perpetua, the final movement, the upward-thrusting opening shared between the hands before changing into an attitude-driven march rhythm whose insistence scintillated into cascades of figurations, the repetitions making their own rhythmic patterns in lime with the “perpetual motion” suggested by the piece’s title. Having scattered all before it, the music then irradiated the textures with Ravel-like scintillations, even-handedly defining the heavenly vistas while at the same time plumbing the depths. Anthony RItchie in his notes alluded to the old prayer which included the phrase “perpetual light”, suggesting the soul’s continuing journey through what the composer called the “starry nothingness” of the ending.

All of this was delivered by Emma Sayers with what seemed and felt like complete identification with the music’s natural, spontaneous outpourings. Nothing in the music was forced or unduly amplified, but allowed instead by the pianist its own range of mellifluous voice-soundings which readily  put across the composers’ intentions. In a relatively short time we had been taken through an exploration of some magnitude across the face of people’s lives and sharply-focused creative achievements. I felt at the end of it all we couldn’t have had a more inspirational guide at the piano throughout our journey.

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