Excellent concert, with the old and the new, from NZTrio in a different City Gallery space

‘Soar’: NZ Trio (Manu Berkeljon, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; Sarah Watkins, piano)

John Ireland: Phantasie Trio in A minor
Anthony Ritchie: Childhood
Dorothy Ker: Onaia
Schubert: Piano Trio no.2 in E flat major

City Gallery, Wellington (upstairs gallery)

Thursday, 9 November 2017, 7pm

It was encouraging to see a largely young audience, including a number of professional musicians, at NZ Trio’s concert.  However, there were a lot of empty seats.

The Ireland work began with a surging start, and immediately it was apparent what a good venue this was for chamber music (I had never been to a concert in this gallery before)..  The gallery was resonant, but there was no echo.  Despite the plastic chairs, it was comfortable because there was plenty of leg room.

The programme consisted of the unfamiliar, followed by the new, followed by a classic great.  It was an excellent formula, and the Ireland work was an imaginative and attractive work with which to start.  The piece contained mellifluous melodies in all parts.  Delicacy followed vehemence, spirited motifs followed restraint.  Leading to the end, there were great flourishes.  As the programme note stated, the trio was ‘deeply passionate and impressionistic…’.

Each player gave a verbal introduction to a part of the programme.  It was astonishing, in light of the highly accomplished and confident playing, to learn that Berkeljon had been rehearsing with the other players for only a week.

Ritchie’s short work was commissioned by NZ Trio last year.  It featured a delightful opening, in which one could imagine children playing.  It was performed with flair and anache (as indeed was the Ireland work).  The music became excited, interspersed with naive melodies.  The piano part especially appeared difficult to play.  The use of muted strings towards the end was most effective, as was the use of harmonics.

Dorothy Ker’s new work, Onaia, was based on the name of a stream near Rotorua/Te Puke, and according to the programme note, the piece does not so much depict the place as set out to be ‘a translation of its energies’.

The music stand was removed from the piano so that its strings could be plucked; Sarah Watkins’s iPad (that she used throughout the concert; the others used paper scores) sat in the piano.  Sound effects of many kinds were created on the piano, some using small tools, others simply the hand.  As well as creating a variety of sounds on the stringed instruments, their players used the handles of bows to scrape on a block of wood.

This all created an intriguing and evocative sound-scape.  To me, it was not music in the usual sense, but much of it was beautiful and even awe-inspiring.  It would make great background for a documentary film set in deep bush.  Although the printed description did not mention birds, many sounds spoke to me of birds – and the Onaia ecological reserve is a place where kokako may be seen and heard Wikipedia informs me.  Among these bird-like sounds was spiccato on the stringed instruments.  This was a very skilled performance, particularly from Sarah Watkins, who had so many different tasks to perform, as well as keeping her iPad up with changing pages but I found it rather long for my attention span for this type of composition.  Towards the end it became very convoluted.

After the interval, we had one of Schubert’s supreme chamber works.  Sitting near the piano, I found it rather loud on the hard floor, but on the other hand, there was great clarity in the playing – indeed, from all the instruments.  Prestidigitation was the order of the day for all the players in the opening allegro, which was full of life, with gorgeous string melodies and rippling piano accompaniment.  The movement passes from emotionally  charged melody to imposing grandeur.

The second movement, marked andante con moto, is quite singular, being made up of seemingly simple components.  It later becomes impassioned, then reverts to the first subject.  A stormy passage intervenes.  Alternation between these two opposing moods continues; there is wonderful use of pizzicato.

The third movement, scherzando; allegro moderato, is joyous and witty.  The trio section is solid and firm, with lighter interpolations.  The return of the scherzo included even lighter and more playful elements than before.

The final allegro moderato movement began in similar mood to the scherzo, but soon became more brilliant, sometimes majestic, each instrument having ample opportunity for exceptionally dramatic music.  These players lived up to expectations and went beyond them.  One of the supreme works of the chamber music repertoire, this trio had much to give, and these performers did the composer proud, and delivered this climax to an evening’s music with talent, style and finesse in abundance.  The audience reaction was rapturous.  Bravissimo!


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