New Zealand Festival
‘Te Ao Hou; This New World’
New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello); Rob Thorne (taonga pūoro)
Works by Rob Thorne, Selina Fisher, Gillian Whitehead, Gareth Farr
St. Mary of the Angels Church
Tuesday, 6 March 2018, 6pm
Of the skill manifest in this unusual concert there can be no doubt. Regarding the audience’s involvement there are regrets: there were no notes about individual works in the brief three pages in the composite programme booklet; most of the information was about the players. No spoken introductions were given, and no explanation of the taonga pūoro, as Richard Nunns gave at a Festival concert years ago. I am sure this was to maintain a spiritual, non-material atmosphere, which was enhanced by the attractive greenery on the platform, that included an ponga.. (Wikipedia has an excellent article on taonga pūoro, with photographs.)
I beg leave for a little special pleading: I had had eye-drops administered at hospital a couple of hours prior to the concert, which in the dim lighting made it impossible to identify most of the instruments employed, and added to the confusion caused by there not being apparent breaks between works and thus no opportunity for the audience to applaud until the end of the concert.
The effect was of a continuous work, although individual styles could be detected. It seemed that possible pauses were filled with improvisations by Rob Thorne on a great variety of instruments.
The programme gave the opening item as Rob Thorne’s ‘Improvisations for Taonga Pūoro’; it seems that these were interspersed throughout the concert, that began with the audience being greeted by extensive sounding of the conch shell and by a member of the flute family of taonga pūoro, the one into which the players blow into the middle of the instrument. (There may have been others that I didn’t pick. Most of this could not be seen from where I was seated. This was a problem later, too, as the performances took place rather to the right of the platform; I was seated left.)
What was amply demonstrated already was the variety of tones and pitches that could be played; the conch shell particularly was hugely variable in pitch and timbre.
Poetry in English was read: Te Ao Hou; This New World. Next came loud and emphatic Maori chants, from the rear of the church. The instrument faded away and then returned. The sounds varied from that of a cow bellowing to quieter tones like a French horn being stopped by the hand. Squeaks, whistles and quieter notes were produced, and then one became aware that Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins were slowly approaching the platform from different sides, making notes on their instruments very similar in sound to the quieter notes of the conch. They were soon followed by Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten.
This was a remarkable feature of the concert: how the strings could imitate the sounds of taonga pūoro, whether loud or soft, strident or sweet. Throughout, the string players did not employ vibrato; the effect of this technique would have been foreign to the sound-world featured.
The more formal part of the programme began with Salina Fisher’s Tōrino: Echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne, premiered by NZSQ in 2016. Notes interweaving sounded like karakia and other chants put together. Bird songs were another feature, as were mournful tones. The use of drone notes in the bass were effective, yet gave a sameness to some of the music. Slurring between pitches was an interesting technique.
Among the taonga pūoro used was a long wooden wind instrument with a trumpet-like sound. Dynamics varied, and the sound was focused The instruments played a variety of pure notes, presumably pitched with the mouth, as with the natural brass trumpet. The strings played repetitive notes, and then they were joined by another instrument, not so long, with less focused tone. This was followed by a higher pitched instrument, then by the conch shell, playing solo. Its doleful sounds were followed by whistled bird sounds from two different small instruments.
A stick tapping on a small wooden box contributed complex rhythms, and the strings joined in, making a sound almost identical to that of the conch shell. The same happened with the violins making an almost identical sound to the whistle-like flutes.
Scoop web-site has this to say about Rob Thorne’s Tomokanga: ‘This was music that segued seamlessly between the various composers, imbued with the same sort of shimmering luminosity and glistening iridescence as a rain forest after thunderstorm. The interweaving of disparate sonorities created limpid, mesmerizing, and hypnotic motifs that lingered on the margins of the transcendental.’
Then came another repeat work from 2016: Dame Gillian Whitehead’s Poroporoaki. An effective technique used in her work was the strings playing spiccato.
Gareth Farr’s He Poroporoaki followed, beginning with Helene Pohl playing little finger cymbals most effectively. A tiny flute played, while the cello sounded a drone below varied string harmonies and lovely sonorities. This work had more elements of European classical music in it than did the other pieces in the programme. It includes the tune of the song we know in English as ‘Now is the Hour’. (The Google note under Promethean Editions says the piece, written for Gallipoli commemorations in 2008, is a ‘deconstructed Now is the Hour’, significant of course for soldiers departing to war, and the families and friends on the wharf to see them off). Rob Thorne was kept busy swapping between instruments: conch, flute, hammer on wood, whistles. Gillian Ansell tapped the stones while Thorne was busy.
The final work was Gillian Whitehead’s Puhake ki te Rangi. It was written in 2006. It was amazing to hear Rob Thorne producing a variety of tones from the same instrument.
It was remarkable concert that nevertheless left some in the a good-sized audience confused as to whether the concert was actually over at the end, since it was not easy to trace where we were in the programme at any point, and because the performance ended earlier than expected. The quality of performance was astonishingly good.