Unusual but timely concert by Supertonic, dynamic mixture of the musical, the political, the sexual

Supertonic conducted by Isaac Stone

‘Shakespeare’s Sister: celebrating the music of women who created art in the shadows of men’
Music by Hildegard, Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Francesca Caccini and Lili Boulanger, and two New Zealanders: Dorothy Buchanan and Rosa Elliott (who, at age 20, was the ‘featured composer’)

Pipitea Marae, Thorndon Quay

Sunday 20 May 6:30 pm

Middle C has reviewed two previous concerts by Supertonic (both by Rosemary Collier), in 2015, and she was impressed (where have we been in the meantime?). They were in different venues, the Sacred Heart Cathedral and the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. This time they gave me my first experience in the Pipitea Marae, which I’m ashamed to confess I’d never been in; a building of normal construction, with impressive Maori mural and ceiling decoration.

The concert was very well organised, with enough people at the door to take tickets and give seat numbers and generally manage. The seating on either side of a centre aisle was turned to face inwards by about 15 degrees. A congenial feeling.

One of the first impressions as the music began, was the splendid acoustics of the large whare, allowing distinct parts of the choir on the one hand and the choir singing homogeneously on the other to be heard as a finely balanced ensemble. Enhanced I imagine by the high vaulted ceiling and walls which were probably plastered and so a bit more absorbent than concrete, stone or timber.

The singers were ranged in four rows at increasing heights; the piano to the left and to the rear left, the ‘Concert host’, Clarissa Dunn, and a microphone. After the choir had entered, a chant arose at the back and the nine women’s voices came slowly to the front singing Hildegard von Bingen’s ‘Quem ergo femina’. The fine ensemble augured well.

This is the moment to remark admiringly on the paper-work. A nicely printed programme on glossy paper, with a woman in profile who has just released a bird – a swallow, a symbol? Inside, notes on the choir, on host Clarissa Dunn and the ‘featured artist’, the 20-year-old Canterbury University student composer, Rosa Elliott. All the composers’ names and the titles of the pieces were listed and on a separate page, original words and translations of all the songs in foreign languages.

There was a distinct air of professionalism about the entire presentation, not least the evidence of excellent, thorough rehearsal by Isaac Stone, a gifted young conductor who has a very impressive and interesting record both as musician and leader in musical and social areas, especially in the Maori sphere.

One thing we could probably not reasonably expect was to encounter music that we knew – though I speak only for myself.

Clarissa Dunn’s introduction
An unexpected element, but one that was illuminating was Clarissa’s quoting an essay by Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, on the importance of a space for creative work; it related to Dorothy Buchanan’s cycle. The essay presents an “argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men” in the words of Wikipedia.

One hears often about the importance of having a private place in which to compose. Some such composing sanctuaries are famous, like Mahler’s two lake-side hideaways, at Steinberg-am-Attersee and Maianigg on the Wörthersee in Carinthia, or Ravel’s house in the country, Le Belvédère, at Montfort-l’Amaury. The same applies to women but it is harder for them to find such space.

Clara Schumann’s composing was not forbidden but after Robert died she composed no more and devoted herself to performance and the promotion of Robert’s music. The choir sang Drei gemischte Chöre (3 mixed choruses). They were sung with flawless ensemble, purity of tone and clarity of diction.

American composer Amy Beach’s music is heard more these days than a few years ago. She was, like Clara Schumann, both composer and pianist and her husband wanted her to concentrate on composing rather than performance. Again, the a cappella Three Choral Responses were accomplished works if not particularly original, showing little sign of absorbing composition trends of around the turn of the century.

Alma, Lili and Francesca
Then three singers from the choir sang songs by Alma Mahler, Lilli Boulanger and Francesca Caccini. Samantha Kelley sang the first, Die stille Stadt, with a very agreeable voice, and pianist Matthew Oliver, who was occasionally hesitant.

Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome at the Paris Conservatoire and though no barriers were put across her musical career, she died aged 24, 100 years ago. (She is one of this year’s important anniversaries; the others: Debussy’s death 100 years ago, Bernstein’s birth 100 years ago, Gounod’s birth 200 years ago, Rossini’s death 150 years ago*). Reflets, set to a poem of Maurice Maeterlinck, sounded an altogether more inspired composition, with an interesting, even adventurous piano accompaniment; Natalie Williams’s voice was well attuned to the music if occasionally insecure.

A duet from three centuries earlier, Aure Volanti by Francesca Caccini was sung by sopranos Natalie Moreno and Sophie Youngs; there were clear marks here of a fine composer, whose father was also a leading composer who composed one of the first operas in 1602. Women composers were not all that rare at the time; slightly later, Barbara Strozzi was famous and she has re-emerged. This performance handled the weaving voices and Isaac Stone’s piano accompaniment in a charming, authentic manner.

Fanny, Felix’s sister
Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny (Hensel her married name) was also a gifted pianist and composer, whose musical inclinations and gifts were rather discouraged by Felix. Her settings of three of Eichendorff’s poems, Gartenlieder, appealed to me as much as anything in the concert; the writing was fluent and there was plenty of melodic charm and character, far from clichéd. I enjoyed the varied expressive qualities that were well conveyed in the choral performance.

The next group of pieces by Dorothy Buchanan was a curious composition: for flute (Liz Langam) and wordless women’s voices, a small cycle called Five Vignettes of Women. They were marked, Virginia (Woolf), Olivia (Spencer-Bower), Robin (Hyde), Fanny Buss and Katherine (Mansfield). The Virginia Woolf song was the link with the introductory reference to Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. The set was interestingly varied in style and mood and the different instruments produced some novel impressions. The whole struck me as very engaging work, admittedly with a not very important vocal element, but enough to justify its inclusion here.

Rosa Elliott’s Songs for Sisters
Featured artist was 20-year-old composer Rosa Elliott who set three of great 19th century novelist George Eliot’s (real name Mary Ann Evans) poems: Songs for Sisters.

Conductor Isaac Stone is quoted in a SOUNZ website saying that he fastened on her to compose for the choir because of her “incredible way with haunting melodies, matched perfectly with choral colours”. They involved violinist Vivian Stephens, pianist Matthew Oliver and Samantha Kelley using castanets. The first song, O Bird, coloured with hushed breathing, employed an undefined bird-call that later imitated a vocal motif from the choir. I lost track of the breaks between the three songs; however, the unusual combination of vocal effects, occasional distinct words, the melodic attractiveness, Stephens’ excellent violin contribution offered lively variety. The castanets marked the Spanish character of the third song, Ojala, in which the choir could be detected chanting the name. By the end I was won over by the unusual character of this trio of songs, their confident, surprisingly grounded feeling. I think they have a life.

The concert ended with a, for me, puzzling, enigmatic song: Quiet by (I suppose) a young woman called Milck. I confess to looking it up on Google. It’s a song protesting sexual violence in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandals, frankly bluesy in style, but more importantly, arresting in both its music and its message. She writes that it is part of “a massive movement of women and survivors speaking out against sexual assault, I find myself in awe and moved to my core”.  I caught words of intimate advice to vulnerable girls; it was, I guess, a timely insertion for the choir whose purpose here was to dramatise efforts to empower women and demand changed behaviour on the part of men, and sexual exploitation is as evil as depriving women of the wherewithall to create music.

An interesting and poignant way to end the concert which had virtues and strengths at many levels, social and musical.

*Composer Anniversaries
This sort of thing interests me. I was half aware of several other composers who were born or died in these or similar years. There’s Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff and also the composer of Mephistophele), and Hubert Parry both of whom died in 1918. Then I came upon a contribution to the topic from a kindred spirit who writes a column in the French Opéra Magazine, Renaud Machart. He wrote about Lili Boulanger, naturally, and he also noted the successor and in some ways Offenbach’s rival in the post Franco-Prussian war period (1870 – 1880): Charles Lecocq (1832-1918). His best known pieces were La fille de Madame Angot and Le petit Duc. And very tongue-in-cheek, Machart  also pointed to one Procida Bucalossi (1832-1918), a British/Italian composer of light music; with that background, he naturally wrote a successful operetta for London in neither language, entitled Les Manteaux Noirs (The Black Cloaks).

Looking back to 1868, as well as Rossini’s death, Swedish composer Berwald died. And François Couperin was born in 1768, 250 years ago.

Admirable, stimulating programme of piano trios from Te Koki Trio

Te Koki Trio: Martin Riseley (violin), Inbal Megiddo (cello), Jian Liu (piano) – senior lecturers in Victoria University School of Music
(Wellington Chamber Music)

Brahms: Piano Trio in C minor Op. 101
Avner Dorman: Piano Trio No. 2
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 20 May 3 pm

Gale-force winds outside might have been an appropriate accompaniment to Shostakovich’s frightful war-time masterpiece. But it was not necessarily a fitting way to characterise Brahms’s third piano trio. In spite of the remarks in the programme notes (in general, illuminating), and even though it’s in a minor key, I have never found the opening pages devoid of melody, or revealing an ‘unsettled nature’; though later movements might be so characterised.

However, Jian Liu’s reading of the opening chords might for a moment have supported the sense of the programme note. His first chords were so heavy that they dominated the violin and cello and I rather wished the lid had been down, as well perhaps as having the piano on a carpet. But the music soon shifts to the much more sustained, warm and heart-felt second subject that in fact seemed to characterise most of the movement, in spite of momentary returns of the more emphatic first theme. The imbalance between piano and strings didn’t recur.

The notes might have somewhat exaggerated the restless and haunted nature of the second movement which is considered the Scherzo, though not marked so. The minor key colours the entire work and even this ‘scherzo’ movement hardly produces a feeling of ecstasy or contentment. Much of it is staccato in character, permitting neither buoyancy nor delight. The singular feature of the work as a whole is the shortness of each movement – the second movement lasts only about four minutes. And the first was only about twice as long.

The Brahms we’ve waited for arrives in the third movement, and here Martin Riseley’s violin and Inbal Megiddo’s cello play alone for half a minute and they do so again after the piano had a brief contribution. The movement seemed all too short, as I couldn’t help feeling that the players longed for its prolonging and I even wondered whether there was actually a repeat that they were ignoring. There is not of course. Here was the quintessential Brahms writing the most expressive and alluring music, and the programme note’s ‘unsettled material’ and ‘irregular phrases’ were not very audible to me.

Even though the last movement remains in the minor key and there’s a seriousness of mind which the players showed their full awareness of, there’s no lack of melody, even if the tunes are sometimes stretched over a wide range, and the occasional staccato irruptions hardly encouraged the listener to drift into a feeling of contentment. The gentle rising and falling theme which becomes the heart of the movement was all too short.

Avner Dorman
The novelty of the concert was a 2002 trio by Jewish-American composer Avner Dorman. When I looked at YouTube, I was surprised to find scores of performances of a great variety of music by Dorman, though none of this piano trio. He has clearly attracted a large following for music that is distinctive and genuinely imaginative. His music seems often to begin in a comfortable, familiar manner, sometimes, like the present trio, with the utmost simplicity. It began with a simple four-note chorale-like motif, repeated in subtly changing ways, creating at least the impression of each instrument playing distinct phrases in different keys, while one became aware of the original motif continuing repetitiously below the evolving sounds above.

Dissonances slowly became more and more arresting and complex, curiously, not in a way that aroused frustration or irritation. Perhaps no dissonance can today really sound barbarous or outrageous because profligate use of it has diminished its impact, its capacity to offend. Just as swearing in public, on television and film no longer has the power to shock though I suppose there are still some who find it offensive just as some still find gross dissonance offensive. To me these passages were simply counterpoints or foils to the more conventional. The players gave every sign of commitment, persuaded that here was music that had something to say, music that was not imitative but which did not seek to be ‘original’ just to win academic brownie-points.

These situations are always interesting as some in the audience reacted with at least a little reserve, even disapproval. The second movement was faster, no less free with unorthodox harmony and darting, reckless rhythms. Sudden passages of meditative music, violin and cello bowing their way in adagio sequences; then rushing torrents, from high to low registers. One always searches for influences and these were hard to perceive; perhaps certain hints of Vasks or Pelecis came to mind, absurdly perhaps.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio Op 67
Few pieces of chamber music in the 20th century pack the punch that Shostakovich’s 1944 piano trio does (unless it’s his Eighth String Quartet). I first came to know it through performances by the Turnovsky Trio (Sam Konise, Christopher Kane and Eugene Albulescu) in the 90s. The famous opening, starting with uncanny, false (or artificial) harmonics by using (with the cello) the thumb to shorten the length of sounding string, presaged an extraordinarily sensitive and expressive performance. One could dwell on the range of ‘effects’ employed by the piece, but it is better to consider the plain emotional impact of the music – a matter that should always come before academic consideration of the means by which it’s achieved.

Traditional descriptive musical language, Allegro con brio, hardly captures the real nature of the music, any more than the neutral moderato and poco piu mosso does of the first movement. Its brio isn’t altogether a mistake, but there’s a manic quality here, and with all the bite and energy these players adopt makes you sit bolt upright. It’s the third movement in which Shostakovich expresses the grief that war has plunged his country into, a sustained threnody which fades with dying piano notes to the piano’s grief-stricken staccato start of the last movement.

Though written presumably after the Siege of Leningrad had been lifted (January 1944; the composer had been evacuated from the city in October 1941) this movement remains one of the most graphic, emotional descriptions of war imaginable. And the playing varied from despairing to terrifying, to repetitive, violent passages interspersed with sudden pauses to reflect and regain one’s balance and equilibrium.

I found the whole programme, the choice of works and their committed and accomplished performance by these three senior lecturers in the School of Music totally engrossing. As I seem to say often, it deserved a far bigger audience; a few short years ago these concerts in the Ilott Theatre in the “How long must we wait?’ Town Hall used to attract a couple of hundred people, even in blizzard conditions.