Diverting Debussy-inspired trio charm a responsive audience at Lower Hutt

Toru Trio: Karen Batten (flute), Sophia Acheson (viola), Ingrid Bauer (harp)
(Chamber Music Hutt Valley)

Debussy: Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe (1915)
Bax: Fantasy Sonata (viola and harp, 1927)
Tabea Squire: Impressions (2018)
Wendelin Bitzan: Zoologischer Garten for flute and viola (2011)
William Mathias: Zodiac Trio (1976)

Lower Hut Little Theatre

Wednesday 16 May, 7:30 pm

Te reo Maori for the numeral 3 is toru; thus ‘Toru Trio’ is a redundancy. This instrumental trio comprises harp, viola and flute, modelled on Debussy’s war-time piece; all are players in Orchestra Wellington. All the pieces were composed in the last 100 years (though the Debussy himself was a couple of years outside that frame).

Their arrival on stage made a striking impression: Karen Batten in a dramatic gold dress, Ingrid Bauer a dress of more coppery gold, and Sophia Acheson wore a near luminous, black dress. And while the Little Theatre is an intimate space with a dry acoustic that leaves performances quite exposed, a distinct compensation is the players closeness. That means the audience could be diverted by three attractive, personable and versatile musicians who use their instruments to produce often unfamiliar sounds and visual experiences; in particular, the harpist’s manipulations of hands and feet on her formidable instrument were always intriguing.

Three of the five pieces engaged all three players while the Bax and Bitzen were scored for only two of them. The way the cards fell resulted in the omnipresence of Sophia Acheson’s viola in all five works.

The concert presented several unusual aspects: the uncommon instrumental combination, that only one piece was by a composer whose name would have been familiar to all the audience, that the trio had invited a young New Zealand composer to compose a piece for them, and that they were in the middle of a Chamber Music New Zealand tour to eight smaller towns and cities from Warkworth via Gisborne, Motueka, etc to Gore in the south.

Debussy creates a new musical form
Debussy started it all. At the beginning of the First World War, Debussy decided to write six sonatas, for different combinations of instruments referencing eighteenth century French musical traditions. Just as Ravel had done with his Tombeau de Couperin, Debussy wanted to make a patriotic French gesture in support of French soldiers facing the horrors of the war. He wrote only three of the six – for cello and piano, this one, and one for violin and piano: he died too soon. The other three were planned: Debussy had written in the manuscript of his violin sonata that the fourth sonata should be written for oboe, horn and harpsichord, the fifth for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano, and the sixth for all the preceding instrument plus others.

For the sixth and final sonata, Debussy envisaged: “a concerto where the sonorites of the ‘various instruments’ combine, with the gracious assistance of the double bass”, making the instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, piano, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, double bass; it would have been a masterpiece. Debussy’s three non-existent works would, like this trio, have inspired scores of works for those new combinations.

In some ways it’s a risky business to combine three such disparate instruments, and to play in such an exposed acoustic as the Lower Hutt Little Theatre, poses an even greater challenge; it’s one thing to be able to hear with such clarity the distinct sounds of each instrument, but it’s something else to deal with the challenge of achieving real blending; and that might be a minor criticism of their playing. Debussy makes a feature of their utterly different sounds by asking each player to introduce her part in its characteristic way, exploiting quite interestingly the differences in compass and tone.

It creates striking effects, viola and flute pursuing very different ranges; early on the harp plays very high while the viola plays repeatedly a very low note. The sonorities are most curious at times; we are not very used, for example, to the viola playing alone over such long passages. The programme note usefully described each theme and their instrumental treatment, and drew attention to their repetition in a different order.

The minuet second movement, primarily in triple, minuet time imperceptibly changes to common time, at times misleading the listener, while the Finale returns to 4/4, and employ the harp at the start in a low register, rather murmuring. For the most part the playing was so sensitive and each player clearly paid such attention to what others were doing that the music began to sound inevitable. While I am familiar enough with it, I remember many years ago finding it elusive and tonally rather disparate. It’s one of those pieces – many of Debussy’s are – that slowly, deeply takes root, more in the instinctive mind than the intellect.

A Bax Fantasy
The Bax piece, for viola and harp, called a Fantasy Sonata, which had become a fashion after English musicologist and a notable compiler of a great encyclopaedia of chamber music, W W Cobbett (it’s near my desk), established a competition that seeking to revive the 16th century English musical form. Numbers of works were produced (Armstrong Gibbs, Bridge, Howells, Ireland, Britten).

Bax’s was perhaps more straight-forward melodically than Debussy’s trio; I didn’t know it, but it’s an attractive piece, and presenting less of an instrumental challenge. And again the players revealed a happy rapport handling dynamics sympathetically, idiomatically.

Tabea Squire is a young Wellington composer whose composing gifts have led to several commissions. This piece, for all three instruments, was not on a large scale and the task was to simulate sounds in nature: the contrasting colours of the kowhai, the image of children dancing in the rain, and a fantail fluttering among trees in the sunlight. While this kind of inspiration for music generally usually doesn’t seem very fruitful (to me); in fact I think it’s more likely to succeed as music without visual or literary or some intellectual construct. Its variety and the handling of parts for each instrument, individually or in ensemble, and the evidence of plain musical invention are enough.

Flute and viola then played a piece by a young (at my age, ‘young’ seems to refer more and more to anyone under 40) German composer, Wendelin Bitzan. This time, zoo animals in curious situations, but stimulating the composer to devise often amusing sonic imagery. Occasionally, the sounds were evocative enough, not to create pictures of the creatures named, but to be engaging nevertheless; moments that were amusing, even bizarre, both in concept and actualisation.

Astrology in music
Then a third piece that had an extra-musical origin: William Mathias’s Zodiac Trio which again presented a scenario that seemed to demand a lot from the imagination, if one sought useful characterisations from Mathias’s impressions of that nature of Pisces, Aries and Taurus. One of the players (I think, violist Sophia Acheson) claimed a Zodiac association with one of the three signs employed by Mathias; I can claim none, so I was able to listen without prejudice to the musical interpretations of these forces.

These three pieces might have been obscure astrologically, but as I wrote above, that was irrelevant; they were attractive musical creations, sometimes beguiling, occasionally droll and often musically inventive. Taurus did indeed suggest the force, energy and danger of a loose bull, as there were moments where these very disparate instruments truly came together in an integrated way.

Debussy’s trio has given rise to an impressive body of musical descendants and to as many threesomes devoted to their performance (look in Wikipedia). There is a rich and every-so-often very rewarding field for Toru to cultivate.

Given that this Hutt Valley concert was Toru’s only appearance in the Wellington region in the course of an eight-concert tour, its excellence deserved a bigger audience.

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