Engaging and exploratory viola music from NZSM students at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts 
New Zealand School of Music viola students, with accompanist Catherine Norton

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 13 June, 12:15 pm

This is the time for music students to use the facilities and be exposed to audiences at St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts in preparation for their first semester assessments. For audiences too, there are a couple of benefits; invariably, there are students who surprise, sometimes astonish, with their level of musicianship and technical skill; and there’s the chance to hear some unfamiliar, sometimes very engaging music. Some is chosen to display students’ strengths regardless of the interest of the music for the general, musical public, but there’s always some that is little known and prompts curiosity and thus an impulse to do a little research, to look for recordings in the library or on YouTube.

Zephyr Wills is a first year student who played a Potpourri for viola and piano by Hummel. A few decades ago Hummel’s name meant a pedantic and flashy pianist, a rival of Beethoven in virtuosity who wrote superficially attractive music. A lot of his music has been unearthed including some, yes, attractive and exciting music, a lot for the piano, but also orchestral, chamber and choral music. This piece was very listenable and proved both manageable and at times challenging for a student. It offered music that suited Wills’s flair for easy rhythms and long lyrical lines, employing tunes that were familiar, though not always identifiable. As with each of the pieces played, Catherine Norton, undoubtedly one of the finest accompanists working in New Zealand, supported and enlivened the performances.

Allegro appassionato, by Paul Rougnon, presumably composed as an examination piece at the Paris Conservatoire where he taught, was played by Debbie King, a second year student. Rougnon was a contemporary of Fauré and Massenet (and such disparate composers as Chabrier and Widor too), though I didn’t notice any conspicuous similarities. Not melodically very distinctive, the music had a generally lyrical feel that showed through its shape and textures; it is probably fair to say that its aim seemed mainly to demonstrate students’ technique, which King made tasteful, not showy use of; she played with confidence and musicality.

The Prelude to Bach’s first solo violin suite (BWV 1001), was played in an unattributed scoring for viola, by fourth year student, Charlotte Lamb. The listener is no doubt at a disadvantage attempting to listen objectively to music that is very familiar since so many famous and deeply musical performances lurk in the mind, perhaps to the disadvantage of the present player. It was different, of course, more warm and mellow than on the violin and so less brilliant. Lamb’s playing was accurate and rhythmically coherent but something of Bach had been diminished: this in spite of my secret preferring the tonal range of the viola over that of the violin.

The next piece, When Gravity Fails, in three parts, by Christchurch composer Philip Norman was shared by three players: Grant Baker with Flingamango Tango, Zephyr Wills with Evening Romance and Lauren Jack playing Isla’s Blues. Each section was vividly different and the word ‘quirky’ often comes to mind in characterising Norman’s carefully insubstantial, sometimes ironic or flippant music; but its great virtue is his interest, not shared by a large number of contemporary composers, in entertaining his listeners. In each of the markedly different pieces, the aim was to amuse rather than challenge or to demonstrate a mastery of complex forms or recondite musical vocabulary. The odd smudge or blurred phrase felt like fun, unimportant, and all three seemed to feel at liberty to enjoy the varied emotions or images that invested Norman’s creations.

The most substantial, main-stream work was Bloch’s Suite Hébraïque rhapsodie in which Lauren Jack discovered a depth of feeling that was recognisable to anyone familiar with Bloch’s Schelomo for cello and orchestra, a piece that I discovered in my teens and has had me looking for comparable music by Bloch ever since (there is some). Lauren Jack, another talented first year student, gave it a very thoughtful and enjoyable performance, and I felt it went some way to meet my longings.

The recital ended with two players returning to play pieces that complemented what they’d played before. Debbie King moved from an obscure French composer to an obscure German one. Eduard Pütz was born in 1911 but I can find nothing about his life though he obviously lived through the Nazi years. His Blues for Benni clearly suggested jazz and employed agreeable if somewhat complex jazz rhythms through three distinct phases. King sounded very comfortable in her handling of the idiom and its rather particular demands, though I felt, obviously in my first hearing, that the piece rather outlasted its material.

And Grant Baker ended the recital with a piece by Belgian violinist and composer Vieuxtemps (a contemporary of Franck, Lalo and Gounod, even Offenbach, if that’s in any way relevant), best known for his violin concertos. This Elégie for viola and piano was melodically attractive and Baker gave it an excellent account with lyrical playing, tinged with a gentle pathos. It called for a good deal of embellishment from both viola and Catherine Norton’s unfailingly sensitive and supportive piano, which the pair handled with flair.

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