Stroma enhances Wellington with music inspired by where sea meets sky

Stroma Conducted by Hamish McKeich

Ingram Marshall: Fog Tropes (1981)
Mark Carter, Mathew Stein, (tpt), Samuel Jacobs, Julian Leslie (hn), David Bremner, Shannon Pittaway (trb)
Deidre Gribbin: What the Whaleship Saw
Anna van der Zee and Megan Molina (vn), Nicholas Hancox (va), Robert Ibell (vc)
Eve de Castro-Robinson: Pearls of the Sea (2005)
Bridget Douglas (fl, bass fl), Carolyn Mills (harp)
Tristan Murail: Treize couleurs du soleil couchant (1978)
Bridget Douglas (fl), Patrick Barry (cl), Anna van der Zee (vn) Robert Ibell (vc), Kirsten Robertson (piano)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Reflections (2016)
Anna van der Zee (vn), Nicholas Hancox (va), Robert Ibell (vc)
John Rimmer: Where Sea Meets Sky 2 (1975)
Bridget Douglas (fl), Patrick Barry (cl), Megan Molina (vn) Robert Ibell (vc), Kirsten Robertson (piano) Thomas Guldborg (percussion)

Hannah Playhouse

Thursday 30 May, 7:30 pm

Stroma is a mixed chamber music ensemble drawn from musicians of the NZSO. It performs contemporary experimental music. This programme included music by New Zealand, American, Irish, French, and Icelandic composers, but in particular, it honoured the 80th birthday of John Rimmer, one of New Zealand’s most iconic composers.

The programme started with fog horns, recorded in San Francisco Bay. A brass sextet of two horns, two trombones and two trumpets engaged in a dialogue with the fog horn against a background of the swirling sea and the squeals of sea birds. Ingram Marshall is an American composer influenced by minimalism trends of the 1960s. He says about Fog Tropes that “It is possible to listen to your pieces as a kind of tonality ‘behind the fog’, with gradual changes in layers of sound and ‘shadows & lights’. It seems that sometimes there’s a kind of impressionist colour in which we could find smaller sound particles.” It is these shadows and light that the listener can seek in this work.

From fog horns the programme moved to disaster at sea, the sinking of the whaling ship, Essex, in 1820. Deidre Gribbin is from Belfast. What the Whaleship Saw is a work for string quartet. It depicts the calm sea, then the storm that led to the tragedy. It is an impressionistic work. The strings generate sounds of sheer beauty without melodic progression, the peaceful calm sea is shattered by the disaster of the wrecked boat, then calm music again as the boat sinks but echoes of sea shanties appear in the background to illustrate the ill-fated sailors.

New Zealand composer Eve de Castro-Robinsons’s Pearls of the Sea follows up the sea theme. It writing for an unusual combination of instruments, a bass flute and a harp is a challenging exercise. The work is inspired by a poem by Len Lye. It exploits the aural potential of both instruments, the flute explores the range of sounds that can be produced, like the Japanese shakuhachi, trombone, foghorn and even low tom-tom. The harpist stretches the limits of the usual use of the harp by banging on the frame of the harp, and sweeping the strings to create a swooshing sound.

From the sea, the programme moved on to colours. Tristan Murail, a French composer, is associated with the ‘spectral’ techniques, the use of properties of sound as the basis of harmony. His Treize couleurs du soleil couchant tries to capture colours in sound. Like Monet in his painting, it uses patterns of sound as building blocks of music and repeats the same musical idea thirteen times as Monet did in paint the same scene over and over again. It is scored for a combination of instruments widely used by modern composers from Schoenberg to Messiaen, violin, clarinet, cello and piano.

Reflections by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is a string trio in which instruments form overlapping ‘waves’. The music is composed as much by sounds and nuances as by lyrical material.

The final work is by John Rimmer, leading New Zealand composer and Associate Professor of Music at Auckland University. It is a tribute for his 80th birthday. His Where the Sea Meets the Sky 2, is an impression of a plane journey across the Tasman Sea. In this, he tries to capture the qualities of light seen through an aeroplane window. It was prompted by a poem of Ian Wedde in which the sea does not meet the sky. Originally Rimmer wrote this work for an electronic synthesizer, which he reworked for a live ensemble, a combination of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, which aims to capture the electronic sounds of the original version.

Hamish McKeich, musical director of Stroma, and the thirteen musicians from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra challenged the audience to think of the nature of music. The music was far from the usual concert repertoire, strange for some, lacking in usual points of reference, but it enhanced the musical experience of those who took the trouble to listen. The Wellington musical scene is richer for having an ensemble such as Stroma in its midst.


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