Wellington Chamber Music’s fine, imaginative violin and piano recital from Beer and Watkins

Wellington Chamber Music
Andrew Beer (violin) and Sarah Watkins (piano)

Ravel: Sonata No. 1 in A minor
Leonie Holmes: Dance of the Wintersmith
Gareth Farr’s Unforeseen Evolution
Franck: Violin Sonata

St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 7 July, 2019, 3 pm

Andrew Beer, Concert Master of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Sarah Watkins, highly regarded chamber musician played an interesting recital in the Wellington Chamber music Sunday Concerts series. Two new New Zealand works were sandwiched in between a rarely heard sonata by Ravel and one of the most popular pieces of the violin repertoire, César Franck’s violin sonata.

Leonie Holmes is a prolific and versatile composer, teaching composition at the University of Auckland. Sarah Watkins and Andrew Beer commissioned her to write a piece for them. She happened to be reading Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith at the time and decided to take that as a subject of her composition. She found the book funny, but meaningful. She had not written program music before, but this challenge appealed to her. Her Dance of the Wintersmith opens with a long violin solo, soulful, meditative, that explores the singing quality of the instrument. The piano enters with a dialogue that seems to question the violin. In Pratchett’s story the young witch girl joins the dance of otherworldly men in the forest. In the music this is depicted with a quirky dance section that leads to the gentle melodious epilogue in which the violinist joins in humming and later whistling a tune, a huge surprise to listeners. Does one need to know the story that inspired the music or does the music stand on its own? Even if those who have not read the program notes and know nothing about Terry Pratchett would find the music haunting and beautiful. The work was one of the finalists of the SOUNZ Contemporary Awards for 2018.

The Dance of the Wintersmith was followed by Gareth Farr’s Unforeseen Evolution. This is a very different piece. Farr’s music is coloured by his studies as a percussionist and an immersion in the sounds, textures and rhythms of the Indonesian gamelan ensemble. For him the violin is not a melodic but a percussive instrument. He aimed to pit two wildly contrasting ideas against each other without transition, everything abrupt and unforeseen. The piece has rhythmic drum like elements contrasting the ethereal mysterious violin harmonics and delicate arpeggios on the piano in the first section, then violent rhythms around the entire range of the two instruments. It is a work in which rhythm and beat prevail over melody.

The concert had opened with the relatively seldom heard, Ravel’s Sonata No. 1 in A minor. It is an early student composition discovered long after the composer’s death. Written in 1897 it already has the hallmarks of impressionism. It has an aerie, mysterious quality, some of which is very difficult to bring off. This performance was a sound rendition of the work, but for this listener a touch of the inexpressible magic was missing.

The final work on the program was César Franck’s much loved Violin Sonata. It was played with passion, appropriate for this heartfelt piece. The performance was notable at times for its beautifully phrased singing quality. It had had some real magic moments.

The audience was rewarded at the end of the concert on the program with an encore, the second of Prokofiev’s Five Melodies for violin and piano.

Perhaps it was the cold weather, or the unknown New Zealand compositions that kept people away, but it is regrettable that this fine concert didn’t attract a larger audience. The Wellington Chamber Music Society is to be complemented on their imaginative programming for their concerts on Sunday afternoons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *