A piano recital that disabused one of certain beliefs and expectations

St Andrew’s Lunch Time Concert

Ursula Gabriele Gschwendtner (composer and pianist)
Works: A selection of pieces from her three albums

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 20 March 2020, 7:30 pm

The audience at this diverting little concert at St Andrew’s was not large, as alarm at the spread of Covid-19 has become more intense. The happy few were interestingly entertained, at what could well be a very rare event for some time.

Ursula Gabriele Gschwendtner has lived in New Zealand since 1996 and calls herself “a classical pianist, a composer and a clown”. The first two talents were conspicuous on Friday, but her liveliness and fluency in her second language did not make the third unimaginable.

She spoke briefly about her musical activities and the nature of each of the 12 pieces she played in the church’s acoustic without amplification, made some of what she said indistinct. She responded to my request for more. Her twelve pieces were: Setting Her Face, Herzblut, Waltz, Closure, A Stroll. Raindrop Travelling, Neale, A Wrestling Song, Reflections, Journey, Day Dream and And This is Me. On sale was one of her three CD albums: In Between which contained six of those pieces.

The first piece, Setting her Free, dating from 2012, is about her mother’s decline into dementia (she died only last year), and typifies the subjects that give rise to her compositions. She confesses that they are mainly born from emotional pain. “The piano seems to become a vehicle to express and transform my inner turmoil”, she says; “life situations and broken heart stories inspired most of my music”. She plays with a light touch, with frequent short pauses at phrase endings; melodic and rhythmic notions change clearly and even though there is a superficial simplicity, with elementary left hand motifs the tunes change and so do rhythms and keys.

I began by seeking hints of the piano music of well-known piano composers, but soon realised that missed the point; it was essentially the product of minimalist music, perhaps post-minimalist, and as I played the CD to one of my sons, he said, “Max Richter”: right on! (you’ll remember his Infra in the Glass/Richter concert from the NZSO in the Festival). But rather distant from the minimalism of Glass and Reich.

The second piece, Herzblut, also arose during her years of grief: rather than a “bleeding heart”, it refers to putting your heart and soul into something. She calls it a very intense piece, though to me it seemed, rather, disturbing, with shifting tonalities over a repetitive left hand. But she stopped any seeking in that direction, saying, “I have no clue of what key signature and time signature I am in. and in fact I am not interested.”

Waltz was certainly in the normal rhythm, but was unexpected in its rejection of any hint of Vienna. It seemed to be a little more taxing than that, but more importantly, unconventional in its hesitancy and its mock forthright character: don’t think of Strauss, or Chopin, or Ravel.

If not all the pieces evoked their alleged subject very strongly, A Stroll did. Changes of scenery, a walking pace, pauses here and there as if she stopped to look at a view or pick a flower.

I didn’t know what to expect with A Wrestling Song: can you think of another composer who aimed to depict in song, violent physical activities, the antithesis of music? There was some muscle flexing and some compelling rhythmic patterns, but nothing that suggested the dramatized, pretended violence of that absurd activity.

Neale was a mutual attraction, perhaps a love, made impossible by circumstances, but which left her with a strong impression. It speaks of a sense of unfulfillment perhaps relief.

Gabriele thinks Journey is one of her best pieces, partly influenced by her experience playing marimba music from Zimbabwe. After a couple of minutes the right and left hand take different rhythmical patterns for a short time. It’s enigmatic, carefully studied, hypnotic: a journey that was undertaken by some sort of compulsion rather than just a casual trip.

Day Dream begins as in a dream but quickly seems to lose that character as a lively quite characterful tune takes charge and the dream seems to be diluted in the full light of day.

The last piece was autobiographical: And this is me. It reflects aspects of her nature, and she enumerates them: the emotionally heavy one, the clown, the quirky one, the mad one.

Little of her music made great technical demands and I found that refreshing. I’d noted that this sounded the most challenging of her pieces, and she confirmed that feeling, confessing that. “This piece is my non-perfection”.

Her recital interested me very much. Unlike most music performance in which great importance rests on technical perfection: virtuosity for its own sake in many cases. Here was a pianist who clearly had things to say, but for whom an impressive technique and years of practical and academic achievement were irrelevant. I was glad to have had some deep-rooted attitudes and beliefs effectively questioned, and to have enjoyed the experience greatly.


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