Taioro – words and music of Aotearoa New Zealand at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2022 presents:

TAIORO – A new ensemble (2021)  presents New Zealand Chamber Music with Poetry,
for speaker, viola, cello and piano

(“TAI, the tide. Representing the ebbs and flows of tangaroa and the energy that we ourselves hold.
ORO, to resound or resonate, and the word used for a musical note.”)

Music by Antony Ritchie, Alfred Hill, Douglas Lilburn and David Hamilton

Sharn Maree Cassady – poet and speaker
Donald Maurice  – viola / viola d’amore
Inbal Megiddo – ‘cello
Sherry Grant – poet and piano

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

Wednesday 16th February, 2022

This lunchtime concert at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace furthered what’s become a refreshing change of late for ears inundated in the past with “standard” repertoire and presentations – a recital of words and music from a recently-formed group, Taioro, presenting works whose origins and inspirations stemmed from our own place, Aotearoa New Zealand.  Of course, there’s an impressively-growing body of work already emanating from our own composers, with names too numerous to mention; and with contemporary performance groups such as Stroma occasionally emerging in concert with some stimulatingly ear-prickling sounds. The challenge for these composers and musicians is to keep up the momentums, fostering continued interest in “our” sounds and our singular ways of doing things.

While some of the works presented today could be almost deemed “historic”, with music by Alfred Hill (1870-1960) and Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), along with poetry by ARD Fairburn (1904-57) and James K.Baxter (1926-72), we heard also music by living composers Anthony Ritchie and David Hamilton (the latter present at the concert), in tandem with poetry written by both the concert’s presenter, Sharn Maree Cassady, and pianist Sherry Grant, along with another poem “Stone Woman” written by Christchurch poet Bernadette Hall and set to music by Anthony Ritchie – it was, all-in-all, a judicious mix of past and present creative endeavour!

We began our listening with Anthony Ritchie’s wonderfully storm-tossed Allegro tempestuoso for viola and piano, taken at a real lick by Donald Maurice and Sherry Grant. Amid the sparks generated by the playing I heard an exotic flavouring or two in the piece’s harmonies and the folksy rhythmic drive, emphasised also by the viola’s “eastern” kind of melodic line in a slower, expressive middle section. The performers adroitly brought out the numerous different characters in the music’s widely-ranging explorations, bluesy one moment and then whirling and vertiginous the next – after all the sound and fury, the performers brought the piece to its somewhat amiably halting conclusion.

A second piece by Anthony Ritchie was titled In Memoriam, the music dedicated to the life and passing of a woman called “Angela”, whose AGEA motive the piece featured was demonstrated on Donald Maurice’s viola beforehand. This was a beautiful-sounding work, the violist playing variants of the “Angela” theme over a kind of threnody from the ‘cello (a gorgeous tonal outpouring from both string-players, here, the music brief but extremely moving). We heard also a piece Ritchie had named after a poem by Bernadette Hall, entitled “Song – Stone Woman”, the music seeming almost anecdotal in effect, rhythms “jamming” in an improvisatory way and accompaniments wry and loose-limbed. The poem was read simply and almost conversationally by Sharn Maree Cassady, Hall’s style as a poet seeming to lend itself to such treatment.

Thanks, it seems, to some vagary of the venue’s particular acoustic, I had to strain to hear much of this spoken content of the presentation at the concert, though I was sitting almost right at the front, albeit on the opposite side from where the speaker, Sharn Maree, was placed. After the concert I checked with the person sitting next to me, and she said she also had difficulty hearing the words accompanying firstly the Alfred Hill tribute piece, and then both of Douglas Lilburn’s tribute pieces to ARD Fairburn and James K.Baxter (the latter two including the poets’ own poetry). The music, by contrast, seemed to present no problem – about which circumstance I thereupon wrote a “draft review” of what I had heard, and contacted the performers outlining the  difficulties I’d experienced.

I would, of course, have far preferred to have heard more clearly Sharn Maree Cassady’s comments in situ (all delivered seemingly in similar poetic style) regarding all three of the “past” personalities, belonging as they did to eras which had different attitudes, values and modes to our present PC-dominated world.  At the time, the music provided ample compensation, but I was still aware I was missing an integral part of things. Project co-ordinator Donald Maurice thereby arranged most kindly for me to view and hear the entire concert as it was videoed, something which I have just finished watching. To my delight speaker Sharn Maree’s words in the recording came over perfectly clearly, enabling me to truly take in each of her poetically-expressed responses to the texts associated with the chosen pieces that made up the concert.

Though Alfred Hill’s piece that was presented had no accompanying text, his numerous interactions with Maori during his time in New Zealand were well-documented, giving Cassady sufficient material to craft a response to Hill’s work, words and philosophies. The poetry of ARD Fairburn (1904-57) by turns swashbuckling, wry and romantic, and definitely from an age which more contemporary attitudes would almost certainly find in places at best old-fashioned, and at worst with racist and sexist overtones – so it was no surprise to find in her reply to James K.Baxter (1926-72)  a far more sympathetic and shared acceptance of certain values in both the poetry and regarding the ethos of the man in popular legend, than in her reaction to Fairburn’s verses.  This was underlined via a nicely-flowing and readily-nuanced reading of Baxter’s poem Sisters at Jerusalem, followed by a response begun with a whimsical “May I call you James?” from Cassedy, prefacing her reply.

The  music of Alfred Hill’s chosen was simply  called Andantino, one which I later discovered was a transcription for viola and piano of the slow movement of the composer’s Viola Concerto. Like everything I’ve heard of Hill’s, the work had a distinction and a surety of touch which Donald Maurice’s and Sherry Grant’s playing enriched and ennobled with their rich, heartfelt tones. The piece’s ending had its own singularity – an exquisitely-voiced modulation Into “other realms” before the voices found their way back to the home key at the end.

Douglas Lilburn’s “salute” to Fairburn began with a lovely mantra-like piano figure whose sound for me exerted considerable emotional pull, like a seabird’s song calling a traveller home, one whose response in the hands of ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo matched such feelings with beautifully-projected tones, the feelings truly “grounded” by the piano’s deep-sounding pedal-points and the cello’s joyous life-dance, one that eventually brought forth ringing bell-like resonances at the piece’s conclusion. Just as resonant in its own way was Lilburn’s tribute to James K.Baxter, beginning with a ritualised exchange of bugle-like calls between viola and piano that put one in mind of a walking song, one that engagingly broke into a 5/4 dance, replete with energy and humour – at the revelry’s height the dance cried off with the piano’s deep-throated call to attention, bringing the viola back to the by-now nostalgic bugle-like calls from the beginning, the energies having come full circle and brought us home once more.

With the work of David Hamilton our concert returned to the here-and-now with a world premiere of a work for narrator, viola d’amore and piano “Avec amour” (With love). This was Hamilton’s setting for those instruments of the words to a poem by Sherry Grant, the concert’s pianist. Unfortunately the programme I picked up at the concert’s beginning was missing its inner section with the poet’s text printed in full, so that I struggled throughout to pick up “shreds and patches” in tandem with the ongoing musical discourse, the instruments often masking the words.

I thought the music both soulful and  piquant at first, then more declamatory and bardic as the way was prepared for the narrator. The poem’s words seemed to describe some kind of conceit, idealistically describing something perhaps as imagined as real, which the sounds of the viola d’amore and the piano reflected – all framed by the  phrase “a true rarity in this age”. The setting gave the discourse and their sounds a somewhat detached air in places, a feeling that the music’s epilogue reinforced for me, leaving a “do I wake or sleep” kind of impression at the end. It was a piece that I wanted to hear again immediately afterwards, as there was a dreamlike air about it all that seemed to defy direct engagement – one could “drift” rather than properly engage (and I wasn’t helped by not having the words available to read and follow in situ.) The voice’s diffused sound gave its timbre an almost instrument-like quality, another strand to the argument, another layer to the textures…

Having (a) procured a copy of the poem’s words, and (b) been kindly sent by Donald Maurice both a full script and a copy of the finished video, I was able to more justly “relive” the concert’s experience and, hopefully make proper recourse at last to the efforts of all of the performances, in particular this, the concert’s final item. Described by narrator Sharn Maree Cassady as “a tribute to the viola d’amore”, the work began with a recitative-like passage for the viola d’amore before being joined quixotically by the piano, the speaker then adding to the narrative strands as if the words were threads weaving their way through a sound-tapestry. At the verse’s end the music reflected on the meeting of hitherto free spirits and the tremulous attraction of unchartered emotional waters. Sharn Maree Cassady’s delivery weighed every word patiently, precisely, almost dispassionately, letting the music delineate the impulses, and the “ancient brilliance so unexpected, yet familiar in every turn, in each corner”.

Winsomely, the piano responded to the viola’s quizzical utterances, opening a vein of longing,  towards the igniting of the “infinitely burning desire” to the point of conflagration, the voice again the serene, objective observer, letting the heat of the “feverish pair of flaming swords” pass as if sunlight had suddenly broken through clouds, and then been again obscured…. the moment was here celebrated with incisive piano chords and then, prompted by the speaker’s words, “together we sing in joy”, moved on by the viola into an exchange of here-and-now fulfilment from both instruments…….the “song” became both rapturous and exploratory, the sudden upward modulation at the speaker’s words “Avec Amour” taking the listener to “different realms” beyond experience, transcending the usual “order” of things, even to the point of calling Cupid, the God of Love, to question with the “true rarity” of emotion beyond reason. Sharn Maree Cassady’s tones here evoked “time-standing still” ambiences, as the poem’s words, the viola, and the piano all appeared to take up the “feel” of the music’s opening once more, as if we had journeyed right around the sun – but, (as TS Eliot observed) “never the same time returns”, which was attested by the coda, with its different, more valedictory feeling.

We were asked at the concert’s beginning not to applaud between numbers, as the proceedings were being recorded. Aside from my frustrations at the time, I loved the concert and its sounds and the care and commitment with which the performers obviously brought these things to us for our enjoyment, and am so grateful to Donald Maurice, and to Antony Donovan, the recording engineer, for allowing me access to  the video recording in order to get the “full picture” of what the performers were able to achieve.

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