Christchurch scores at Schools Chamber Music Contest

Chamber Music New Zealand: New Zealand Community Trust Chamber Music Contest, 2010 National Finals

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 31 July, 7.00pm

As well as providing an exciting contest, the annual finals made for a most enjoyable concert and a varied programme of music from young amateurs.  But make no mistake, this was music-making to a very high standard, some of it on a professional level.

Some of the combinations of instruments were unusual.  The first group, from St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, played violin, piano and clarinet  performing four of the five movements of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat Suite.  The three girls’ handsome red and black outfits were appropriate to their name: Diable.  Sometimes the other instruments were a little too loud for the violin, but this was very competent playing of difficult music.  The first movement March was given a suitably acerbic tone, while the Petit Concert was bright and rhythmic.  The Tango-Valse-Rag incorporated a variety of well-executed techniques for the violinist.  Although there was less clarinet in this movement, her part featured sliding notes, expertly played.  The fifth movement, Danse du Diable, was pretty demanding.  Both A and B flat clarinets were employed in the work.

Another Auckland trio followed, named Alpine Trio; their work was Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock.   It was good to have a singer in the finals; something I haven’t heard for years.  Nor have I heard this beautiful work on the concert platform for a long, long time.  Clarinet and voice both performed from memory, and all the musicians were in command of a difficult work.  The fine soprano’s low notes tended to disappear, and once or twice she ran out of breath.  The performance was a little pedantic, and perhaps needed to be more romantic, but towards the end the players seemed to relax and ended with rubato.  Overall, it was a very enjoyable rendering of beautiful music.

The Roseberry Trio, also from Auckland, tackled challenging music that is nevertheless quite well-known: movements 2 and 4 from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor.  The young cellist, Sally Kim, played with great vigour and a robust sound.  She was the only performer on the night to play in two groups, though there were others doing this in the two semi-finals held the previous day.  In reply to my question later, she told me she was 15 years old.  All three players had marvellous technique.  The violin pizzicato was sensational at the opening of the fourth movement, then the cello joined in doing the same, with the piano playing a sombre unison theme.  This work is pretty full-on for all three players.  There were gorgeous ripples from the piano, great attention to detail, and a lovely ending to the work.

This trio provoked great applause from the audience, and in a normal concert they would undoubtedly have come back for a return bow.  The players from these last two groups comprised three from Westlake Girls’ High School, one from Westlake Boys’ High School, and one each from Kingsway College from St Cuthbert’s College.

Next it was the turn of Christchurch, with four Burnside High School students in a group named Sw!tch performing Philip Norman’s delightful Short Suite, on SATB saxophones.  They made a lovely sound; their timing was absolutely unanimous, as were their dynamics.  The characteristics of the five movements were beautifully portrayed; the first jolly and fast, the second slower and thoughtful, the third jaunty and spiky, the fourth sombre, in a minor key, and the fifth fast, agitated and rich-toned.  It was not a great surprise when this group took out the KBB award for woodwind, brass or percussion performance.

They were followed by the Genzmer Trio, also from Christchurch, with two of the three players from Burnside High School.  Apparently the musicians: flute, bassoon and piano, Googled to find music for their combination, and came upon the German composer Harald Genzmer, and his trio for their instruments, composed in 1973.  They were able to locate a copy of the music, and worked on it largely on their own.

A most attractive first movement revealed the excellent balance and ensemble of this group.  While there was not as much eye contact between the pianist and the wind players as there was between the latter two, this did not seem to matter.  An andante second movement and a very fast finale demonstrated all the considerable skills of the performers.  They gave a great account of this appealing work, and made us like it.  It was hard to believe that these were school students: pianism of a very high order from Saline Fisher and very fine playing from Hugh Roberts (flute) and Todd Gibson-Cornish (bassoon) had the audience totally involved.  They were worthy winners of the Contest.

Finally, the Euphonious Quartet (three from Westlake Girls’ High School and one from St Cuthbert’s College) performed.  The girls all wore beautiful yellow dresses and silver sandals (not the practical flat shoes of other groups).  They chose the first and fourth movements of Dvořák’s well-known ‘American’ string quartet.  Euphonious it was, but the performers were perhaps handicapped by playing something so familiar, where any slight errors are more noticeable.

These were two fast movements, putting the players on their mettle.  In the opening movement the viola had some intonation errors.  Other wise, accuracy and tone were good, although the tone was not as mellow as one usually hears in this work.  Dynamics were well observed.   The cellist was exceptional, as she was in the Shostakovich.  The first violin melodies in the fourth movement were played superbly.

After all the competing groups had performed, the winning original composition ‘Mr Gengerella’ was played by its composer, Finn Butler on piano, with Rowena Rushton-Green, violin, and Rosalind Manowitz, flute, performing as ‘Shady Groove’, from Logan Park High School in Dunedin.  This was a very accomplished work, with plenty of ideas and subtleties.

At times the piano was a little too loud for the other instruments, but Finn is certainly a fine pianist, and there was plenty of light and shade.  This is a work that deserves being heard again.  It had complexity, but not for its own sake.  The performers all did well in communicating the music.

As well as speeches from CMNZ president June Clifford, Peter Dale representing the principal sponsor New Zealand Community Trust, Minister for the Arts Chris Finlayson and CMNZ Chief Executive Euan Murdoch, and Julie Sperring of SOUNZ, and presentations of the SOUNZ original Composition award, the KBB Award for the best wind group and the award to the members of the winning group, there was the award of the Marie Vanderwart Memorial Award to long-serving string teacher and chamber music coach from Hawke’s Bay, Marian Stronach (a friend of mine from primary and secondary school and Teachers’ College days in Dunedin).   Euan Murdoch had the pleasure of announcing that James Wallace had decided that very evening that his Arts Trust prize for each member of the winning ensemble should be doubled to $2000.

The judges for the contest were Bridget Douglas  (principal NZSO flute), Wilma Smith (former NZ String Quartet member and former NZSO concertmaster, now in the same role in Melbourne) and Michael Houstoun (leading pianist).  Bridget Douglas spoke about what the judges were looking for in awarding the KBB prize, and Wilma Smith spoke on behalf of all the judges about the main award.  She said that they were unanimous in their decision, and that she considered the level this year better than she had heard it before.  She said the judges were looking for maturity, passion, commitment, good ensemble but also good solo playing, and that the players knew when to bring their instrument forward.  She mentioned ability to characterise the music, phrasing, understanding the idiom of the piece, and communicating it to the audience.  She said they considered that the winning group demonstrated all these qualities.

In interviews broadcast the following day, Michael Houstoun reiterated Wilma Smith’s remark that some of the groups tackled music that was beyond the level of their maturity and life experience: The Shostakovich and the Dvořák were probably particularly in mind here.

As Michael Houstoun said, this was a happy evening.