Schools chamber music contest: Auckland 3, Christchurch 3, Wellington 0, the rest 0; concern about exposure to music in schools

New Zealand Community Trust Schools Chamber Music Contest

Quartets (mainly excerpts) by George Crumb, Brahms, Marc Eychenne, Ravel, Bartók, Shostakovich and David Hamilton

Six finalists from Auckland and Christchurch

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 3 August 2013, 7pm

Shouts for Shostakovich!  Some superb playing by the Sollertinsky Trio from Auckland received deserved plaudits from the audience, who demanded a second stage appearance from the Trio (they didn’t get it) – this before they had been announced as winner.

The concert featured with the first of the six finalists, selected from the twelve groups which had been in the semi-finals, on the previous day.  It was a pity that the concert had to be held in the Michael Fowler Centre, since there was a fairly small audience. Publicity for the event had only reached me a week before, so I assume that apart from teachers and parents, not many people were aware of it.  This was an event of high quality, and deserved a larger audience.

A notable fact: Asian students (Chinese, with perhaps a few Koreans) outnumbered pakeha New Zealanders 19 to 7.  Numbers were more even in the semi-finals, which seems to me to illustrate how hard Asians are accustomed to working, in this case to bring their performances up to a high standard.

First up was Vox, of Auckland, made up of flute, cello and piano – and towards the end, several crotales, or small cymbals on a stand, that were played variously by the cellist and the flutist.  Theirs was a very adventurous work: Vox Balaenae for Three Masked Players, by George Crumb (b. 1929).  He has been described as “an explorer of unusual timbres, alternative forms of notation, and extended instrumental and vocal techniques”  (Wikipedia).  His whale music
reminded me of that by Gillian Whitehead, performed in Wellington a few years ago.  However, Crumb’s work was much more elaborate.

The composer’s instruction was for the performers to wear masks, to distance themselves, from their audience.  The range of techniques was wide, including using a prepared piano (paper, metal items), the pianist sounding the strings as well as playing the keys, the flutist singing into and over-blowing her instrument.  This was a tremendously difficult composition to perform, and the extended techniques involved considerable skill.  The cello was not left out – the instrument had scordatura tuning: i.e. the strings were tuned to different notes than normal.

Whale sounds there certainly were, in multiplicity.  Some sounds fell easily on the ear, others less so.  The instruments were all amplified; Wikipedia tells me that the piece was written for electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano.

After quite a long introduction from the flute, the piano joined in.  Some of the plucking of strings was at the pianist’s full stretch, meaning a different sound from further up the strings.  There
was some lovely ‘straight’ playing from the flute before the cello entered, playing harmonics, followed by the piano making a tinny sound from the paper over the strings.  The crotales, played
with a mallet, gave a delightful sound.  For another whale-like sound, the cellist whistled tunes from the score (which was mainly written in graph form rather than standard notation.  Quiet passages for piano, crotales and flute were succeeded by the cello playing a rhapsodic melody, who then returned to harmonics while the flutist played the crotales; mesmerising.

The assurance and reassurance of the first movement of Brahms’s Trio Op.8 sounded strange after Crumb’s whales.  This was the only nineteenth century work on the programme.  The three players of Cl’Amour from Christchurch produced lovely tone, especially the violinist.  However, they were not heard to best advantage in this vast, mainly empty auditorium.  There were beautifully shaded dynamics, especially from the pianist, who hails from Columba College in Dunedin – one wonders how frequently the three could get together for practice.

This was a pretty full-on movement for all players, but the players had a good feeling for the shape and structure of the piece.

Another trio from Christchurch (Burnside High School) played Cantilène et Danse by Marc Eychenne, an Algerian-born French composer (b. 1933) of whom I had never heard.  The work was written in 1961.  Three extremely competent musicians (violin, alto saxophone and piano) made up Trio Étoile – an apt name, given the CMNZ starry logo.  Alice Morgan, the saxophonist, is also a pianist, I noted – her name appears in the listing of another ensemble that played in the semi-finals.  She distinguished herself by winning the KBB Music prize for her group – an award for the best group incorporating a wind instrument.  (The amazing Burnside High School had four ensembles in the semi-finals, the only school to have more than one.)

The violin began the piece, in a melody accompanied on piano.  The mellifluous tone of the saxophone soon entered, with a vaguely mournful melody.  When all three instruments were together the violin was somewhat overwhelmed by the more penetrating sounds of the piano and
the saxophone.  This music was quite demanding for each instrument – but not so much so as the Crumb work.

The pianist was very confident, hardly looking at his score. The second movement was fast and furious, especially for the pianist, with jokey outbursts from the saxophone.  While the violin needed a bigger sound, these were very confident performers.  The music had rather the character of early twentieth century expressionist French music.  There was plenty of interplay between the instruments.

Another Auckland piano trio, Mentalstorm from St. Cuthbert’s College, played the first movement of Ravel’s familiar Piano Trio in A minor, from 1914.  Their intonation was immaculate, and their playing cheerful and confident, though I found the piano part somewhat over-pedalled, especially at the beginning.  Nevertheless, these were sensitive musicians, with skill and admirable technique.  They made the many moods in the music come alive, with subtlety and delicacy, and
fine balance.

The penultimate performers were Elektra, from Burnside High School, with the third movement of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.  This involved a considerable number of instruments. Besides the two pianos, there were bass drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone, and two side drums.  It was certainly electrifying music.  There was great co-ordination between the players.  The xylophone featured largely and delightfully.  The work incorporated Arab folk music collected by the composer, we were told by compère Kate Mead (considering the length of the programme, there was too much information in some of these introductions).  This was thoroughly enjoyable music, very ably performed.

The Sollertinsky Trio from Auckland were the last contestants to be heard. Written by Shostakovich in grief and mourning for his great friend after whom the ensemble named itself, who died in his forties, the trio was said by Kate Mead to mix glee and madness.  The players performed the second movement, Allegro con brio (“A frenzied dance that never finds a settling place” – Wikipedia) and last movement, Allegretto, which introduces a Jewish-style melody, also used in the composer’s Quartet no. 8.

The fast and furious second movement revealed a few intonation wobbles at the beginning, but its passionate nature was revealed with no holds barred.  Very soon the players proved that they are very skilled musicians.  Ray Ong (16, from Westlake Boys’ High School, Mathias Balzat (14, home-schooled) and Delvan Lin (14, from King’s College) seem to have technique and interpretation to burn.  In a radio interview with Eva Radich broadcast on Monday, they were asked how they were able to identify with such music, given their short experience of life and the music’s emotional
intensity.  Balzat answered “The more you listen to it, the more you understand it”.

What was astonishing was how the performers were able to reveal their understanding of this music.  At some points Balzat’s cello sobbed; all the players created wonderful subtleties of dynamics and phrasing.  The playing was always vigorous and confident, even in soft passages.  There was much playing well down the finger-board for the cellist, and use of harmonics.  It was notable how this young man frequently watched the violinist, and the pianist too, making for superb ensemble.  He seemed hardly to look at his score.  This was a factor that distinguished the trio from other finalists.

The fourth movement began with a pizzicato dance, in which the string players were very lively and accomplished.  There was no let-up in the music’s driving force.    Spiccato passages and the beautiful, soft pizzicato ending were absolutely together.

The bleakness of Shostakovich’s thoughts on the loss of his friend was clearly expressed. This performance was of professional standard, and the audience and the judges knew it; Sollertinsky Trio was awarded the winner’s prize.

While they were considering their decision, the winner of the New Zealand Music Award, Conspiratus from Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland, played their commissioned work Modus Vivendi by David Hamilton. This was a septet, with clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, trumpet, cello,
double bass and piano.  A spiky opening on trumpet with mute was accompanied by pizzicato cello and bass, in a syncopated rhythm.  The piece was very lively and rhythmic.  Jazz elements
featured in this thoroughly delightful work.

The players’ timing was absolutely spot on; the saxophone produced plenty of timbre and dynamic contrast, but all played splendidly.

In her brief remarks representing the judges (the others being Diedre Irons and Andrew Joyce) Bridget Douglas spoke of the maturity and technical accomplishment of the finalists.  There were two awards for composition; unfortunately neither work was performed in the concert.  I sat next to Senior winner William Swan and his father from Invercargill.  Apparently no group could be found to perform it.

The Junior winner (though the same age as William Swan and a year his senior at school) was Samuel Broome from Hastings.

The other award was the Marie Vandewart Memorial Award, in recognition of outstanding service and commitment to fostering the love of chamber music. This was won by Gillian Bibby of Wellington, a lifelong advocate, administrator and coach of chamber music. In her acceptance speech, Gillian referred to the alarming paucity of music in primary schools compared with a number of years ago, and the need to address that.  She postulated that wider education in music would be an instrument of world peace.

Other speeches were from Roger King, new chairman of Chamber Music New Zealand, Chris Finlayson, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, and Kerry Prendergast, representing sponsor the New Zealand Community Trust.

While the winning group well deserved their prize, music was the winner overall, with around 1700 musicians taking part in the regional contests (15 of them).