Aroha Quartet , with SOUNZ and RNZ Concert, does local composers proud

SOUNZ, Radio New Zealand Concert, and the Aroha Quartet present:

New Zealand Works for String Quartet:
ROSS CAREY – Toccatina (Elegy)
HELEN BOWATER – This Desperate Edge of Now

The Aroha String Quartet:
Haihong Liu, Anne Loeser (violins)
Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (‘cello)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 26th October 2015

This concert was the initial fruitful outcome of a new collaborative project between SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand Music), Radio New Zealand Concert, and the Aroha Quartet. It was undertaken in association with CANZ (Composers’ Association of New Zealand) and Chamber Music New Zealand.

The Aroha String Quartet rehearsed and workshopped seven pieces for string quartet prior to recording sessions (held over the weekend of October 24th/25th) during which the performances of these works were recorded (RNZ Concert) and filmed (SOUNZ). From these activities came today’s public performance at St. Andrew’s.

Introducing the concert and the Quartet on Sunday afternoon at St.Andrew’s was Diana Marsh, the executive director of SOUNZ, who expressed her delight with both the processes and the projected outcomes of the project. Obviously the focus was on string quartet works this time round, but in future years there would hopefully be opportunities for other ensemble configurations.

Two of the works I had heard previously – Helen Bowater’s This desperate edge of now and Jeroen Speak’s Auxetos. The other five were new to me, though all, I think, had been recently played variously elsewhere, with Kirsten Strom’s Purity and Blas Gonzalez’s piece SPASMS being the most recently-written. Together, the works made a most absorbing programme, demonstrating the versatility of the string quartet genre and, of course, of the Aroha Quartet players.

Anthony Ritchie’s Whakatipua began the concert, a ten-minute distillation of the composer’s feeling for a typical South Island mountain landscape, specifically that found around Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu – the work, in fact was commissioned as a birthday present for someone who lives in that same district. The work is written with a real “feel” for the expressive qualities of string instruments, both in tandem and as individual voices. Instrumental lines dovetailed their utterances with a focus that served the piece’s larger lyricism, while providing plenty of energy and contrast with motor and syncopated rhythms. The opening’s “sighing” featured a number of mellifluous “exchanges” of  lyrical nature, for instance, while there were plenty of energies generated by both motoric and syncopated rhythms during the piece’s central section. One day I should like to hear, as well, the composer’s arrangement of the piece for string orchestra.

From sounds relating to a specific place we were taken by the next piece, Jereon Speak’s Auxetos, to music being plucked out of the air all around, it seemed – some sounds were born soft, some achieved ambient glow and some had agitation thrust upon ’em, to coin a phrase! The composer’s title “Auxetos” means “that which may be stretched”, the idea having its genesis in a South American folk-song recording made by the composer in which a common melody line was shared by the musicians but not synchronized. It meant that the various voices all contributed to the piece while pursuing different individual courses, held together by what the composer called an “inextricable bond of likeness”.

Over a sustained and ambient line, the music’s differently “voiced” episodes seemed by osmosis to extend the range, scope and frequency of their utterances and interactions, in places generating considerable aural excitement by various means – enormous irruptions of energy and just-as-sudden reversions to sotto voce expression, an impassioned solo ‘cello line at one point, an agitated response from the violins in reply – the sostenuto lines of the opening replaced by a ferment of agitation – a single stratospheric sustained violin note then refocused the music, the tones “wrapping around” what sounds like a reaffirmed purpose, the viola holding its long-breathed ground while the remaining instruments each pay some kind of homage to that which has endured, then fade their particular tones away to nothing. Most satisfying!

Ross Carey’s work Toccatina (Elegy) was next to be played, a piece dedicated to the memory of Australian Aboriginal singer/songwriter Ruby Hunter who died in 2010. Hunter and her partner Archie Roach were both members of the “stolen” generation of Aboriginal children, placed in homes with white foster families at an early age – her music and performances brought out these circumstances and addressed the issues that arose from them. Ross Carey’s work doesn’t actually use or quote Ruby Hunter’s music, but conveys an emotional response to her life’s work and her passing.

The music opened with a driving rhythmic pattern rather like train wheels, over which sounded melodic lines whose character changed from dogged insistence to a gentler, more soaring manner, and back again, then moving into a delicately-nuanced Martinu-like central sequence whose momentum was more circumspect of manner and intent – more relaxed and dreamy, with the melody’s shifting harmonies adding to the dream-like ambience. Inevitablty, the “train wheels” took up from where they left off, though the accompanying melodies were more assertive this time round and wasted no time building to a more impassioned climax. That done, the music gently took a bow and faded as enigmatically as it had begun.

Next came Alex Taylor’s refrain, the composer’s own program note amusingly reproducing three dictionary definitions of the word “refrain”, each of which could be cited as an “influence” upon what was to follow. Written during what Alex Taylor himself describes as a “social paralysis” time, the music explores ideas of action and inaction in the manner of an on-the-spot “gestation” – at once wry, circumspect and very involving! The music’s bruising, aggressive opening caused the lower strings to “take cover”, while reflecting a “hanging back”, an inertia, an unwillingness to engage. The process of confrontation and withdrawal was repeated by the instrumentalists, before the “broad chorales’ referred to by the composer began to work their magical spell – enchanting, and in places, halo-like ambiences which gave the moments of agitation a contrasting force and vehemence.

At one point the drifting material was spectacularly “sliced up” by slashing chords, though despite such irruptions order and reason seemed to hold sway. We heard such things as a beautiful cello solo growing from the concourse of sounds, followed by a canonic sequence from the violins, indicating some willingness to interact – and though this business became volatile and over-wrought, the music again found resolution, this time in gentle pizzicati, feet firmly touching the ground. By way of conclusion came a lament-like line, whose course seemed to turn back on itself, leaving us with equivocal feelings as to what it was that had been resolved.

Argentinian-born Auckland composer Blas Gonzalez contributed a most intriguing programme note regarding his piece SPASMS – he alluded to two sections of the work, the first “Mensurabilia” based on chromatic sequences polyphonically arranged, and the second (somewhat alarmingly) called “Olivier’s Dreadlocks”, referring to a fusion of Messiaen-like rhythmic impulses and what he described as “pseudo-reggae”. The work’s first part, Mensurabilia, put me in mind of a slowly revolving ball with patterns that repeated but which also interacted, so that one was immediately fascinated by the osmotic nature of it all – intensities built almost before one realized they had begun (rather like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – everything was recognizable but somehow different, as the music made its unhurried way along our listening-spectrum. Much briefer and rather more “visceral” was Olivier’s Dreadlocks, a cool, pirouetted dance-like assemblage of lovely detailings between instruments, with second violin and ‘cello having a particularly engaging interaction!

We turned then to Helen Bowater’s work This desperate edge of now, inspired by the words of a poem from Mervyn Peake . Having read the latter’s gruesomely fascinating “Gormenghast” novels some years back, I wasn’t surprised to find the poem was somewhat dark and pessimistic. The words seemed to describe either an exterior or interior neo-apocalyptic scenario, a worst-case evocation guaranteed to resign one afresh to one’s invariably commonplace but relatively untroubled lot in life, even if one reflects that the events of the last few days in Paris have unexpectedly blown apart handfuls of lives in a way that does give Peake’s concluding words “Only this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now” a kind of context that produces shivers of unease, and throws up shadows of disquiet.

Evidently the composer responded along not-too-dissimilar lines, the work’s opening resembling a cry of pain, with subsequent dark moments bringing forth nothing but angular impulses railing against one another angrily and despairingly at the prospect of human loss and the impotence of feeling. There’s no solace, here, as, in between the big, dark-browed gestures of anguish, there’s an ongoing sense of disquiet among the inner voices. It’s a skilfully-wrought study of turmoil between without and within, a bleak soundscape which the ‘cello addresses, and to which the viola responds – the ambience has an eerie quality, as if creation is giving some room to the participants in the drama (“I and they”), to nullify the fear, shock and desperation, to counter-charge the destruction and hold onto some kind of supporting through-line.

The ‘cello, then viola, and finally the other strings with their resounding pizzicati and haunting octaves, did their best to remold nearer to the heart’s desire – but the energetic charge of the “fierce instant”  that galvanized the music and its players drove things towards the inevitable. The “sliding second” (like a kind of ecstasy of awareness) fused the moment and tossed the remaining words and music in to a kind of oblivion. The viola’s abrupt concluding gesture, disquietingly, spoke volumes!

Asking us to return to our lives after experiencing such traumatic evocations of the tenuous hold we have on the same was obviously a bit much! – so, it was a relief when Kirsten Strom and her work Purity ( as per programme, originally scheduled as the third item) came to our rescue! The quartet took the opportunity to retune before playing this work (the violinist said to us “We like to make sure – especially with this piece!”). I could see what she meant when the work started – a single note was played by all instruments (in a note the composer had written “Beauty can be found in simplicity: a single note contains more than enough.”). Well,here it was, and the result was enchanting, with instruments sliding to different notes in an almost ritualistic kind of way, as if music itself was being worshipped.

The ‘cello enjoyed a broad theme, as the upper strings gave out an undulating figure, with the viola following the ‘cello. The music began to dance, the exoticism of it all maintaining a ritualistic feel, and giving rise to the listeners’ predispositions, either meditative or rather more active flights of fancy, the result  engaging and mesmeric. And all from a single note (which the quartet players made sure was “in tune” for our very great pleasure!). I liked very much the work’s patient, steadfast focus and, yes, purity! And, in conclusion, one must say that no words can express too strongly the extent of the Aroha Quartet’s commitment to the task throughout the whole of the afternoon, which, in their capable hands became a time and an occasion for celebration and delight.