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October 6, 2008 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

Banned from the Dom Post

NZTrio, St Andrews on the Terrace, 18 September
Composer Competition, Adam Concert Room, 19 September
STROMA, Ilott Concert Chamber, 24 September
Thonthorstrok, Hunter Chamber, 28 September
NZSQ Workshop, Adam Concert Room, 29 September

None of the events reviewed here have been covered by the Dominion Post. The newspaper of New Zealand’s cultural capital has chosen to ignore any music presented by those it deems non professionals, or in what it regards as smaller venues. Although it offers lengthy in-depth assessments of exhibitions by visual artists, premieres of many works by New Zealand’s leading composers will not get even the customarily cursory couple of sentences within the pitifully limited space allotted to music criticism.

One of those smaller venues, St Andrews on the Terrace, hosted top professional New Zealand chamber group the NZTrio. The reverberant acoustics lent a Romantic bloom to Sarah Watkins’ piano in Beethoven’s Op.1 No.1 E flat Trio, undermining the classical crispness somewhat, but it was apposite for the rich sound world of Brahms’ Op.101. Phil Dadson’s specially commissioned “Firestarters” brought together various aspects of the Auckland composer/sculptor/performer’s practice: improvisation, boldly assayed by these classically trained musicians and, composition – the precision hocketting and ritardandos; conventional instruments like the piano of “Sisters Dance” and invented instruments, here represented by the additional prepared violin and cello of Justine Cormack and Ashley Brown, and also by the bowed piano strings; and, finally, the rhythmic impulse of From Scratch, and the drones of such experimental long string instruments as the zitherum. This rendition did lose impetus at times, but the point for me when many of the varied tendencies came together was in the piano’s extended tremolandos reminiscent of The Necks and Steve Reich, when rhythm and drone, attack and sustain, merged into one.

Enhanced piano was also a feature of David Downes’ “Expulse”, one of three world premieres in the Ilott Chamber concert by another professional star ensemble, STROMA, where illusory, endlessly ascending electronic Shepard’s tones were taken up on the keyboard by pianist Donald Nicolson. Aucklander Samuel Holloway’s “Strange Loops” returned to the world of his “Malleus” for three clarinets, its long sustains pulsating with subtle inner life from minimal – but not minimalist – gestures – microtonally mistuned beating, vibrato, trills and tremolandos. Wellingtonian Dylan Lardelli, by contrast, in his similarly understated “Four Scenes” evoked a timeless Webernian soundscape of delicate attacks and pointillistic tone colours, suspending the need for direction and climax much more successfully than in his “Sent into Silence” of 2007.

With the now Australian resident Bruce Crossman, an Asian feeling of timelessness often alternates with a European sense of drive, as in “Double Resonances” for piano and percussion, given its New Zealand premiere by the newly formed group Thonthorstrok at the end of the CANZ Composers’ Conference. Clarinettist Richard Haynes and percussionist Arnold Marinissen realized a transcription of composer and NZ School of Music lecturer Dugal McKinnon’s “Untitled (Counterfeit Readymade #1)” – itself based on a transcription of the extempore sax playing of Jeff Henderson. “Marx or Smith” by NZSM honours student Pieta Hextall was heard in its best rendition yet by Haynes, Johnny Chang and Donald Nicolson. An argument for clarinet and viola, with the piano by turns soothing the protagonists, calling them to order, and joining in, this severely abstract score was less appealing to me than Hextall’s other works, but it had an integrity that commanded respect.

“Marx or Smith” won third place in the NZSM’s annual Composer Competition. Unlike 2007, when Tristan Carter’s grunty string quartet “…murmur…” was outstanding, this year there was no clear winner – in fact the judges ended up dividing the first prize between Karlo Margetic’s densely written “Zoetrope” and Christine White’s deeply personal blend of avant electronics, live pop-style ballad and dignified theatrics, “Dancing Slow”. For me, though, some of the most interesting composers were represented in the performance awards: Tabea Squire, for example – first violin in Margetic’s string quartet – who was also placed second for “Bildhauer”, a clarinet quartet in which fine mistunings resulted in variable pulsing; Sarah Wiig, whose “Spoken Streets”, utilizing recorded Wellington sounds, including the wistful Chinese erhu fiddle, was a piece of performance art of rapt concentration; and Paula King, who played prepared piano strings with shoes in “The Odious Luggage” with flamboyant aplomb.

King’s very special sound world has included the toy piano (she has her own Schoenhut) and Squire’s ethereal soprano. Another NZSM student whose imagination has impressed me is Dimitri Theodoridis. His “Celestial Body” was a curious “timbrensemble” piece, while two movements of a recent composition employed the piano as a purely monophonic instrument in an extended, ancient chant-like melody. A third will exploit “ghost flute” difference tones. In the NZ String Quartet’s workshop, Ben Wood’s “Cataclysmic Variable” melded minimalist ostinatos with texturalist clusters gradually expanding into chords. Simon Dickson’s “Splendid Expectations” grew from the gentle raindrops of fingers stopping the strings, through pianissimo pizzicato, to a unison quasi-plainsong. Natalie Hunt’s quartet made extensive use of quarter tones, and for much of the time managed a firm but subtle control of tension.

One or more of these emerging composers may one day be the next Gareth Farr or John Psathas in terms of national and international recognition. But don’t expect to read news of their early progress in the Dom Post…


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