Difficult challenge met and overcome

Stroma is a group drawn mainly from the NZSO, devoted to exploring the sort of music that doesn't get much airspace from the conventional concert promoters. Though they present a friendly enough face and manage press publicity that could well induce ordinary music lovers to come along, the reality is a bit different: there's no pretending much of the music is not for the paid-up afficionado. It was after all entitled Xtreme Music.

The theme was music by three composers who have died in the past year or so: two New Zealanders - Lilburn and Jack Speirs, and one formidable international figure - Xenakis. Lilburn died in June this year and the ensemble played his attractive Wind Quintet, with a gusto that was impressive if not necessarily always sensitive to all its charms.

Jack Speirs, who died last year, was better known as teacher (Otago University) and conductor (Dunedin Sinfonia). His Three Poems by Janet Frame is one of his best-known works. Not an easy listen, it derives from Speirs' serialist phase, lending a tortured vision to Frame's bleak but essentially humane poems. Pepe Becker sang courageously and intelligently against (sometimes defeated by) a large wind and percussion group.

The real challenge of the evening was Xenakis, who died in February this year. A name to conjure with, yet his works are pretty invisible in standard concert programmes. This was a concert that attracted a number of those seriously interested in radical, contemporary music. Not only did Xenakis (a Romanian Greek who trained as an engineer, fought on the Communist side in the Greek civil war, escaped to France and worked with architect Le Corbusier) avoid traditional forms and artistic precepts, but he was also critical of the Darmstadt school and serialism: he eschewed all the easy paths.

The concert included two works for large chamber ensemble, Waarg and Thallein, and a remarkable piece for amplified and prepared harpsichord, Naama. All derive from the 1980s and displayed Xenakis' total individuality, ferocity, his rejection of traditional notions of the role of music. To ears accustomed to his music on CD, the reality of the sounds came as a shock. Stroma, under their conductor Hamish McKeich, performed these difficult, complex works superbly, with utter conviction.

Donald Nicolson's brilliant performance of Naama lifted the music to a stunning immediacy, often elucidating at least the more straightforward of Xenakis's compositional procedures.

— Lindis Taylor, Evening Post, 19 November 2001