stroma gives fine performance of 'extreme' music

I suppose this memorial concert to three, quite diverse, composers who have died recently, looked a bit piecemeal on paper, but in performance quite the reverse was the case. Transplanted Yorkshireman Jack Speirs made an enormous contribution to music in Dunedin, both as a conductor and as an educator, but his compositions are less well known. Three Poems of Janet Frame, however, reveals a superb ear for atmosphere and sonority, with the three short songs brooding reflections on death - drawing from Speirs a well of sympathy, full of dark landscapes of the mind. Completely understanding of Frame's bleak "thoughts on bereavement", they also reveal music's unique ability to delve deep into the psyche of the composer.

In its quite different way, the same is true of Douglas Lilburn's 1957 Wind Quintet. This rarely heard classic is a masterly display of concentration, distinguished by a superb use of counterpoint, and it is not one note too long. The familiar phrase endings are there, giving us the Lilburn "fingerprint", and the marvellous feeling of finish makes it deserving of becoming a staple of the wind quintet repertoire.

But, for many, the concert would be memorable for the rare chance to hear the music of the Greek composer lannis Xenakis. Xenakis died earlier this year in Paris, where he worked as an architect, and his music is an uncompromising continuation of atonalism, with even a daunting use of quarter tones to make the journey from comfortable tonality complete. The three works played in this concert were all composed in the 1980s - long after most had drifted away from such unflinching atonality - but far from a parade of intellectual aridity, they revealed a fascinating sonic landscape, full of extraordinary sounds and boundless energy. Waarg ("work" in classical Greek) and Thallein (from the Greek word "to sprout") use similar forces, with the latter work making antiphonal use of piano and percussion. What extraordinary sounds we heard, with the quarter-tone intervals between the three brass players producing a sound of astonishing originality in Thalleïn, and the imaginative use of all the forces was ear-tickling.

Equally ear-tickling was Donald Nicolson's amazing performance of the Naama (flux) for amplified harpsichord. That he could play it at all was amazing enough, but that he could make such a riveting musical experience of Xenakis's bewildering mix of energy and formal clarity was a miracle of dexterity and musical organisation.

But all the performances were staggeringly fine; a timely reminder of just what the dedicated professionals of Stroma have to offer in the fertile world of twentieth (and twenty-first) century music.

— John Button, The Dominion, 19 November 2001